Column: Historical crash site artifact lands in San Diego
History-making pilot Emilio Carranza, ‘the Lindbergh of Mexico,’ finds niche in Air and Space Museum and continues gesture of goodwill
In December 1927, Charles Lindbergh made a goodwill flight from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City and on to nations in Central and South America.
In June 1928, Capt. Emilio Carranza, a courageous young pilot from Mexico, returned the goodwill gesture, making a solo flight from Mexico City to Washington, D.C., and New York.
Throngs of media and admirers greeted him. He had lunch with President Calvin Coolidge, gave speeches and flew up to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point and reviewed the cadets. He appeared at an airport opening in Lowell, Mass., visited Detroit and attended numerous festivities in New York City, receiving a key to the city at one.
The pioneering pilot was the great-nephew of former Mexican President Venustiano Carranza and a nephew of Alberto Salinas Carranza, who founded the Mexican Air Force School of Aviation.
Carranza, 22, already had a reputation for having flown the third longest solo nonstop distance — 1,575 miles from San Diego to Mexico City. Lindbergh held the two longer distance records.
Carranza’s aviation accomplishments quickly earned him the nickname of “the Mexican Lindbergh.” But unlike “Lucky Lindy,” with whom he became good friends, Carranza’s luck ran out prematurely. On July 12, 1928, he crashed in a berry bog near rural Mount Holly, N.J., only 85 miles into his nonstop return trip from New York City to Mexico.
Carranza had postponed his flight for days due to inclement weather, so it remains a mystery as to why he abruptly departed at 7:18 p.m. on July 12 despite intermittent thunderstorms and warnings from the ground crew at Long Island’s former Roosevelt Field.
Why is Emilio Carranza’s story re-surfacing now — 96 years after that fatal accident and a state funeral in New York that made front-page headlines in San Diego and across the United States?
Because mementos were just donated from the Carranza family to the San Diego Air & Space Museum — including the altimeter from the crashed plane — a Ryan Brougham built in San Diego by B.F. Mahoney Aircraft Corp. (formerly Ryan Airlines).
For 67 years, the altimeter was missing. It never had been recovered by officials at the crash site, which was discovered by residents picking berries. Local souvenir hunters had beat them to the scene.
In 1995, on the day before Mount Holly’s American Legion Post 11 annual July commemoration ceremony at the Carranza crash site monument, one of those souvenir seekers showed up. Stephen Lee had quietly kept the altimeter for 67 years.
It may have been an attack of conscience or a desire to restore a missing link in aviation history. ... Whatever the reason, Lee turned over the altimeter to Ismael “Mel” Carranza, a second cousin of Emilio, from Texas, who was attending the ceremony.
The authenticity of the altimeter was subsequently verified, confirms Luis Gaxiola, a Mexican aviation history buff and honorary member of the American Legion Post 11.
He is a friend of the Carranzas and helped facilitate the donation. The family, based in Mexico City, told him they wanted the altimeter to become part of the collection of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, along with a lengthy published bio of the young pilot and other memorabilia.
Their representative, Capt. Angel Aparicio, hand-delivered these artifacts to San Diego on April 12.
For now, an online exhibit has been created with plans to put the items on display near the museum’s Spirit of St. Louis replica and exhibit, says Katrina Pescador, the facility’s collections director.
After all, both Lindbergh and Carranza made goodwill flights between the United States and Mexico. Both pilots were flying in similar aircraft that were built in San Diego. Plus, Carranza was known to admire and be inspired by Lindbergh, who was one of the contributors to Carranza’s goodwill flight.
The pilot’s nephew, Rafael Carranza-DelVecchio, now lives in San Diego, where he works as a Navy logistics officer.
A story in the July 14,1928, San Diego Union reported that Carranza even went to Lindbergh’s aid when he made an emergency landing.
Both were flying to Detroit on June 30, when Carranza, piloting Lindbergh’s Ryan monoplane, saw Lindbergh make a forced landing in an Ohio corn field due to a fuel tank malfunction.
Carranza dropped down, picked up Lindbergh, and they flew on to Detroit together.
Pescador says this donation comes at a fortuitous time. With increased emphasis on the border and bi-national relations, the museum was exploring expanding its representation of aviation in Mexico.
She calls this addition regarding a family so prominent in Mexico history and aviation very important.
On July 15, 1928, the front-page San Diego Union headline blared: “Two Nations Honor Captain Carranza.”
Carranza was feted with a state funeral in New York where 200,000 people lined the streets as his coffin was ceremoniously taken by horse-drawn caisson and escorted by 10,000 U.S. troops to the train station for transport home.
President Coolidge had offered to transport the coffin on the battleship Florida, however the Mexican government opted for train travel. In San Diego, the B.F. Mahoney Aircraft Corp. closed for a day in Carranza’s honor.
An Associated Press article noted that the Mexican newspapers featured dispatches detailing the sorrow expressed by Americans over the tragedy. The writer concluded: “Although Captain Carranza died in doing it, his flight actually has accomplished the utmost goodwill, and the Mexican people seem to appreciate profoundly the attitude of their neighbors across the border.”
The donation agreement from Sergio Carranza notes that having the altimeter on display would “foster the original intentions of Capt. Carranza in 1928: “to strengthen the bonds, brotherhood and good understanding between our nations.”
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