KEY WEST -- The fuel was running perilously low, and the lubricating oil was nearly exhausted, but pioneering pilot Domingo Rosillo del Toro could see land ahead.
While three guns were fired from the Havana fortress to announce his arrival, Rosillo coaxed his one-seat, bright yellow plane with an overheating engine past a flotilla of boats, over the heads of 50,000 cheering countrymen, onto the grounds of Camp Columbia — and into history.
Rosillo became the first pilot to fly from Key West to Cuba, setting a world record for the longest flight over water — 90 miles. The date: May 17, 1913.
“He made the journey without even a float under him to save him from drowning if he should fall into the sea,” said a New York Times article written that day.
On Friday, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the daring feat, the Key West International Airport is hosting a 2 p.m. ceremony to unveil a bronze bust of the mostly forgotten aviator.
“It’s not quite the equivalent of going to the moon, but for that time, that flight certainly ranks up there as a very, very important aeronautical event,” said Peter Horton, the airport’s longtime director.
Rosillo’s family thinks the bust is a bit overdue, considering the person who came in second, Key West native son Augustin Parla, has had his bust at the airport for 56 years.
Rosillo also will be honored at 2:30 p.m. Monday at Miami International Airport, where a plaque about his pioneering role will be unveiled on a wall in Concourse E that also commemorates Amelia Earhart and other notable aviators.
“People should know my dad’s story,” said retired Miami lawyer Albert Rosillo, Domingo Rosillo’s stepson, who will attend the ceremony.
And oh what a story it is, involving guns, a race, bad weather, mail, a Jose Marti-carried Cuban flag and maybe even a monkey.
“There’s all kinds of lore about this,” Horton said.
The story begins during the pioneering era of flight. Rosillo was 25 in 1903 when Orville Wright flew 120 feet in 12 seconds at Kill Devil Hills for the first manned flight in an aircraft that was “heavier than air.” Man had flown before, but in hot air balloons.
Over the next decade, aviation took off around the globe. In 1909, Frenchman Louis Bleriot made his famed crossing of the English Channel — about 22 miles — which set the world record for longest flight over water.
For the adventuresome new aviators, it was only a start. In 1911, the city of Havana and the Havana Post newspaper sponsored the first Cuban Air Meet, offering $8,000 to the first “aeronaut” to cross the treacherous Florida Straits.
Canadian James McCurdy went for it, with U.S. Navy destroyers Rose, Drayton, Reid and Terry stationed 20 miles apart to guide his way by their smoke.
McCurdy took off from Key West and flew over the crews of at least two of the destroyers. All was going well until an oil line broke, forcing an emergency landing in the light chop about 10 miles shy of Havana. When the crew of a destroyer found him, McCurdy was “kicking at sharks” and “blowing cigarette smoke at them,” according to an account published by the Florida Aviation Historical Society.
His failure left the Florida Straits aerial crossing up for grabs. Two men of Cuban descent set their sights on seizing the record and new $10,000 prize: Rosillo, born in 1878 to Cuban parents in Oran, Algeria, and Parla, born in 1887 in Key West after his parents emigrated from Cuba during the revolution for independence.