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100 years ago, aviation pioneer made historic flight from Key West to Cuba

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.

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.

Accounts also say Rosillo delivered mail from the mayor of Key West to the mayor of Havana, making him the first airmail pilot in Cuba.

His venture was supported by three Cuban Navy ships: the Patria at the halfway point; the Hatuey at 30 miles from Havana, and the 24 de Febrero at 15 miles from the finish. The exact time of the flight is up for debate, ranging from 2 hours and 8 minutes to 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Two days later, Parla tried again. Using only a compass to guide him, he succeeded in making the crossing, although landing off course in Mariel Harbor for a route of 117 miles. He got $5,000 for second place and broke Rosillo’s record for longest flight over water. There was no monkey on board: but family accounts say he had taken a Cuban flag that revolutionary Jose Marti had carried with him during his travels in Florida to raise money for Cuba independence. Memorabilia of Parla is exhibited at Key West’s San Carlos Institute, where Marti united the Cuban exiles in 1892.

At the time, the crossings were “one splash, when aviation was a novelty,” Hambright said.

In 1938, Rosillo’s name was put on a Cuban stamp. On the 50th anniversary, a group of aviators erected a monument for him at Trumbo Point. Another monument, with the rivals together, was put in the airport’s parking lot. It’s not there now.

Rosillo and Parla’s accomplishment had been forgotten at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington — until 1995. That’s when Miguel Bretos, a Cuban-born historian from Miami hired by the Smithsonian to make sure Latinos were represented appropriately, told them about the “inexcusable act of omission.” The rivals now are both included in the “Early Birds” (Pioneers of Aviation) section.

And when Albert Rosillo went before the County Commission a few months ago, asking for $5,000 to pay for half of a bronze bust for his stepfather for the centennial celebration, the commission voted yes.

The airport already has an artistic replica of Rosillo’s plane hanging in the lobby. Most people walking past it now, for flights to ultimate destinations all over the world, take air travel for granted. But a century ago, Rosillo and Parla were hailed as heroes, in what became known as El Vuelo de los Audaces, “The Flight of the Brave Men.”

“It was incredible in that day,” Horton said. “They were in this brand new thing called an airplane. Would the airplane stay together? Would the engine keep running? If they got into trouble, there was no alternative but to ditch in the ocean. And there was no guarantee they would have been picked up.”

Shortly after Rosillo landed, he told reporters: “I never did see the gunboat [that was] supposed to be 15 miles out from Havana, which would have been a welcome sight when I realized that both my gasoline and my lubricating oil were running short.”