By Jefferson Adams
On a muggy day in July 1928, Mexican pilot Emilio Carranza Rodriguez, then 22, picked his way through the clouds above Bolling Field in Washington D.C.
His Ryan Brougham airplane, christened “The Mexico Excelsior,” looked familiar to the throngs of onlookers awaiting his arrival. The plane was nearly identical to Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis,” in which Lindbergh had made the first nonstop flight from New York City to Paris a year before. (The “Spirit of St. Louis” was also now featured on a 10-cent U.S. postage stamp.)
In fact, the two airmen were friends. Carranza had served as Lindbergh’s guide during his goodwill flight to the capitals of Latin America, following his triumphant transatlantic flight in 1927. Lindbergh had helped to finance the goodwill flight that brought Carranza to D.C.
At the time, the long-distance flights made by the likes of Lindbergh and Carranza were seen as feats of daring and endurance, and they remain so today. The public treated such men as conquering heroes, much like the early astronauts, so the fanfare surrounding Carranza’s arrival was huge.
Catching sight of Carranza’s plane as it approached the field, the crowd exploded with cheers and rushed to meet the plane as it taxied to a stop. Among the crowd were a group of dignitaries, including acting U.S. Secretary of State Robert Olds and Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Miguel Tellez, who whisked Carranza into the capital for celebrations. The next day, he enjoyed lunch with President Calvin Coolidge.
After being feted in Washington, Carranza flew from Bolling Field, escorted by an air squadron, to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York. There, a similarly massive crowd of onlookers met his plane, along with some 200 soldiers and a military band. An escort of a dozen motorcycle policemen led Carranza into New York City, where he met Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and Mayor Jimmy Walker, who presented him with a key to the city.
Carranza was the man of the hour. In New York, Carranza presented medals to firemen, attended a lunch at the Garden City Hotel and a second luncheon at the Bankers Club, with about 200 guests, organized by the Mexican Chamber of Commerce.
While this was Carranza’s finest hour, he had already distinguished himself as a top pilot. He had become a national hero at the age of 18 when he flew air assaults in the Mexican state of Sonora to put down the de la Huerta rebellion.
On May 24, 1928, just weeks before arriving in Washington, Carranza flew the Ryan Brougham from San Diego, California, to Mexico City. At the time, his roughly 18-hour flight of 1,575 miles was the third-longest nonstop solo flight in the world and the longest nonstop flight by a Mexican.
After several weeks as the toast of society, Carranza prepared his return to Mexico. The weather at that time of year included the regular thunderstorms, and Lindbergh and others encouraged Carranza to remain in New York. However, whether due to pressure from his superiors in Mexico, his own desires, or both, he took off for Mexico City on July 13, 1928, which, for the superstitious, happens to be a Friday.
Shortly after take-off from New York, Carranza encountered severe thunderstorms over the Pinelands of southern New Jersey and crashed while attempting to land.
When word of Carranza’s death reached Washington, Coolidge offered to return Carranza’s body via the U.S.S. Florida battleship. However, Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles declined the offer, and the body was returned to Mexico via train with full military honors.
An estimated 200,000 people lined Broadway, watching somberly as six black horses led a flag-draped casket in a caisson, followed by 10,000 U.S. troops, to Penn Station, where it would make its way back to Mexico, for final interment.
Mexican military officers stood at attention, black bands on their arms, their sword hilts covered with black crepe. American flags flew at half-mast for a week.
On return to Mexico City, 100,000 people marched with Carranza’s coffin to its final resting place at Dolores Cemetery. There, Carranza was posthumously promoted to general, and buried with full military honors, alongside other national heroes at the Rotonda de Los Hombres Ilustres, or Rotunda of Illustrious Persons.
In 1931, a permanent memorial was dedicated near the crash site at a wooded spot in Wharton State Forest in Tabernacle Township, New Jersey. The monument was paid for by Mexican children who saved their pesos to quarry stone from Carranza’s birthplace in Coahuila, Mexico.
Every year since the dedication, members of the American Legion Medford Post 526 gather with members of the Mexican consulates in New York City and Philadelphia under the 12-foot concrete pylon depicting a fallen Aztec eagle. There, they pay their respects to Carranza, known as the “Lindbergh of Mexico,” a pioneer of aviation and a hero of the Mexican people.
Carranza’s daring flight nurtured relations between Mexico and the United States and captured the hearts and imaginations of hundreds of millions of people. The American flag that covered Carranza’s coffin on its journey to Penn Station hangs today in a place of honor at Mexico’s School of Aviation.