Mexico’s Aviation Enthusiasm

6/12/2006 • Aviation History

The banquet at the army tent camp at Laguna Salada, a dry lake used for aircraft testing, was over by 10 p.m., but the musical entertainment was just starting. So when General Abelardo Rodríguez abruptly ordered him to bed, Roberto Fierro Villalobos, the guest of honor, turned in reluctantly. Four hours later he was up and making a final walk-around of a high-wing monoplane with Baja California painted on its silver fabric-covered fuselage. Then, taking a last gulp of coffee and exchanging abrazos with fellow fliers and the general, also governor of Mexico’s territory of Baja California, he climbed into the open cockpit, checked the instruments and advanced the throttle. The 223-hp roar of a Wright J-5C Whirlwind shattered the nocturnal silence. Moving ponderously with its 1,750-pound load of gasoline, the plane–often referred to as BC-2–lumbered 750 meters across the salt flats, slowly gaining speed, then heaved itself aloft and disappeared into the starry black sky. General Rodríguez telegraphed Mexico City that Major P.A. (piloto aviador) Fierro had taken off from Mexicali at 2:05 a.m. PST, May 30, 1928, en route to Mexico City nonstop.

Fierro throttled the engine back to its 12-gallon-per-hour cruising power at altitude over the Colorado River delta. Then, over the Gulf of California, the engine began to cough. In the excitement of takeoff, Fierro had forgotten to switch from the reserve to the main fuel supply. He twisted the valves and desperately worked the emergency pump. When the engine was running smoothly once again, he mused, ‘The flight [was almost] over at the start, and as for me, most likely the sea would have swallowed me up.’

Using dead reckoning, Fierro followed the route Captain Emilio Carranza, his friendly rival, had blazed five days earlier. Carranza had flown from San Diego in México-Excelsior, a special Ryan B-1 Brougham like the one presented to Charles A. Lindbergh when he donated his Ryan NYP, Spirit of St. Louis, to the Smithsonian Institution. And in August, in a venture funded by Mexico City’s daily Excelsior through public subscription, Carranza would fly it nonstop to Washington, D.C., returning the courtesy of Lindbergh’s immensely popular Mexico City goodwill flight of December 1927. Since Carranza’s pioneering Mexico City-Ciudad Juárez nonstop flight in September, the Mexican and American press had been calling the modest 22-year-old great-nephew of Mexico’s first constitutional president ‘the Mexican Lindbergh.’

The sun rose in clear skies four hours into the flight, and Fierro spotted Guaymas off his port wing. Now he could easily follow the coast. Over Mazatlán three hours later, he turned a few degrees eastward and soon ran into thick cloud banks looming over the Sierra Madre Occidental. He put BC-2 into a steady climb and broke out into bright blue sky at 13,000 feet. He descended after dead reckoning past the solid cloud layer, and at 1:05 p.m. made out a familiar city in the distance, Guadalajara. ‘Once I glimpsed the ‘Pearl of the Occident,’ I said to myself, ‘I’ve made it!’ Guadalajara-to-Mexico City we know like the back of our hand.’

Crowds had been gathering all morning at Mexico City’s Balbuena Field, though Fierro’s arrival was announced for between 3 and 4 p.m. Around noon the wind picked up and dark clouds hid the horizon. Then came rain, and the spectators’ enclosure became a sea of umbrellas and car awnings. At 3:35 a telegraph operator 150 miles west reported that BC-2–which carried no radio–had just passed. Immediately an escort of seven Bristol F.2B fighters took off. At 3:55 Fierro was reported 100 miles out, and a procession of limousines arrived with civil and military aviation chiefs, the secretary of war and the president. President Plutarco Elías Calles addressed the crowd. As he finished, a cry of ‘Here he comes!’ went up. But only biplanes appeared–the escort returning, unable to find BC-2.

At 4:50, El Universal‘s Manuel Cadenas reported, a speck appeared against the black clouds and slowly materialized into a monoplane. Turbulent winds had forced Fierro off his course into the Valley of Mexico. The escort took off again to perform aerobatics, saluting their victorious colleague. Then, to an exuberant ovation, the elegant silver monoplane made a low-level pass over the full length of the field, turned smoothly and, gradually losing altitude, lined up for a landing. Fierro touched down at 4:55 p.m., for an official flying time of 14 hours 50 minutes. Western Flying magazine considered his average speed of 108.72 mph ‘a record for a Wright Whirlwind-powered plane of that type, made possible [by] the narrow fuselage and general pursuit type of construction.’

As BC-2 taxied to a stop, the band of the capital’s Mounted Gendarmerie gave forth on their trumpets, and crowds surged forward yelling ‘Viva Fierro!‘ ‘Viva México!‘ and ‘Viva la aviación nacional!‘ Spectators were heard to proclaim, ‘Now we have real fliers’ and ‘Now we have an aviation industry!’ The flight was indeed a double triumph for Mexico: Fierro had just flown 1,612 miles nonstop–in a plane built in Mexico, by Mexican labor and capital.

Roberto Fierro and Emilio Carranza were following the example of Charles Lindbergh, whose landmark New York-Paris flight the year before had sparked a worldwide record-flight frenzy. After meeting Lindbergh as one of his five Mexican army aides-de-camp during his December visit, Fierro wrote, ‘Lindbergh’s arrival gave us the confidence to pursue our dreams of conquering spaces, at home and abroad.’

More than confidence would be needed–namely aircraft like Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. The relatively heavy biplanes–all wood construction with water-cooled engines–then being built in Mexico’s Talleres Nacionales de Construcciones Aeronáuticas (National Aircraft Factory) had payloads that were too small for long-distance fuel needs. Some American manufacturers, however, were using chromium-molybdenum-steel frame tubing. The alloy’s strength permitted lightweight, thin-drawn tube walls and drag-reducing streamlined designs. And radial engines made air-cooling more efficient. The metal-framed, radial engine Wright-Bellanca monoplane had reportedly impressed Lindbergh because it could cruise at least 15 mph faster, burn only half the amount of gasoline and carry double the payload of the old de Havilland D.H.4 in which he had flown the mail.

The planes Carranza and Fierro flew to Mexico City in May 1928 utilized these modern technologies. The Ryan Brougham, a commercial version of Spirit of St. Louis, could lift 2,000 pounds more than the Talleres-built Quetzalcoatl that Carranza had flown to Ciudad Juárez. And BC-2‘s 2,068-pound payload was 50 percent greater than that of Talleres-built two-place fighter-bombers. But while Carranza’s México-Excelsior was built in the United States, Fierro’s BC-2 had been made at Tijuana, Mexico.

Fierro received orders to report to General Rodríguez in Mexicali, Baja California, in February 1928, while commanding a ground-attack squadron in the Cristero Rebellion. He had fought in the 1910-1920 Revolution, both for and against Pancho Villa, with some time out for movie work in Hollywood. When his Chihuahua auxiliary cavalry regiment was demobilized after Villa’s ‘retirement’ in 1920, Fierro, then a 23-year-old captain, requested admission to Mexico’s military aviation school. Rodríguez’s first task for him was to collect Baja California-1 (BC-1) from the Tijuana Airplane Factory and test it at Mexicali with Captain Luis Farrell, the chief test pilot. On March 8, after several days of racing it against a Liberty engine Douglas O-2K biplane, Farrell took off to deliver it to the Army Air Service in Mexico City, with refueling stops in Hermosillo, Navojoa, Mazatlán and Guadalajara. Between Hermosillo and Navojoa the temporarily fitted BMW engine failed and Farrell crash-landed in the mountains. Fortunately, he was not injured, but the badly damaged BC-1 eventually arrived in Mexico City by rail.

After that inauspicious start, General Rodríguez assigned Fierro to deliver BC-2 when it rolled out at the end of March. Fierro knew Carranza had obtained permission to fly México-Excelsior from Mahoney-Ryan in San Diego nonstop to Mexico City, so he asked the governor to let him make his flight nonstop. Rodríguez, who would write in San Diego magazine’s August 1927 aviation issue that ‘Mexico represents a particularly suitable field for the operation of airlines, owing to the existing geographical obstacles…especially…in Baja California,’ jumped at the chance to demonstrate his company’s ability to build aircraft for duration flights. Fierro had two additional fuel tanks fitted in the front cockpit to augment the two 50-gallon wing tanks, providing a capacity of 350 gallons of gasoline plus 15 of oil, and flight-tested the plane to 13,000 feet under full load. It handled easily, with no tendency to turn difficult in the course of any test he gave it.

Emilio Carranza took off on his nonstop Mexico-Washington flight with great fanfare 12 days after Fierro’s arrival from Mexicali. Restless, Fierro decided to take advantage of the prevailing patriotic mood and proposed flying BC-2 nonstop from Mexico City to Havana, Cuba–which no one had yet done–and making a goodwill tour of Central America on the return leg. Since the flight would advertise Mexico’s aircraft industry to the region, approval was granted.

Fierro planned to depart about July 1, but three consecutive weeks of rain softened Balbuena’s packed-earth runways and created huge mud puddles. Each time Fierro announced a new departure date, storms were forecast somewhere along his route. His colleagues counseled patience. But the public grew impatient. The flight–and Fierro himself–became the butt of newspaper cartoons and nightclub comedians.

For Fierro, it was ‘a period full of great hopes, but at the same time full of torments.’

The torment reached a peak when General José Luis Amezcua, director of military aviation, though not an aviator, told him the repeated delays were embarrassing the army. ‘Why don’t you leave now?’ he asked bluntly. ‘Right, general,’ Fierro replied, ‘just give me the order in writing and I’ll take off at once.’ Naturally, Fierro noted, the general refused to accept the responsibility of sending him to his death by written order.

While Fierro waited, Carranza crashed on his return flight to Mexico City. Inclement weather had forced him to postpone his departure three times. Meanwhile, public pressure–including telegrams to him and the Mexican government–motivated him to ‘get on with it.’ Then on July 12, 1928, hours after postponing his departure indefinitely because of storms forecast for the next several days, he took off from Mitchel Field, N.Y., and disappeared over New Jersey in a fierce storm. Mexican aviation historian Ruiz Romero maintains that a cablegram from Carranza’s superiors ordering him to depart immediately accounted for the sudden change of plan. The following day, a couple collecting wild cherries in the woods around Mount Holly came across the wreckage of México-Excelsior, with Carranza’s lifeless body lying nearby.

On August 10, the weather finally looked favorable over Fierro’s entire route. At 5 a.m. he flight-checked BC-2. While the engine warmed up, Fierro walked the entire runway, inspecting it for damage. Just after Fierro climbed into the cockpit and revved the engine, a car came roaring up bearing General Jesús Palomera López, who climbed up, embraced him and, stripping the watch off his own wrist, strapped it onto Fierro’s, saying he had no other memento to give him but wished him great success. Before Fierro could recover his composure, another car raced up. General Fernando Cue gave him an abrazo and a piece of paper, telling him, ‘When you feel alone in the immensity of space, read this poem to fortify your spirit in your solitude.’ It was Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If.’

BC-2 accelerated slowly down the soggy runway but lifted off smoothly. Fierro headed northeast over the great pre-Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan, slowly gaining the altitude needed to exit the Valley of Mexico. As the first rays of the rising sun lightened the horizon, he passed eastward between Mount Perote and Orizaba’s smoking crater, visible from both Mexico City and Veracruz. Turning southeast over Veracruz, he followed the coast as far as Fronteras, then cut 160 miles across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatán Peninsula. He felt relieved when he finally spotted Campeche’s ancient battlements; it was the first time he had been out of sight of land for an hour and a half.

Fierro passed Progreso–the last Mexican telegraph station on his route–eight hours into the flight, and followed Yucatán’s north coast, to where Cancún’s great hotels would later rise; then he started across the Yucatán Channel. Again out of sight of land, he scanned the surface of the sea for anything that might help him in an emergency and found he was completely alone. He later recalled that the scene impressed him with the infinite smallness of man on earth, but gradually a sense of calm enveloped him, and he studied the shoals and submarine channels far below, thinking he could see how Yucatán and Cuba had once been joined.

Two hours out he spotted a low cloud curtain on the horizon. It was over land–Cape San José. Elated, he turned toward it. He was still two hours from Havana, but felt he had already made it. Then strong headwinds buffeted the plane and black storm clouds gathered. He accelerated the engine to maximum rpm. Finally, dead ahead under heavy rain, he made out El Morro castle and knew he had nearly reached his goal. He circled Columbia Field three times to make sure he was landing into the wind and touched down 11 hours 49 minutes after taking off from Mexico City. Of the 220 gallons of gasoline he had loaded, 50 remained.

As news of Fierro’s arrival spread, cheering throngs lined Havana’s streets from the airport. He craved sleep but had to appear with the Mexican ambassador on the embassy balcony to greet crowds yelling ‘Viva México!‘ The following days were filled with receptions, decorations from the president and the geographical society, official tours and formal calls on the Cuban military and civil aviation chiefs to deliver honorary messages from their Mexican counterparts.

Before Fierro could take off for Central America, the weather once again deteriorated. He passed the days poring over maps and weather studies, fine-tuning his flight plan. Then an audacious idea struck him: Rather than returning directly from Central America, he would fly the Atlantic to Europe, like Lindbergh. BC-2 could carry enough gasoline to cross the equatorial Atlantic between Brazil and French West Africa, which the French fliers Dieudonné Costes and Joseph Lebrix had done the year before. Then he could follow the African coast to Madrid, capital of the mother country, an achievement of special significance for Mexico.

On August 20, fair weather was finally forecast. Fierro took off at 9 the next morning with an aerial escort as far as Pinar del Río. In the middle of the Yucatán Channel, however, the weather worsened. He managed to cross British Honduras (now Belize) into Guatemala before hurricane-force winds over the mountains drove him back, and he put down near Belize city, landing on the beach, as there was no airfield.

Fierro had no idea what to expect, as British Honduras–a colony–was not on his itinerary of Latin American republics and he had no visa or landing permit. A huge English-speaking black policeman in a blue uniform and white pith helmet took the bewildered flier into custody and drove him into town on what Fierro thought of as the ‘wrong side of the road.’ The British governor turned out to be friendly and helpful, and overlooked the irregularity of Fierro’s arrival. Ordering a guard put on BC-2, he had Fierro taken to a workshop, where two mechanics welded wheel spokes broken in the beach landing. Meanwhile, the Mexican consul cabled Mexico City word of Fierro’s safe arrival and expected departure time for Guatemala.

Fierro’s visits to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica were of a pattern with his Cuban experience–two to four days of ceremonies, banquets and official meetings, and then an aerial escort to the border. Coming down at San José de Costa Rica, Fierro found Las Sabanas airport so overrun with spectators that he was afraid to land. Then he spotted a cart track along the edge of the field. Too late he realized that what looked like minor ruts from the air were deep furrows, which caught his wheels, forcing one off its axle and bringing the plane to an abrupt stop. Mounted staff officers came galloping over and brought the shaken flier to the reception platform to meet the president.

After four days in Costa Rica, during which two new wheels were fabricated for BC-2, Fierro flew on to Panama, where he was met with a warm reception from the American military authorities in the Canal Zone. He always remembered the toast an American colonel offered at a banquet in his honor: ‘I wish not that you be the world’s best pilot, but rather the oldest pilot.’ (Fierro, who rose to command the Mexican air force, died in 1978 at age 81.)

The Mexican ambassador was enthusiastic about Fierro’s plan to fly on to Spain. But word soon came that Fierro must return home immediately. Heartsick, Fierro blamed the change on shock at Carranza’s death. ‘As a soldier,’ he wrote in frustration, ‘I had no other alternative than to obey, and returned.’

To Fierro, his arrival September 9 seemed ‘practically a surprise.’ Although the president, key cabinet officers and his flying friends greeted him, few spectators had turned out, in contrast to his May arrival from Mexicali. ‘Months later the government of the Republic rewarded me for the successful execution of my flight abroad,’ Fierro commented acerbically, ‘giving me in solemn ceremony the Medal For Aeronautical Merit–second class.’ (In 1957 the Fédération Aéronautique Internacionale awarded General Roberto Fierro its Paul Tissandier diploma ‘for his pioneering flights and his nonstop flights from Mexicali to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Havana, in an airplane of Mexican manufacture.’)

By early 1930, the public was again interested in speed and distance record flights. Fierro proposed a New York-Mexico City-Natal-Dakar-Madrid flight, with the first leg flown nonstop in honor of Emilio Carranza. The government agreed to let him go, but as it was already sponsoring Lt. Col. Pablo Sidar’s Mexico City-Buenos Aires goodwill flight, declined to provide any financial support. Fierro resorted to public subscription, recruiting three friends for a support committee. Journalist Manuel Ramírez Cárdenas managed publicity, raising $35,000 in less than 20 days. Gustavo Espinosa Mireles, vice president of the Compañía Mexicana de Aviación, arranged a course in instrument navigation for Fierro at Mexicana’s Brownsville, Texas, base. And Adán Gálvez Pérez, a flier and Fierro’s former army pal, handled everything else.

Fierro assumed he would fly BC-2 until he learned it had crashed March 19 on a nonstop flight from Mexicali to Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico’s two most distant state capitals. ‘Stunned by that sad end of my ‘little cockroach’,’ as he recalled, Fierro opted for a Lockheed Sirius–Lindbergh’s choice for his Pacific route explorations for Pan American Airways.

Fierro was at Brownsville when he learned that Sidar and his co-pilot had crashed off Costa Rica on the highly publicized Buenos Aires flight, killing both aboard. On his last day of classes, a message arrived telling him to drop everything and return. ‘But the telegram was drafted in such terms,’ he recalled, ‘that it was not at all difficult for me to figure out that the committee didn’t really feel that I should obey the order.’ He headed straight to the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, near Los Angeles, where he kept a low profile for the 25 days it took for the Sirius to be completed. After flight-testing the aircraft himself (Lockheed’s test pilot had been killed that same week), Fierro christened it Anáhuac. He paid General Manager Carl Squier $30,000 for the plane, special instrumentation, two parachutes and $50,000 life insurance policies on himself and his mechanic, Arnulfo Cortés, for the New York-Mexico City flight.

In New York, Fierro was aided by old friend Alfredo Miranda and Miranda’s brother Ignacio, vice president of Detroit Aircraft Corporation. They had Anáhuac serviced at Mitchel Field, where Carranza had taken off in 1928. ‘At exactly 3:30 a.m., 21 June, 1930,’ Fierro recalled, ‘I accelerated the engine to its maximum. The plane, very loaded, ran about 800 meters down the runway and slowly, majestically, began the flight. We had scarcely begun to climb when we ran into a thick fog which covered the land like a Turkish bath.’

The flight down the Atlantic coast and across the Gulf of Mexico was uneventful, but between Tampico and Pachuca strong headwinds would cost him 40 or 50 mph. Near Pachuca, the sky clouded over and heavy rain began. Bouncing along in turbulence and unable to find a pass over the mountains in the clouds, he throttled back and told Cortés to look for somewhere to land. Then, just as they were descending, he spotted a clearing in the clouds and slipped through it, over the mountains and into the Valley of Mexico.

The rain cleared, and Fierro could see crowded Balbuena Field. Waiting on a reception platform were the president, high officials, diplomats and the press. Moved and excited, Fierro touched down in the only spot clear of people. He had covered 2,250 miles nonstop in approximately 12 hours. Equally excited, President Ortiz Rubio gave him a firm abrazo–then the bad news: ‘These nonstop flights are over. You may not go on south as you planned, because we want to have you alive–though we’re not going to put up any statues of you.’ Fierro told him his flight to Spain was a commitment to the Mexican people, but Ortiz said: ‘Don’t you worry, I’ll take the responsibility of explaining to our nation the reasons I’ve ordered this kind of flight suspended.’ It would be 1949 before Mexican aviators flew the equatorial Atlantic. The three short years that Fierro called ‘the heroic period of Mexican aviation’ had passed into history.

This article was written by Ron Gilliam and originally published in the January 2005 issue of Aviation History.

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