September 28, 2001

Hispanic Heritage Month

September 15 - October 15

During Hispanic Heritage Month we take a look at the contributions the Hispanic community has provided to our way of life in the United States. This week we take a look at the roles the Hispanic community has played as aviators, from the father of flight to the first Hispanic Latina in outer space. We extend our appreciation to the Smithsonian Institution for the following stories and NASA ( National Aeronautics and Space Administration) for the story about Dr. Ellen Ochoa.

Highlights in Latin American Aviation History

The following lecture was given by Daniel Hagedorn, Adjunct Curator for Latin American Aviation at the National Air and Space Museum.

It is a distinct pleasure and honor for me to speak to such a distinguished assembly on a subject that has been my personal passion for some thirty-five years now. I will bring you but a very brief glimpse of the very rich and eventful history of aviation in Latin America. Both military and naval aviation will be touched upon as well as the civilian and commercial sphere. Needless to say, it would take far longer than the few moments to convey the entire breadth of the subject. However, perhaps in these selected examples you will leave with a richer understanding of what has gone before.

This image pertains to the 201 Esquadron, a Mexican fighter squadron that fought against the Japanese in the Phillippines during World War II

It will probably come as something of a surprise to you to learn that a Latin American aeronaut actually flew before the Wright brothers. But way before someone rushes out to alert the "Washington Post," the aeronaut in question flew in a lighter-than-air dirigible of his own design, rather than a fixed wing, controllable, powered aircraft, which claim is still held by the immortal Wright brothers.

The airman in question was, of course, Alberto Santos-Dumont of Brazil (see sidebar story). To this day, Dumont is heralded by his countrymen as "The Father of Aviation." In fact, Dumont made a number of spectacular flights in France as early as October 1901. On one of these he navigated a rather fragile dirigible over Paris and managed to circle the Eiffel Tower. Needless to say, the emotional French citizens below went wild and he became an instant celebrity both in Europe and at home.

Santos-Dumont was just the first of many intrepid citizens of Latin America to make historic flights. Others included Jorge Chavez, of Peru, the first man to fly over the Alps and Dagoberto Godoy, of Chile, the first man to fly over the Andes Cordillera from Chile to Argentina in December 1918. Many other "firsts" were chalked up by Latin American airmen, but were little noted by the international press at the time. In fact, aviation in Latin America progressed at a pace even more rapid than in other, more developed areas of the world. With its many geographic obstacles to commerce and communication, aviation was quickly recognized to be a much more rapid means of overcoming the challenges of distance and time than roads and railways could provide. Indeed, by the 1930s, air travel in Latin America was far more commonplace than here in the United States.

The various national governments were not slow to recognize the value of military aeronautics. Mexico acquired thirteen French-built Farman F.50 twin-engined heavy bombers in May of 1920 and used them to help quell an uprising by a native Indian group, as well as on some of the very earliest Mexican air-mail experiments. These were the first twin-engined heavy bombers in all Latin America.

The period between World War I and World War II saw the use of aircraft in two famous Latin American conflicts. These were the Gran Chaco War, bitterly contested between Bolivia and Paraguay and the little-known Leticia conflict between Colombia and Peru. In both instances, aircraft were actively involved, and in many cases were very influential in the outcome of an engagement. Besides these, many other minor clashes and internal conflicts saw the use of aircraft, too many to be recounted here.

With the coming of World War II, however, Latin American air units participated for the first time in truly foreign theaters. Here is seen a lineup of the famous P-47D "Thunderbolts" that were used by the 1st Brazilian Fighter Squadron during 1944 and 1945 in Italy against German and Italian Fascist forces. The unit committed itself with great valor and gallantry, and was considered a full member of the U.S. 350th Fighter Group. The Squadron was unique in the Italian campaign in that it fought the entire period without any replacements. The unit lost several aircraft to hostile fire, and at least three Brazilians were captured and made P.O.W.s by the Germans for the duration.

Equally little known is the fact that Mexico also fielded a fighter squadron during World War II. The 201 Escuadron, unlike its Brazilian counterparts, fought against the Japanese in the Pacific in the Philippines. Arriving somewhat later than the Brazilians, the unit nonetheless committed itself very well indeed and made a number of highly effective sorties in support of the advanced Allied forces, including several very long range fighter-bomber sweeps to distant Formosa.

With the end of World War II, developments in jet aviation were taking place very rapidly, following hard on the heels of actual use of jet aircraft by the Germans during the war...

I truly believe that aviation has brought all Americans together, as perhaps no other force could possibly do. As mankind approaches the next century, with aviation a mere 100 years old for all practical purposes, one can only wonder what new adventures will await us in the future. Whatever it brings, aviation in this hemisphere will surely play a major role.

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