Pioneer aviator Francesco de Pinedo, dubbed the “Italian Lindbergh,” was on an epic four-continent flight when his seaplane was destroyed at Roosevelt Lake in 1927.

Plane Bad Luck

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: June 2017
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Italian pilot Francesco de Pinedo knew that finding water in the Sonoran Desert would be a challenge. But the famed aviator, who had toured Europe, Africa, South America and North America wasn’t looking to quench his thirst. He was searching for enough water on which to land his aircraft, the first seaplane to visit Arizona in 1927.

De Pinedo departed Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico in his Santa Maria seaplane, named after Christopher Columbus’ ship since it was the first to fly from Europe to America. Roosevelt Lake, located 75 miles east of Phoenix, was his destination. There were no alternatives; the flying boat couldn’t land on terra firma. On his flight to San Diego, Roosevelt Lake, the Colorado River and the Salton Sea were the only water bodies listed as potential landing spots. Canyon Lake had been built, but Roosevelt was preferable for its size and more open approach since the seaplane required a long takeoff. Since Canyon and Roosevelt lakes were linked by the Salt River, de Pinedo figured if he found Canyon he could have backtracked for an easier landing at Roosevelt, where they were expected and where special aviation fuel had been shipped for the occasion. For navigation assistance, de Pinedo followed the Southern Pacific railroad tracks until banking north at Globe’s smelter smokestacks. “To ride a seaplane across the desert hunting for a lake was like flying an airplane over the ocean seeking an isolated island on which to land,” de Pinedo wrote in National Geographic.

 

the Santa Maria in better days
Fueling the plane

Spying the lake’s blue water surrounded by “odd asparagus-like” saguaro cactus, the handsome aviator landed the flying boat to the cheers of a crowd and docked in a carnival-like atmosphere. De Pinedo had the Santa Maria refueled and went to a luncheon in his honor at the nearby Apache Lodge. But before attempting to take off for San Diego two hours later, the trailblazing aviator was grounded by the actions of a careless Phoenix teenager, fanning international tensions that presaged the bloody conflicts of World War II.

The pilot was born into an aristocratic Italian family in 1890. De Pinedo graduated from the Italian Naval Academy and piloted reconnaissance missions during World War I. With a flying style characterized as adventurous but not reckless, he gained publicity with record-setting flights after the war.

Black smoke engulfs the Santa Maria

An advocate of the seaplane, de Pinedo wrote, “Civilization is built on water. The world’s principal cities are mirrored by seas, rivers or lakes. Why not utilize these immense, ready-to-use, natural airstrips in place of costly airports?” To validate his statement, the pilot and his mechanic made aviation’s longest journey in 1925. The epic 35,000-mile round trip went from Rome to the Middle East, India, Australia and the Pacific Rim.

Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had seized power in 1922, basked in the fame de Pinedo’s trip brought his country. Mussolini encouraged the nonpolitical pilot to make a goodwill trip to the Western Hemisphere, a journey called the “Four Continents” flight.

De Pinedo and two crewmembers departed in the Santa Maria, their twin-engine, mono-wing Savoia-Marchetti S-55 seaplane, from Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea bound for Africa on February 13, 1927. They continued to Brazil, toured South America, made the first flight over the Amazon and became the first foreign airplane to land in the U.S. in New Orleans on March 29. Italy’s winged ambassador planned a circuit of the country before returning home. Conspicuously missing in his itinerary was an attempt to claim the Orteig Prize, an award of $25,000 offered by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first nonstop flight from New York City to Paris or vice versa.

This competition had seized the world’s attention, though de Pinedo expressed no interest in the award. “I think that de Pinedo, as a wealthy, genteel aristocrat, wasn’t chasing money such as the Orteig Prize,” says Captain Billy Walker, a member of the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame. “He had a seemingly singular fascination of demonstrating the worthiness of aircraft on long-distance flights and promoting Italian aviation.”

De Pinedo flew west to Galveston, San Antonio and Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, listening to his new American jazz records on the seaplane’s portable phonograph. The lively music lightened his concerns about the flying boat, which was designed for blustery sea-level conditions, not lifting off from high-altitude lakes in hot, still air.

On April 6, 1927, the Santa Maria landed mid-morning on Roosevelt Lake’s calm water, and two motorboats towed the seaplane to a temporary dock built by Standard Oil. Several hundred people, including many of Italian descent, made the long, rough drive on the windy Apache Trail from Phoenix for the historic occasion.

Before leaving the seaplane for his luncheon, de Pinedo learned that too much fuel had been dispensed into the tank. The pilot, worried that the additional weight would make departure challenging, removed several buckets of gas. “Who wants some gasoline?” de Pinedo asked the crowd. After no response, he poured the fuel into the lake alongside his seaplane, according to The Arizona Republican.

During lunch, de Pinedo looked up to see thick black smoke coming from the lake. A fire had engulfed the Santa Maria, and its engines fell into the lake, leaving only the floating remains of the burned hull.

Italian aviator Francesco de Pinedo

Italian newspapers initially claimed “Sabotage!” The cause, however, was less sensational. “A thoughtless, albeit untrained, ground crewman tossed his cigarette in the fuel residue on the lake surface near the aircraft,” Walker says. “Poof! … And the rest, as they say, is history.” The culprit was John Tomason, who had assisted in towing the Santa Maria to dock. De Pinedo, a refined Italian gentleman, forgave the Phoenix teenager.

Despite the disaster, de Pinedo was gracious and insightful during a subsequent interview with The Arizona Republican. “I like Americans because they are energetic, but they are too busy to enjoy themselves,” the 33-year-old bachelor said. “Our Italian love of painting, sculpture and music is a valuable trait that is not nearly so well-developed in America.”

Mussolini shipped de Pinedo a new seaplane, the Santa Maria II, from Italy to New York City on an ocean freighter. Purposefully avoiding the arid West, de Pinedo took a brief American tour before flying to Newfoundland. Although not registered for the Orteig Prize, as his seaplane was incapable of such a long nonstop flight, de Pinedo might have symbolically won it with his trip home to Rome. He took off for Italy on May 22, but few noticed or cared because American Charles Lindbergh had just flown across the Atlantic Ocean to claim the Orteig Prize, and the world had a new aviation hero.

On his journey home to Rome, de Pinedo encountered rough weather that forced him to land in the middle of the ocean, 200 miles from his refueling stop in the Azores Islands, and the seaplane had to be towed to port. He eventually flew home, but his flying trips sponsored by Mussolini were finished. The Italian dictator, disappointed with Lindbergh’s feat overshadowing de Pinedo’s journey, stationed the Italian aviator in faraway Buenos Aires as an air attaché.

After resigning from the Italian military in 1933, de Pinedo tried one last aeronautical endeavor to reclaim world fame. He attempted a world-record nonstop flight from Long Island to Baghdad, Iraq, but his overloaded Bellanca monoplane crashed on takeoff. De Pinedo was killed in the subsequent explosion. One of aviation’s greatest pioneers, de Pinedo was buried in Rome with military honors.

Although not well-known, de Pinedo remains an inspiration to aviation fans for his extraordinary journeys – and calm temperament when dealing with calamity. While rabid souvenir hunters collected charred remains of the Santa Maria at Roosevelt Lake, de Pinedo declined to revisit the plane. “It is done. We go on to something else,” the pilot philosophically told The Arizona Republican.

“So his seaplane burned up on Roosevelt Lake. So what!” Walker says. “Likely he spat out some classic Italian profanity and moved on.”