The Black Butterfly And The Admiral’s Ships — The Tragic Story Of The Columbus Monument Air Disaster
Pyramids notoriously cost a lot of lives.
The Santo Domingo Columbus memorial/ monument/ lighthouse/ cross-shaped pyramid/ mausoleum/ lump of concrete is a sore for sight eyes. The idea of building Columbus a monument surfaced in the late 1800s — back when everyone still thought Columbus was one cool dude, and heck, let’s honor him with a giant lump of concrete.
By 1923 Latin American nations had agreed that the monument in honor of their founder and benefactor (and I use term loosely) should be a joint project by all countries of the Americas, as well as paid for by all. It was also agreed that it should be built in Santo Domingo.
A design competition was launched and 455 designs from all over the world entered. In 1931 the winner was picked: 23 year old Joseph Lea Gleave from Scotland was chosen as the designated architect by a committee that included Frank Lloyd Wright — Frank, really? 455 designs and you guys chose that one?
A few more years of preparations went by and it was 1937. There was nothing to stand in the way anymore: the location was set, the architect ready. What was missing?
It had been 14 years since everyone had agreed they would pay for the monument, but nobody had so far forked over any cash. So dictator Rafael Trujillo hatched a — as he thought — brilliant plan to get all the other countries to cough up the money they had promised.
He would beg.
Trujillo called the ruler of Cuba, his good buddy Fulgencio Batista, to get together and plan the scheme — I mean of course president Federico Laredo Bru, because Batista wasn’t running Cuba… yet. Officially.
Truthfully nobody is certain who’s idea it was — all historical documents say something along the lines of “the Cuban and Dominican governments” planned the whole thing.
A few others say it was proposed in 1928 at the Fifth Panamanian Conference, and later at another conference in Buenos Aires the year 1937 was chosen since it coincided with the 445th anniversary of the “discovery” of America — but supposedly Trujillo and Batista were present at the Buenos Aires conference. It just seemed like the kind of scheme Trujillo would come up with. Or Batista. In fact, I’m guessing Batista had his hands in it as usual, because once he became president he eagerly sponsored a second flight years later… But that’s a different story.
The “Cuban and Dominican governments” planned the trip and called it the “Vuelo Panamericano”. It was also referred to as the Pro-Faro a Colón flight, an event that would go down in Latin American history… no pun intended. Yet.
You see, it was the 1930s… airplanes were all the rage and records were set and broken left and right. Lindbergh had done his famous New York to Paris flight just a few years earlier, Amelia Earhart had gone missing a few months before, Howard Hughes had broken records crossing from Los Angeles to New York, and the Russians flew over the North Pole.
But the Spanish speaking world didn’t want to be left behind in the airplane-record-craze: the Cuatro Vientos broke records by flying from Spain to Cuba — and inspired by that feat a Spanish born Cuban, Menéndez Peláez, flew alone in an open cockpit from Havana to Seville, becoming the first Latin American to cross the Atlantic. As such he became the South American answer to Lindbergh.
Ever seen those “First!” comments on YouTube? Well, in the 1930s that’s what aviators were doing with flight records. The first to cross the North Atlantic, the first to cross the South Atlantic, the first to cross the North Pole, the first to… etc.
So with planes being the ‘in-thing’ right now, why not have a squadron of planes do the first Latin America round trip to call attention to the worthy cause of building a giant lump of concrete?
(I’m sorry, am I sounding a bit too sarcastic?)
The Cubans donated three airplanes and the Dominican Republic one — three Stinsons and a Curtis Wright CR-19R. The Cubans also donated Menéndez Peláez, the guy who had become the first transatlantic Latin American: he would fly one of the planes and be the squadron’s navigator.
They christened the planes — hold your breath — Santa Maria, La Niña and La Pinta… and Colón. The leader of the mission was the Dominican Frank Feliz Miranda, a shining aviation hero to the Dominicans in his own right.
On November 12, 1937, the four planes took off from Miraflores airport in Santo Domingo. They had 53 stops planned along the route.
The first stopover was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. From here they flew on to Caracas, then Port of Spain on Trinidad, on to Paramaribo in Dutch Guiana, on to Brazil, where they visited Belén Do Pará, Fortaleza, Natal, Recife, Bahía, Río de Janeiro, Florianópolis and Porto Alegre. On they went to Montevideo in Uruguay, and over to Buenos Aires. From here the trip continued to Mendoza, and Santiago de Chile, then to La Paz, Perú.
It should be noted that the eyes of Latin America were on them. Everywhere the Cubans and Dominicans went they received a hero’s welcome, were paraded, dined and wined and met with everyone from presidents to even Maryse Bastie (the French answer to Earhart), who had just become the first female pilot to fly across the South Atlantic.
Everywhere they went they handed out letters and greetings and were promised money for the monument. Rumor has it that they were given presents in return: gold and such things, so the planes were getting heavier. No proof of that exists… but we’ll get back to the heavy-plane issue later.
At times other airplanes accompanied them like honor squadrons: on the flight to Rio for example, twelve P-12s from the Brazilian Army and Navy flew with them.
On the next leg from La Paz to Lima, something happened. La Niña vanished from the formation in a thick fog. The others circled trying to find the plane, but to no avail. They continued on to Lima and landed there. Almost two days later radio contact was established with La Niña. The crew had made an emergency landing, but was totally fine.
Whew. That could have ended in a disaster. Can you imagine what would happen if they had crashed? The whole mission would be over and the lump of cement would never be built…
Reunited, the squadron flew from Lima to Cali, Colombia. It was now a month since they had taken off from Santo Domingo. They were not yet half-way through the trip.
The Black Butterfly
The following leg was a tricky one, and navigator Peláez knew that. Cali is a city high in the mountains, surrounded by even higher mountains — too high for the Cubans to fly over them, although not for the more powerful Dominican plane. The Cubans would have to find a way through the canyons of the Cali river to come out on the other side towards the Pacific. So Peláez and a colombian pilot took the Santa Maria on a test flight around the Cali mountains to see the terrain and understand the dangers of this area. The Colombians, knowing the terrain, suggested a particular complex but safe route to the Pacific. The Cubans decided against it, being on a time-crunch.
The night before the flight, the Cuban and Dominican fliers enjoyed the hospitality of Cali with a massive banquet, given to them by the city of Cali and the Colombian Air Force.
During the banquet a large black butterfly was seen flying around the banquet hall. Few took notice, but those that did saw it an evil omen. Black Butterflies are like Black Cats to the superstitious.
Taking off from Cali the following day, the planes turned towards the Cali river, intending to fly along it until they came out on the other side. The Dominican plane on the other hand could fly high and far over the mountains, leaving the Cubans far below them.
The Colón landed safely in Panama. This time there was no celebration, no parades. It was here that flight leader Frank Feliz Miranda was informed by reporters that the other three planes had gone down.
The entire mountain range around Cali was populated, so there are eyewitness accounts of what happened. The planes were flying so low along the Cali river, a few of the farmers even tried to signal them to go higher, fearing they might crash into the Felidia church tower further down the river. Why they flew so low is hard to say, but maybe they were too heavy to go higher — possibly due to their full fuel tanks… or maybe all the gold?
At one point in a particular nasty bend in the river around Las Nieves, near the tiny village of Felidia, Pelaez decided it was too much and pulled the plane around. Maybe he was trying to turn around entirely, maybe just evade the bend. Either way the others followed suit trying to stay in formation. In the narrow river canyon only a few feet off the tree tops, the planes lost control having literally no place to go.
Have you ever tried to turn your car around in a narrow street and felt the front wheels hit the curb? This is what happened. Except your car doesn’t explode when it hits the curb.
First the Santa Maria grazed the hillside and then spiraled into the ground, exploding in a massive fireball that could be seen for miles. The Niña tried to evade the same fate, only to crash nearby, it’s fuel setting a farmer’s field ablaze. La Pinta also tried to avoid to crash and gain height but failed and went into the river.
All seven flier perished: the six pilots and navigators and a reporter who was aboard the Santa Maria.
With only the Dominican plane surviving, the Vuelo Panamericano had come to a violent and fiery end.
In the following days Latin America hushed in the tragedy of the flight. Rescuers found the bodies of the fliers and there were rumors of farmers finding some of the gold, but the Cuban delegation sent to get the bodies took it back with them. Nobody knows for sure anymore.
We do know that the nearby village of Felidia showed a solidarity to Cuba that was reciprocated by Batista. For their help in recovering the bodies (and the money) Batista later donated a school and a statue of a virgin that became the town’s patron saint. To this day there are ties between Felidia and Cuba, with Felidia holding Cuban themed festivals. In 2015 a small monument was erected in the Felidia park in memory of the Cuban fliers.
The only survivors of the disaster, the Dominican fliers Frank Feliz Miranda and his mechanic, received a sort-of hero’s welcome on their return to Santo Domingo. They and their plane returned by boat. The Colón now stands in a hangar at the San Isidrio Air Force base and there is now a street named after Frank Feliz Miranda in Santo Domingo, but probably mostly due to his accomplishments for Dominican aviation in general. The incident also marked the foundation of what would become the Dominican Air Force.
While a big deal in Latin America, the event was overshadowed by other global events of the year. North America was at the same time still mourning Amelia Earhart as well as the Hindenburg. The Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War were making headlines as the marvelous invention “airplane” was turned into a game-changing war machine.
And of course the world realized at about the same time that this Hitler guy meant business. In the following months and years the world crashed and burned into Word War 2 and the Vuelo Panamericano was all but forgotten.
With the disaster, the plans for the Columbus monument came to a stand-still. Nobody really wanted to build it anymore. Only a meager $15,000 were collected by 1950, and the architect Joseph Lea Gleave, now in his late 40s, gave up on the idea entirely. Trujillo later tried to lay the foundation himself, an event that also ended in tragedy… but that is yet another story.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the Dominican Republic decided to finally build the monument, guided by its blind president Joaquin Balaguer, one of the last to have participated in the events of the Vuelo Panamericano. Everyone else previously involved, including the architect, had already died. Nobody of them ever got to see the monument finished.
All we have left is the massive lump of concrete in the shape of a cross-like pyramid, that stands as a cold testament to the many lives its construction cost.
Oh yeah — and to celebrate that Columbus guy.