At the dawn of the 20th century, man learned to fly.
But it wasn’t an effort by a single man, but by many, and by no means an immediate success, but a case of trial and error…. With lots of errors.
Ever since Otto Lilienthal had given his life to prove that it was scientific to want to fly and the Wright Brothers had presented evidence of their short but powered flights, everyone else wanted to try it as well. Dozens if not hundreds of people jumped at the chance to try to fly and most attempts ranged from the silly to the downright dangerous. And yes, many didn’t make it.
The paris season opened with more than just fashion… Flying was in the air. At first it was just airships, but soon it was true airplanes with engines — although they could only fly in straight lines. Nobody had really figured out how to steer them yet.
To the parisians it was an exciting time to witness the spectacle of flight. Throngs of crowds would go see these flying machines and hope for the worst… Or best, depending on your bet.
Among the crowds was a 25 year old Dominican man from the city of La Vega — Zoilo Hermogenes Garcia. He had just graduated as a civil engineer at the Paris university, the first Dominican ever to do so. He was the son of General Zoilo Garcia, one of the richest men on the island and like his father equipped with a studious and inquisitive mind.
And seeing the likes of Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Voisin brothers take to the skies planted a seed of inspiration.
La Vega, 1906
Zoilo returned to the island to put his engineering skills to good use. He would go on to build numerous buildings, bridges and roads and La Vega’s first theater. He also married well and had kids, but one dream never let go of him: that of building his own airplane.
In the following five years he went to work on his own airplane design. One issue particularly seemed to be on his mind: the fact that planes easily fell from the sky. He tried to figure out a way to reduce that danger by building wings that could glide the aircraft safely back to the ground should the engines fail — he called this unique design the Poliplano, or “many wings” design. He intended to put this design into production, but not just for himself: he approached the Dominican army to secure partial financing. By 1911 he got the money, probably somewhere around $10,000US by 1911 standards, or $250,000 by 2016 standards.
Long Island, 1911-12
In just 5 years aviation had taken off and was in full flight — a hobby for the rich and a battleground for those looking to secure profitable military contracts — such as the Wright brothers who became the first to build military versions of their fliers. Long Island had established itself as the cradle of aviation, and with this new art form and its many potentials, everyone tried to cash in on it. Many new startups sprang up all over the place to supply everyone with the basic elements needed to fly. One of these was the American Aeroplane Supply House, a company operating out of the Nassau Boulevard Airfield.
It was here that Zoilo commissioned the construction of his plane. Over the years he had adapted it, inspired by various other designs he had seen, but with his own twist. American Aeroplane Supply House seems more than capable to build it according to his designs — they were doing custom builds for people with deep pockets all of the time — and Zoilo had the relatively deep pockets. In the airplane flier circles he was known as the cigar maker from the Dominican Republic.
Zoilo also learned how to fly planes here, again the first Dominican to do so. His teacher was James Weeks, one of the best pilots on Long Island and who was only 20 years old — this showed how young aviation really was if the best pilots were just barely out of puberty. Zoilo also later got a pilot’s license with the New York AeroClub in recognition for his innovative Poliplano design.
The final plane rolled out on February 20, 1912. Construction had not gone so smooth. In his calculations Zoilo had not counted on the heavy Roberts engine messing up the center of gravity of the plane, and thus threw off the whole design. After a few installs and uninstalls they hoped to finally have it right.
On that February 20, Zoilo took his design for a first flight. Legends say the plane actually flew, but most likely it only managed to get off the ground a bit, before being pulled back down.
While it flew at least as much as the early Wright planes had flown in 1906 and the design was a lot better than the early Wright planes, by 1912 standards, the design did not perform to expectations.
Disappointed, Zoilo took it back to La Vega.
La Vega, 1912
And so it came to be that the first airplane arrived to the Island by boat. It’s arrival to La Vega of course caused quite a stirr. So much in fact, it inspired to formation of the Centro de Aviacion, the first of its kind on the island. So Zoilo not just had built the first Dominican airplane, helped found the first Dominican Aviation Center, he also built the first runway on the island — or rather dirt landing strip.
Several test flights later he managed to get it higher off the ground, but the weight issue and the unusual wing design didn’t help it to perform a complete sustained flight.
Several attempts later, Zoilo gave up. He recommended the dissolution of the Aviation Center and wrote off the Poliplano as a financial loss.
Other planes eventually arrived on the island and in 1916 the first war planes arrived during the American invasion, hunting and bombing the rebels. The Poliplano rotted away at Sabana del Ponton and was forgotten. In 1916 Zoilo became very sick.
His son did in fact complete the dream of a dominican airplane, in a way. Inspired by his father, he flew in 1982 a truly self built Gyrocopter from Puerto Rico to the DR.
Zoilo is considered the father of dominican aviation. While his attempt may be considered a failure, he was without doubt the first Dominican aviation pioneer by which all other pilots would later measure themselves.
In his honor the 21rst of December is National pilot’s day, although few remember him. Oddly enough not a single airport is named after him, just a street in La Vega. And, of course, this replica of the Poliplano at a busy intersection in La Vega. I doubt most people realize the significance of it, though. But maybe you will now, next time you see it.
Open for Sources
We’d like to especially acknowledge the help of the Dominican historian Luis Puesan for checking the script.
‘Long Island Aircraft Manufacturers’, Joshua Stoff, Arcadia Publishing, page 66
“Garcia Polyplane, Nassau Boulevard Airfield, Garden City, 1911. Another unusual pioneer design, this one was built by Zoilo Garcia, the cigar maker, at Nassau Boulevard Airfield in Garden City. Called a polyplane, meaning “many wings”…”
Aero and Hydro, vol. 4, page 2
“Zoilo H. Garcia. Garcia polyplane, 6-cylinder, 7.5-horsepower Roberts motor. Gibson propeller.”
“Picture History of Early Aviation 1903-1913”, Joshua Stoff, Arcadia Publishing, page 117
“Long Island Airports” , Joshua Stoff, Arcadia Publishing, page 13
“UNSUCCESSFUL ZOILO GARCIA POLYPLANE, HEMPSTEAD PLAINS FIELD, 1912.“
“La Aviación de la Vega” Rafael Sánchez G, Diario El Progreso, 26 January 1911
“…yo mismo he palpado y he visto elevarse el aparato en proyecto a bastante altura… El más perfecto equilibrio le he visto conservar en el aire en los momentos en que el señor García le dejaba caer abandonado a su peso para evidenciar la lentitud con que, en caso dado, sin el menor ápice de peligro, podría hacerse el descenso, cuando por algún motivo del motor u otra cualquier pieza del aparato le privará de su impulso inicial… El 31 de enero, Zoilo H. García se dirigió a la Junta Directiva del Centro de Aviación para que esta fuese disuelta por la razón del fracaso económico de su invento”. (as reprinted in “La Enciclopedia Dominicana del Caballo”, pag. 11 y 12, by E. R. Demorizi )
“100 AÑOS DE LA AVIACIÓN DOMINICANA”
“Mineola Is Seat Of Long Island Activity” Aero and Hydro, Vol. 4, 1911, page 235