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Dominicans mark 85 years since doomed mission of Pan American Squadron

By Maria Montecelos

Santo Domingo, Nov 12 (EFE).- A hangar at San Isidro airbase in this capital is the home of the only one of four aircraft to survive the Pan American Flight, a tour intended to raise funds to build a lighthouse in honor of Christopher Columbus.

On Nov. 12, 1937, the Dominican air force Curtiss-Wright R19 named Colon (the Spanish form of Columbus) took off from an airfield in what is now the heart of Santo Domingo along with three Cuban air force planes dubbed La Niña, La Pinta and La Santa Maria.

The mission of the Pan American Squadron was conceived as a way to drum up money for the Colon lighthouse, a project adopted by the nations of the Americas at a conference in Chile in 1923.

Years later, the governments of Cuba and the Dominican Republic hit upon the idea of the Pan American Squadron, Dominican air force Col. Mario Rivas told EFE.

The Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were piloted by a trio of Cuban navy lieutenants: Antonio Menendez Pelaez, Feliciano Risech Amat and Alfredo Jimenez Alum; with Roberto Medina, Manuel Naranjo and Pedro Castillo as their respective flight engineers.

Dominican air force Maj. Frank Andres Feliz Miranda was accompanied aboard the Colon by Sgt. Maj. Ernesto Tejeda.

And one of the Cuban planes carried a passenger, journalist Ruy de Lugo Viña, sent to provide an official chronicle of the historic expedition.

The itinerary called for the squadron to make 112 stops on their journey across Latin America, starting in Puerto Rico, “continuing to through the Lesser Antilles until reaching Venezuela, Guyana … and making a tour of the entire Southern Cone,” Rivas said.

“They were received with much enthusiasm at each landing,” he added.

The squadron visited 13 countries before tragedy struck on Dec. 29, when the three Cuban aircraft crashed some 12 km (76 mi) from Cali, Colombia.

Rivas, who has become an authority on the Pan American Flight, said that his research indicates the pilots were advised to fly due north from Cali to their next scheduled destination, Panama City.

Instead, the aviators opted for a route that would take them over Andean peaks to the Pacific coast.

As an experienced pilot, Rivas understands the appeal of the Andean route as “more comfortable,” while at the same time it “was very risky.”

Some have suggested that the Cuban planes crashed due to a combination of excess weight – from the gifts showered on the crews at their stops – and insufficient power.

The Colon, with a more powerful engine, took a different route and reached Panama City without incident. It was only after they landed that the Dominicans learned of the fate of their Cuban comrades.

Feliz Miranda and Tejeda received a hero’s welcome on their return to Santo Domingo and the Dominican air force academy bears the pilot’s name.

“We of the Dominican air force feel pride that the Colon flew over South America with the tricolor flag of the Dominican Republic,” Rivas said.

The Curtiss-Wright R19 flew for the last time on Dec. 29, 1937. The plane was disassembled and loaded about a Dominican warship for the journey from Panama City to Santo Domingo.

Even so, the aircraft has undergone regular maintenance and in 1970, there was talk of equipping it with a new motor and taking it up, but the air force ultimately decided that the plane’s historical value was too great to run the risk. EFE mmv/dr

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