The men were reported to have become bitter rivals.
Parla, whose family had returned to Cuba after the revolution ended, got his aviator wings in April 1912. He had paid $900 for a 40-day course at the Miami Curtiss Flying Academy. But his quest was delayed because he could not immediately come up with $5,000 to buy a plane.
In the meantime, Rosillo, whose family also had returned to Cuba, went to Paris in late 1912 to get his international pilot’s license at the School of Aviation, run by none other than Bleriot, the pilot who first crossed the English Channel. Now, Rosillo also was looking for sponsors to buy him a plane.
By May 1913, both men had their aircraft shipped by rail to Key West and the race was on. Parla had bought a Curtiss seaplane. Rosillo reportedly purchased a Morane-Sulnier monoplane, although some accounts say it was a Bleriot XI.
“My dad picked the date of May 20, in commemoration of Cuba’s independence from Spain,” Albert Rosillo said. “But his friend Father Lanza, who was a meteorologist, told him the weather conditions would be bad that day.”
So Rosillo pushed up his attempt to May 17. Meanwhile, Parla decided to make his try that day, too, despite the Navy’s recommendation not to do so due to rough seas. Rosillo took off before 6 a.m. from Trumbo Point, a large open area made from landfill for Henry Flagler’s railroad station. (Key West’s airport would not be built for another 14 years.)
Parla’s seaplane tried to take off about a mile away on the other side of the island. But the rough waters and high winds caused his float to rupture and snapped the wires that secured the wings.
While there are several newspaper stories written the day of the event, and a few historical accounts, the details vary. The Florida Aviation Historical Society’s account says that moments after Parla’s plane was damaged, Rosillo successfully took off for Cuba. “Parla was so mad he grabbed his brother’s revolver and fired a shot at Rosillo, which fortunately missed,” according to the account.
On the 70th anniversary of the feat, Capt. Tom Brown, an aviation buff and commander of Naval Air Station Key West, told a crowd the same story, adding that Rosillo “was the first pilot to be taken under fire.”
In the Boston Evening Transcript of May 17, 1913, it says Parla sent a delegation to Rosillo to ask that he postpone the flight due to high winds. When Parla was informed that Rosillo said no, Parla “threatened to kill himself and was reported to have placed a revolver against his temple.” Friends stopped him.
“I know he was upset, and supposedly did shoot at him,” Key West historian Tom Hambright said. “But I have a photo of Rosillo taking off and you can just see the dot, well beyond the range to shoot anyone with a handgun.”
And, years later, Parla committed suicide. “But did he threaten to do so that day? I don’t know,” Hambright said.
There is no mention of guns in a “special cable” to the New York Times, also dated May 17, 1913, but it says Rosillo made the historic voyage with a monkey on board, “which had been given to him in Key West as a mascot.”
“There’s no second source on that one,” Horton said.