The Wings of the Santa Maria

By Tom Kollenborn

Colonel Francesco De Pinedo, an Italian aviator, carefully planned for his flight around the world during the winter of 1926-27. He would be flying a plane called the Santa Maria, named after Christopher Columbus’ ship.

The Santa Maria was a mono-wing seaplane with two engines, one a pusher and the other a puller. The Franchini engines were water-cooled. The airplane was designed to lift a given amount of weight at sea level. This factor created a real problem for De Pinedo at Hall Lake in New Mexico, because the lake was much higher than sea level.

Colonel Francesco De Pinedo

De Pinedo left his native land of Italy near the end of March 1927. His flight around the world carried him to North Africa, then across the Atlantic to the Amazon Basin, then on to Colombia, across the Gulf of Mexico and then to New Orleans.

From New Orleans, De Pinedo flew across Texas to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. De Pinedo landed on Hall Lake, at Elephant Butte, New Mexico, on April 5, 1927, at 3:15 p.m. MST.

Colonel Pinedo had a crew of three. His mechanic was Lt. S. Fachetti, and Captain Carlo Del Prate served as co-pilot and meteorologist.

Colonel De Pinedo had previously been presented the Grand Gold Medal by the Royal Geographic Society for his accomplishments in aviation. His crew was dedicated to him and Italy. This 1927 flight represented Italy’s first attempt to fly around the world.

The world famous aviator De Pinedo presented one of the Santa Maria’s extra cracked propellers to Ettore Franchini, a representative of the Italian Colony known as the Colombo Society, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Colombo Society was an organization that preserved the history of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World. This presentation was made on April 5, 1927, at Hot Springs, New Mexico.

Early on the morning of April 6, 1927, De Pinedo tried to lift off of Hall Lake with his airplane. Before he could lift off the lake, he dumped 250 gallons of fuel, tools and spare parts. The plan was to fly to Roosevelt Lake, then on to San Diego, California.

The plane sank beneath the water after burning at its mooring.

Colonel De Pinedo and his crew arrived at Roosevelt Lake about 11:50 a.m. April 6, 1927. By 12:15 p.m. The Colonel’s airplane was totally consumed by fire during a refueling accident near Hotel Point. A carelessly tossed cigarette caused the fire that consumed De Pinedo’s airplane. The plane sank below the surface of the lake within minutes. This ended De Pinedo and Italy’s dream of having the first team to fly around the world. Today Hotel Point is located at the northern span of the Roosevelt Bridge.

Hotel Point at Roosevelt Lake

The Franchini engines of De Pinedo’s plane were raised from the bottom of Roosevelt Lake on April 19, 1927. Members of the Christopher Columbus Society of Albuquerque, New Mexico recovered the engines. The three men most responsible for this achievement were Ettore Franchini, Tom Domenici and Pete Vichi. A native Arizona diver named Charles Granger helped recover the Franchini engines from forty feet of water at Roosevelt Lake. The engines were eventually transported to New York and then shipped to Italy.

After World War II, Ettore Franchini was awarded a gold medal by the Italian government for his part in helping return the engines. His grandson, John Franchini, once made a presentation in Apache Junction for the Arizona Lecture Series on the “Flight of the Santa Maria.” The engines were eventually used as a memorial to the De Pinedo flight around world that ended tragically at Roosevelt Lake on the 6th of April 1927.

When we look back on the accomplishments of this flight, it was truly a monumental undertaking in 1927. The De Pinedo flight still recorded 16,000 miles across uncharted jungle, ocean and desert. This was quite an accomplishment for 1927 and one month prior to Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic.

Francesco de Pinedo was killed some six years later on Saturday, September 2, 1933, in a fiery plane crash at the Floyd Bennett Field in New York, while taking off to fly non-stop from New York to Bagdad. DePinedo was one of the 20th century’s great pioneer aviators.

In 1993, I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, searching for information about De Pinedo and found a display and model of De Pinedo’s airplane at the Albuquerque Air Terminal. This display was maintained by an organization known as the Cavalcade of Wings. This group of dedicated volunteers maintains the display at the Albuquerque Air Terminal. If ever you visit the Albuquerque Air Terminal, you should look at this display.

The search for more information about Colonel Francesco De Pinedo linked another part of the world to the Superstition Wilderness Area and Roosevelt Lake.

Photo above: The “Santa Maria,” docked at Roosevelt Lake in 1927.

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