MIAMI – Hispanic men and women have changed aviation since the dawn of flight, setting records, exploring the farthest limits of the globe, and influencing what is possible in the aerospace profession.
While Oscar Munoz and Juan Carlos Salazar are prominent figures in the industry today, for Hispanic Heritage Month, we first look back on the history of six Latino aviation pioneers, starting with two Mexican Early Birds of Aviation who had already flown “solo” before 1916.
The Aldasoro Brothers
Juan Aldasoro was born in the “Casa Grande” of Real de Monte, state of Hidalgo, Mexico, on September 14, 1893. Eduardo Aldasoro was born on the 27th of October, 1894. Andrés Aldasoro, their father, served as Minister of Promotion under Porfirio Daz and was the general manager of the “Las Dos Estrellas” mine in Michoacán.
The inseparable brothers alternated their preparatory studies with their career as mechanics and a passion for flying, and they inquired about everything linked to aviation through periodicals and magazines of the time.
They started designing and building gliders in 1908, and they tested them on fields near the Piedad Cemetery (Panteón de la Piedad, now Avenida Cuauhtémoc in Mexico City). They were able to fly roughly a hundred meters in their own designed gliders, which was a fantastic achievement.
For the Aldasoro brothers, March 9, 1909, was a watershed moment; on that day, they took the glider to the outskirts of Mexico City, which is today known as Calle de Querétaro in Colonia Roma. This was the neighborhood’s first roadway to open, and it symbolized a pleasant, obstacle-free path for them.
The First Flight
The device to release the cable did not work properly and Juan Pablo went flying above the car without being able to free himself. As the plane continued, the cable pulled it back and immediately turned in a somersault and crashed. The glider was destroyed and, miraculously, Juan Pablo was alive with only a fractured leg.
The experience drawn from this flight was extraordinary, the pilot had managed to have absolute control of the glider for more than 480 meters as well as a very stable flight at a height of 10 meters. They decided to build an engine that could be fitted into an airplane after seeing that their planes could fly.
The brothers traveled to the mine “Las Dos Estrellas” in Tlalpujahua, Michoacán, and used the mine’s welding and smelting equipment to build a two-cylinder internal combustion engine from their sketches and plans. They completed the fabrication and testing of the air-cooled engine in January 1911, which could produce 60 horsepower and spin at 900 RPM. Its main feature was its weight-to-power ratio of 3 kilos per horsepower.
In addition, the Aldasoro brothers built a basic wind tunnel to aid their research into the mechanics of flight. They experimented with various wing shapes and angles, as well as the wings’ center of gravity, and designed the “thick wing,” which was extremely efficient, years before other European designers did. The airplane, complete with the new engine, was ready to be tested when all of the components had been completed.
Later on, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale granted the licenses nbr. 217 to Juan Pablo Aldasoro and nbr. 218 to Eduardo Aldasoro. On the graduation day, the authorities authorized one of the pilots to fly over the Statue of Liberty.
Jorge Antonio Chávez Dartnell, also known as Géo Chávez, a Peruvian aviator and engineer, was the first person to fly across the Alps in 1910. He had only recently received his pilot’s license and was 23 years old.
Chávez received his pilot’s license and flew for the first time in Reims on February 28, 1910, at the school of aviation founded by Henry and Maurice Farman. Following that, he competed in a number of flying events in France and other European countries.
He flew a Blériot monoplane to Blackpool, England, on August 8, the same year, and gained recognition after reaching a height of 1,647 meters (5,405 ft). On September 6, he increased his score by flying at 2,700 meters (8,700 feet) above Issy, France.
On September 19, 1910, he set off on his world-record-breaking trek from the French side of the Alps. His 51-minute trip went off without a hitch, but he crashed on landing. Chavez survived the collision but died four days later on the Italian side of the Alps from his injuries.
Felix Rigau Carrera
Felix Rigau Carrera, a would-be aviator, launched model airplanes as a boy from rooftops in his birthplace of Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico. He would become the first Puerto Rican to become a pilot.
Rigau Carrera studied electronics and mechanical engineering after graduating from high school at the Colegio de Agricultura y Artes Mecanicas (CAAM) in Mayagüez (now the University of Puerto Rico). During his undergraduate years, he continued to create and design airplane models as a pastime.
He enlisted in the United States Army after graduating from college with a degree in mechanical engineering. He served in the US Signal Corps’ Aviation Section as a paratrooper and pilot during WWI. He would go on to become the United States Marine Corps’ first Hispanic jet pilot. He went to Long Island to finish his flight training after serving in the Army.
Rigau Carrera returned to Puerto Rico after WWI and became the island’s first air messenger. In the 1920s, he flew to Puerto Rican communities to great acclaim, earning him the moniker “El Aguila de Sabana Grande” (“The Eagle of Sabana Grande”).
Olga E. Custodio
Olga Custodio was born into a military family in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She was a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force (USAF) for 24 years, retiring in 2003 with over 11,000 hours of flight time.
Custodio became the first female Hispanic U.S. military pilot and the first Hispanic woman to complete U.S. Air Force military pilot training. Upon retiring from the military, she became the first female Hispanic commercial airline captain of American Airlines (AA).
Custodio was hired by AA while in the USAF Reserves, making her one of the first Latina commercial pilots. Custodio remarked of her profession, “My mantra is ‘Querer es Poder’ [‘If you will, you can.’] I believe everyone has the potential to do it. They just have to believe in themselves enough to actually do it.”
She flew a variety of aircraft throughout her time with AA. She piloted the Boeing 727, the Fokker 100, the Boeing 757, and the Boeing 767 to destinations in Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. She also flew to Mexico, Canada, and numerous American cities.
Marisol A. Chalas
While Marisol Chalas’ journey is not related to commercial aviation, we thought her story was worth telling.
The young Chalas moved to Massachusetts in 1982 after growing up in the Dominican Republic. During high school, she enlisted in the Army National Guard and was commissioned as an aviation officer in 2001. She graduated first in her class at Fort Rucker Army Aviation School with a slew of accolades, including the Senior Aviator Badge.
At the time, Black Hawk helicopters, which the United States National Guard uses for combat missions and humanitarian services, were only piloted by men, until Chalas demonstrated that female officers could also successfully spearhead the projects of a military troop by becoming the first Latina to pilot a Black Hawk in the United States National Guard.
The pilot recalls that there were over 3,000 pilots flying Black Hawks when she was in flight school. “There were 120 women among them.” Marisol was the first Latina Black Hawk pilot in the National Guard.
The lieutenant colonel opened the doors to the promotion of Latina women to positions in the US Army in which male leadership prevailed, based on a lot of discipline, perseverance, academic training, and turning a deaf ear to those who predicted failure.
Munoz, who exemplifies the American Dream, is a first-generation college graduate from a Mexican-American household. Munoz worked for US West for five years, before and briefly after the company merged with Qwest and later became the first Hispanic CEO of United Airlines (UA). Mexican Oscar Munoz is currently UA’s executive chairman.
Staff remained on separate labor contracts in 2015, five years after Continental and United merged, and were only authorized to fly on the routes and planes for the airline where they were employed prior to the merger, causing friction between management and labor.
After years of talks, five-year contracts for flight attendants were authorized under Munoz’s watch in just four months. All union worker contracts had been renegotiated before the end of 2016. Despite the fact that pilots were unable to strike a common labor deal in 2012, under Munoz’s leadership, United agreed to a two-year contract renewal with the pilots’ union in 2016, allowing pilots to keep some of the compensation and benefits that had been cut.
In 2015, Munoz was one of two Hispanic CEOs in the top 100 of the Fortune 500 list. Munoz has been named among the “100 Most Influential Hispanics” by Hispanic Business magazine. In March 2017, Munoz was named “Communicator of the Year for 2017” by PRWeek.
Carlos Munoz was still one of Corporate America’s only Hispanic CEOs when he stepped down as CEO in May 2020 after five years as CEO of UA. Munoz is a marquee speaker at L’ATTITUDE, a national initiative focused on helping executives understand the US Latino cohort driving the modern economy.
Juan Carlos Salazar
A former Director-General of Civil Aviation for Colombia, Juan Carlos Salazar officially assumed the office of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Secretary-General on August 1, 2021.
Salazar was appointed ICAO Secretary-General in February of this year by the ICAO Council, after its comprehensive assessment of a number of international candidates. He brings more than 26 years of experience in civil aviation, public policy, and the management of large and complex organizations to the role at the UN’s specialized agency for civil aviation.
Salazar commented on his appointment, “It is a great honor to be assuming this role at this time, and to have the opportunity to help governments and ICAO play an important part in how this sector builds back better and recovers from the global pandemic.”
“Not the Exception, but the Expectation”
Mexican Oscar Munoz and Colombian Juan Carlos Salazar exemplify and cement further the legacy of Hispanics and Latinos in the industry that was begun by the aforementioned aviation pioneers.
Munoz told CNN Business last year that even though “bias exists” in the United States, the American Dream is still within reach. “Despite the facts that point otherwise…I have to believe that,” Munoz said in the interview.
The executive added, “We have to believe in this country with its great history, with all of its great sort of melting pot and historical success…I long for the day when someone like me is not the exception, but the expectation.”
Today, commercial airline pilot statistics in the US show that Hispanic or Latino pilots comprise 7.4% of the workforce.
Featured image: Five Mexican pilots that attended the Moissant School of aviation, seen here in 1914. From Left: Alberto Salinas Carranza, Gustavo Salinas Camiña, Juan Pablo Aldasoro Suárez, Horacio Ruiz Gaviño, Eduardo Aldasoro Suárez. Photo: Creyes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7976077. Article sources: earlyaviators.com, airandspace.si.edu, Forbes, ICAO, CNN