A Brief History of Latino Aviation Pioneers

A Brief History of Latino Aviation Pioneers

DALLAS — Since the early days of aviation, Hispanic individuals have made significant contributions to the field, breaking records, venturing into uncharted territories, and shaping the possibilities within the aerospace profession.

Although Oscar Munoz and Juan Carlos Salazar have recently held prominent positions in the industry, it is essential to reflect on the historical achievements of six Latino aviation pioneers. These pioneers include two Mexican Early Birds of Aviation who embarked on solo flights prior to 1916.

Juan Pablo and Eduardo Aldasoro, pioneers of Mexican aviation, 1915. Photo: Creyes, own work, Public Domain

The Aldasoro Brothers

Juan Aldasoro, born on September 14, 1893, in the “Casa Grande” of Real de Monte, Hidalgo, Mexico, and Eduardo Aldasoro, born on October 27, 1894, were inseparable brothers. Their father, Andrés Aldasoro, held the position of Minister of Promotion under Porfirio Daz and served as the general manager of the “Las Dos Estrellas” mine in Michoacán.

Alongside their studies, the brothers pursued their passion for aviation and mechanics. They eagerly sought knowledge about aviation through magazines and periodicals of the time.

In 1908, they began designing and constructing gliders, which they tested near the Piedad Cemetery (now Avenida Cuauhtémoc) in Mexico City. Their self-designed gliders allowed them to achieve remarkable flights of approximately one hundred meters, a remarkable feat.

On March 9, 1909, the Aldasoro brothers reached a significant milestone. They brought their glider to the outskirts of Mexico City, specifically Calle de Querétaro in Colonia Roma. This was a noteworthy event as it marked the opening of the neighborhood’s first roadway, which symbolized a smooth and obstacle-free path for their aviation endeavors.

We see an airplane built by Juan Pablo Aldasoro. Mexico City, 1909. Photo: Creyes, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The First Flight

The cable release mechanism malfunctioned, causing Juan Pablo to be suspended above the car without the ability to free himself. As the plane continued to move forward, the cable pulled it back, resulting in a somersault and a subsequent crash. The glider was completely destroyed, but miraculously, Juan Pablo survived with only a fractured leg.

The experience gained from this flight was remarkable. The pilot had demonstrated exceptional control over the glider, maintaining stability for a distance of over 480 meters and flying at a height of 10 meters. This success led them to decide to construct an engine that could be installed in an airplane, realizing the potential of their aircraft.

The brothers traveled to the “Las Dos Estrellas” mine in Tlalpujahua, Michoacán, where they utilized the mine’s welding and smelting equipment to build a two-cylinder internal combustion engine based on their sketches and plans. By January 1911, they had completed the fabrication and testing of the air-cooled engine, capable of producing 60 horsepower and spinning at 900 RPM. Its notable feature was its weight-to-power ratio of 3 kilograms per horsepower.

Additionally, the Aldasoro brothers constructed a basic wind tunnel to aid in their investigation of flight mechanics. They conducted experiments with different wing shapes, angles, and centers of gravity and were able to design the highly efficient “thick wing” years before other European designers. Once all the components were finished, the airplane, equipped with the new engine, was ready for testing.

Subsequently, Juan Pablo Aldasoro and Eduardo Aldasoro were granted license numbers 217 and 218, respectively, by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. On the day of their graduation, the authorities permitted one of the pilots to fly over the Statue of Liberty.

Géo Chávez on his Bleriot aircraft. Photo: Unknown author, Public Domain

Jorge Chavez

Jorge Antonio Chávez Dartnell, also known as Géo Chávez, was a Peruvian aviator and engineer who achieved a significant milestone in aviation history. At the age of 23, and shortly after obtaining his pilot’s license, he became the first person to fly across the Alps in 1910.

Chávez received his pilot’s license and made his inaugural flight in Reims on February 28, 1910, at the aviation school founded by Henry and Maurice Farman. Following this, he participated in various flying events in France and other European countries.

On August 8 of the same year, he flew a Blériot monoplane to Blackpool, England, gaining recognition for reaching an altitude of 1,647 meters (5,405 feet). He further increased his record on September 6 by flying at 2,700 meters (8,700 feet) above Issy, France.

On September 19, 1910, Chávez embarked on his groundbreaking journey from the French side of the Alps. The 51-minute flight went smoothly, but unfortunately, he crashed upon landing. Although he survived the collision, he succumbed to his injuries four days later on the Italian side of the Alps.

Jorge Antonio Chávez Dartnell’s achievement in crossing the Alps remains a significant milestone in aviation history, marking his indelible contribution to the field.

Felix Rigau Carrera was the first Hispanic fighter pilot in the United States Marines. Photo: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Felix Rigau Carrera

Felix Rigau Carrera, born in Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, demonstrated an early fascination with aviation by launching model airplanes from rooftops during his childhood. He would go on to become the first Puerto Rican to become a pilot.

After completing his high school education at the Colegio de Agricultura y Artes Mecanicas (CAAM) in Mayagüez (now the University of Puerto Rico), Rigau Carrera pursued studies in electronics and mechanical engineering. Throughout his college years, he continued to indulge in his passion for creating and designing airplane models.

Following his graduation, Rigau Carrera enlisted in the United States Army, utilizing his mechanical engineering degree. He served as a paratrooper and pilot in the Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps during World War I. Subsequently, he became the first Hispanic jet pilot in the United States Marine Corps, completing his flight training on Long Island after his service in the Army.

Upon returning to Puerto Rico after the war, Rigau Carrera assumed the role of the island’s first air messenger. In the 1920s, he embarked on flights across various Puerto Rican communities, earning significant acclaim and earning him the nickname ‘El Aguila de Sabana Grande’ (The Eagle of Sabana Grande).

Air Force veteran Lt. Col. Olga Custodio, the first Latina U.S. Air Force pilot, is pictured as a first lieutenant while in flight training. Photo: United States Air Force 

Olga E. Custodio

Olga Custodio, born into a military family in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had an illustrious career in the United States Air Force (USAF) as a Lieutenant Colonel for 24 years. She retired in 2003, having accumulated an impressive 11,000 hours of flight time.

Custodio broke barriers by becoming the first female Hispanic U.S. military pilot and the first Hispanic woman to successfully complete U.S. Air Force military pilot training. Following her retirement from the military, she made history once again by becoming the first female Hispanic commercial airline captain for American Airlines (AA).

While still serving in the USAF Reserves, Custodio was hired by AA, making her one of the pioneering Latina commercial pilots. Reflecting on her profession, Custodio shared her mantra, “Querer es Poder” (If you will, you can). She firmly believed that everyone has the potential to achieve their goals, emphasizing the importance of self-belief and determination.

Throughout her tenure with AA, Custodio piloted a range of aircraft. She operated the Boeing 727, Fokker 100, Boeing 757, and Boeing 767, transporting passengers to destinations in Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Additionally, she flew to Mexico, Canada, and numerous cities across the United States.

Major Marisol A. Chalas, the first Latina National Guard Black Hawk pilot. Photo: Massachusetts Maritime Academy via The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Marisol A. Chalas

Although Marisol Chalas’ journey does not involve commercial aviation, we believe her story is worth sharing.

After growing up in the Dominican Republic, Chalas relocated to Massachusetts in 1982. During her high school years, she joined the Army National Guard and was commissioned as an aviation officer in 2001. At Fort Rucker Army Aviation School, she excelled and graduated at the top of her class, earning numerous accolades, including the Senior Aviator Badge.

At that time, Black Hawk helicopters, primarily used by the United States National Guard for combat missions and humanitarian services, were exclusively piloted by men. However, Chalas shattered this barrier and became the first Latina to pilot a Black Hawk in the United States National Guard, showcasing that female officers could successfully lead military projects.

Chalas recalls that during her time in flight school, there were more than 3,000 Black Hawk pilots, with only 120 of them being women. As the first Latina Black Hawk pilot in the National Guard, she paved the way for the promotion of Latina women to positions within the US Army that were predominantly held by male leaders.

Chalas’ achievements were the result of discipline, perseverance, academic training, and a determination to prove wrong to those who doubted her success.

United Airlines executive chairman and former CEO Oscar Munoz. Photo: United Airlines

Carlos Munoz

Carlos Munoz embodies the American Dream, being a first-generation college graduate from a Mexican-American family. He began his career at US West, where he worked for five years, both before and after its merger with Qwest. Munoz later made history as the first Hispanic CEO of United Airlines (UA), while Mexican Oscar Munoz currently serves as UA’s executive chairman.

In 2015, five years after the merger of Continental and United, staff members remained on separate labor contracts and were only permitted to work on routes and planes associated with the airline they were employed with prior to the merger. This created tensions between management and labor.

Under Munoz’s leadership, significant progress was made in labor negotiations. Within just four months, five-year contracts for flight attendants were authorized, and by the end of 2016, all union worker contracts had been renegotiated. Despite challenges faced in reaching a common labor agreement with pilots in 2012, Munoz successfully secured a two-year contract renewal with the pilots’ union in 2016, preserving some of the compensation and benefits that had been reduced.

In 2015, Munoz was one of only two Hispanic CEOs listed in the top 100 of the Fortune 500. He has been recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential Hispanics” by Hispanic Business magazine and was honored as the “Communicator of the Year for 2017” by PRWeek in March of that year.

Even after stepping down as CEO of UA in May 2020 following a five-year tenure, Carlos Munoz remained one of the few Hispanic CEOs in Corporate America. He continues to make an impact as a prominent speaker at L’ATTITUDE, a national initiative focused on helping executives understand the influential role of the US Latino cohort in driving the modern economy.

Juan Carlos Salazar at the AVSEC Global Symposium 2021. Photo: Emirates Group

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 five months earlier 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.

Upon his appointment, Salazar commented, “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.”

In October 2023, the ICAO Secretary General underscored the importance of robust capacity-building efforts in Latin America during his mission to Venezuela, advocating for the safe, secure, and sustainable development of the region’s air services at both the 103rd Meeting of the Latin American Civil Aviation Commission’s Executive Committee and at a series of high-level bilateral discussions.

The ICAO Secretary-General also emphasized climate change and the global goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions in international aviation by 2050. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) were a key focus, as the commission expects to contribute to half of the required emissions reduction. Salazar prioritized partnership in the ACT-SAF program, implementation of CORSIA, and contributions to the upcoming CAAF/3 conference.

Aeromexico Boeing 787. Photo: Kochan Kleps-Airways

“Not the Exception, but the Expectation”

Mexican Oscar Munoz and Colombian Juan Carlos Salazar continue the legacy of Hispanics and Latinos in the aviation industry, building upon the foundation laid by earlier pioneers.

In June of this year, Airways had the pleasure of interviewing Munoz to get his perspective on airline personnel management, operational integration amid airline mergers, fleet renewal, expansion, and the future of the commercial aviation industry.

In a 2020 interview with CNN Business, Munoz acknowledged the existence of bias in the United States but expressed his belief that the American Dream remains attainable. He stated that despite contrary evidence, he chooses to have faith in the country’s history, diversity, and potential for success. Munoz expressed his hope for a future where individuals like him are not exceptions but rather the norm.

The majority of commercial pilots in the US are of white ethnicity, accounting for 86.5%. Hispanic or Latino ethnicity is the second most common at 7.0%, followed by Asian at 2.2%, Black or African American at 1.6%, and American Indian or Alaska Native at 0.2%.

Featured image: Five Mexican pilots who attended the Moisant 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. Article sources: earlyaviators.com, airandspace.si.edu, Forbes, ICAO, CNN, Zippia.com

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