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Famous Flyers

The "Daddy" of Mexico's Aviation

WHEN the Japs struck at Pearl Harbor, it was fortunate for the people of North America that Mexico had Roberto Fierro. While the United States was making every effort to protect our coastal cities against bombing and invasion, General Fierro and his gallant group of flyers were quietly protecting Mexico—and the United States and Canada—by guarding 6,000 miles of vulnerable coast line, where, it was later learned, Hitler and Tojo planned to invade. Mexican flyers drew first blood by bombing a U-boat near Tampico.

Down Mexico way the people will tell you that Roberto Fierro is the greatest aviator in the world. He is not only their air hero, but he is also recognized as the “daddy” of aviation south of the border. No man knows the topography of the lower continent, the greater part still unsurveyed, as well as Fierro; and few people have had as much experience crowded into their lives as this adventurous Mexican who started his mechanical career by greasing automobiles, and worked up to the rank of general and to the highest position in Mexican aviation -chief of Mexico’s Army Air Corps.

Mexican aviation and the name Roberto Fierro are synonymous. When airplanes were imported which no one else could fly, he was the one who flew them. When aerial cross-country records needed to be established, or broken, they called upon him. It was the same when someone was needed to squash a revolution. He won the title of champion revolution buster of the Latin Americas.

Fierro has been called the Billy Mitchell of Mexico, as he has long argued that the Air Corps should be divorced from the War Department, which is controlled by land generals. He predicts:

“Post war aviation will play a more important part in Mexico than in any other country. The greater portion of our population is located in hamlets and cities nestled in mountain areas. The majority of these are isolated from one another. The building of highways and railroads is slow and costly, especially so in mountain terrain. Airports can be built quickly and with far less expense. We already have excellent airlines across Mexico, connecting the United States with the Latin Americas, but our future development will be with inter-city transportation.

“The family-size airplane will be instrumental in promoting more good will among the peoples of North America than any one factor. Permanent good will can never be accomplished through the lavish spending of money. To win, establish and cement a true understanding between people of this continent, we must have closer contact. Right now we look upon the airplane as a weapon of destruction, but as soon as the war is over, its role will be one of construction. The distribution of small planes will bring our people together. Flights between the United States, Canada and Mexico will be so common they won’t rate space in the local papers. I look for family-size planes to outnumber the automobiles. It’s the trend of the times. The air age is here.”

“What type of small plane will be most practical?” I asked.

“The helicopter,” the pioneer aviator answered.


“The helicopter will not only be suitable for Mexico, but it will be popular in all countries for business, family and sport use. It is as safe as the family car, and needs but little more room; in fact, a lawn can serve as an airfield. It is really difficult to estimate the value of such a plane for trappers, miners, doctors, prospectors, and for those who wish to visit remote places in the mountains and lake districts.”

“Do Mexicans like to fly?” I asked.

“The people of Mexico are airminded,” General Fierro answered. “Records show that our young men make good aviators. All the air lines in Mexico use Mexican pilots, and I doubt that the commercial lines in any country can boast of better records.”

The diminutive and energetic general, who has 9,000 hours of flying time to his credit, was too modest to tell that it was through his efforts that Mexico was airminded and that the air line pilots who have such excellent records were trained in the Army Air Corps under his personal supervision. Fierro knows every flyer in Mexico. To them he is affectionately known as “The Old Man.”

TO INSURE the youth of Mexico an opportunity to continue their flying instructions during the war, he personally financed an airplane factory which is building inexpensive training planes. His training plane, the Teziutlan, is hand made and is the result of his many years of experience and experimenting. He hopes to build the trainer in such larger numbers that the price can be brought down within the reach of the average wage, earner. After the war, when material is more plentiful, Fierro plans to enlarge his factory and to manufacture an economical plane for family use.

“I got my first experience around motors as a greasemonkey,” he said as we walked through a new wing of his airplane factory in Mexico City. “It was up in El Paso, Texas. I was fifteen years old. Father backed the wrong politico down here, and the entire family had to get out of this country de pronto. All that Mother and Father and us eleven children had when we crossed the bridge into El Paso was what he had on our backs.”

As a boy, Fierro was fascinated by the stories of the Wright Brothers. He read everything that was published about the airship. He made up his mind to be an aviator, though he had yet to see his first airplane. When he did, the aviation world nearly lost an enthusiast. It was after the Fierro family was allowed to return to their native state of Chihuahua that young Roberto got to ride with an American barnstormer. The flight made him deathly sick. As he walked from the airplane with one hand on his forehead and the other on his stomach, he was sure that the literature he had read had greatly exaggerated the simplicity of the airship. He did, not know that the pilot was showing off and had performed the stunts for that purpose.

He joined the Army, studied hard and rose to the rank of captain. When the Mexican government announced they were going to form an air unit under the War Department, Captain Fierro was the first to enroll. It was necessary for him to resign his commission, and start as a private in the school at Mexico City.

“Do you remember your first lesson?” I asked.

“You bet I do. Back in those days we didn’t get the fancy instruction the boys get now. An Italian by the name of Frank Santarini was imported to teach us. When he arrived, he admitted that he had never flown a plane; in fact, he had never been off the ground. He exhibited a fancy looking booklet which gave instructions on how to assemble a plane and fly it.”

“What did you boys do then?” I asked. “We put the plane together and reported each day to the field to listen to Santarini read from the instruction book.” Fierro smiled. “He read to us day after day. Finally he allowed us to start the motor. Weeks later he let us take turns and get into the plane to taxi around the field. One day I thought I’d pull back the throttle and see what would happen. Before I knew it, I was off the ground and I saw the hangar go by. The plane kept climbing higher and higher. Finally I got it to turn, so I circled over the field. As I passed over the hangar, I could see Santarini waving the book as he yelled at me. I surely was wishing I had it with me, as he had never told us how to come down. Each time I dipped at one end of the field to try to land, the other end would flash past. I made a wide circle and headed back. Just before I got to the field I cut off the motor—I knew I’d have to come down.”

“Did you hit the field?”

“Oh boy—and how!” The general smiled. “But I couldn’t get the tail down and I nosed over.”

“What did Santarini do?” I asked.

“After they pulled me out and sent me to the hospital, he sent word he had washed me out because I had bad eyes..."

“Did you injure your eyes?”

“No.” Fierro smiled again. “But Santarini reasoned that, since I didn’t make a three-point landing, there must be something wrong.”

"HOW did you get to fly again?”

Fierro’s smile became a boyish grin. “Well, when I told my doctor, he asured me he’d fix things up. He went to Santarini and agreed that my eyes were esponsible; otherwise it wouldn’t be possible for a student of such a great instructor to crash. The doctor told him that he had discovered special worms in my stomach that affected the eyesight, but now that he had cured me, he felt I should have another chance.”

“Did Santarini agree?” I asked.

“Yes, and in less than a month I was out of the hospital and back on the field listening to Santarini read from the book.” The general chuckled. “And believe me, I waited for the last chapter to be read before I pulled the throttle all the way back the second time.”

Fierro is forty-eight years old and is one of aviation’s old timers—the dean of airmen in Latin America—but he is one of the most modem aviation experts in the present-day flying world.

He has served as chief of the Army Air Corps under two presidents, Manuel Avila Camacho and General Lazaro Cardenas. President Ortis Rubio borrowed him from the Army to head the Civil Aviation Department. General Abelardo Rodriguez, governor of Lower California, and later president, sponsored Fierro’s epic flight in the “Baja California,” which attracted world-wide attention in 1928.

The Mexican government has presented him their highest medals. In addition to these, he has received medals from Cuba, Spain, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and the State of North Dakota.

In 1930 Fierro’s friends throughout the nation purchased a Lockheed monoplane for a non-stop flight from New York to Mexico City. The Mexican flyer knew the fastest route would be a straight flight, which would take him over Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans, across the Gulf of Mexico, Tampico, and to Mexico City. After taking off from New York, the “Anahuac” was not sighted and it was feared he had hit a mountain peak. Thousands of people gathered at the airfield in Mexico City. A spot showed up in the Northeast. The people were tense. As the dark speck enlarged and changed into a white plane, the crowd screamed, “It’s Fierro! Viva Fierro!”

Fourteen and one-half hours after he left New York City, the news wires carried the report that he had landed safely in Mexico City.

In 1935 Fierro headed the Mexican good will flight to the United States. In 1938, when war clouds were gathering over the world, President Cardenas sent him to Japan as a special military attache. But his stay at the Mexican legation was short-lived. He was requested to leave Japan, after he had publicly aired his concern over the Japs’ preparation for imperial expansion.

“I didn’t receive any decorations from the Japanese government,” Fierro said smilingly when asked about his visit. “Upon my arrival, the officials took my guns and military books. They said it was safe in Japan. I was not permitted to visit their airports or airplane factories, nor would they extend to me the courtesies generally given to visiting military attaches. I soon learned they not only disliked but hated the people of Mexico, Canada and the United States.”

Revolutionary outbreaks have played an important part in the adventurous career of the Mexican ace pilot. In 1924 a group of revolutionists started trouble in the state of Tabasco. They hoped to bring on a revolution that would spread across the country and remove General Alvaro Obregon from the presidency. Fierro was ordered to report at Villa Hermosa to make flights over the state to locate the revolutionists. This would mean that he would have to fly across the uncharted jungle of Southeast Mexico. Considering the stage of the airplane s development at that time, this venturesome exploit might well be compared to Blenot's first hop across the English Channel.

HE ROLLED his yellow plane out of the hangar, tightened the strut sires, loaded it with ammunition and gasoline and started the big Liberty engine. He revved the motor and, when it sounded right to his trained ear, called out, “Let’s go!” The mechanics pulled the blocks from the wheels, and the cumbersome DH plane roared across the field. As it took to the air, he pointed the nose southeast-destination Villa Hermosa.

He was soon out of the dangerous mountain country, and thick growth of the unexplored jungle spread out below him like a huge green carpet. Here and there a crooked thread of silver marked the course of some uncharted river, or a bit of mirror-like brightness the position of a small lake-but nowhere a sufficient break in the lush tropical foliage to afford a safe spot for an emergency landing.

“Gosh,” he muttered, “I don’t know how I’d ever get out of this green hell if i had to sit down.”

As if summoned by his thought, a spear of flame shot out from the motor This was it! Now he had no choice; he must come down, and quickly. He decided to give the engine full throttle and try to gain enough elevation to bail out with his parachute.

The fire came at him like a hungry beast; he could feel its hot breath on him No time now to gain altitude. He side-slipped the plane to pull the flames away from him, and made a pancake landing on the leafy roof of the jungle.

While the plane was still swaying on the tree tops, the flames reached some of the ammunition, and the crackle of exploding cartridges reminded him that he was still not out of the woods, in any sense of the phrase. There was considerable ammunition aboard and many gallons of gasoline in the fuel tank. Here his slight stature and wiry the cockpit, leaped to the nearest limb and scrambled down.

As he dropped to the ground, the fuel tanks went up in a burst of fire. He stared mournfully up at the burning craft, less concerned, for the moment, over his desperate plight than he was over the loss of his new plane.

The jungle growth was so thick he walked with difficulty. Matted ferns on the ground clutched at his feet. White-faced monkeys scampered to a safe distance before they stopped to watch his movements and bright colored parrots shrieked at him as they flew from the palms. Large multi-colored butterflies clung to the tall grass.

At last, to his surprise, he stumbled onto a path. Following it, he rounded a turn and came face to face with several heavily armed natives, who promptly surrounded him. The flyer was certain his captors were revolutionists, and reasoned that he’d better play rebel himself.

He got in the first question: “What side are you on?”

“We fight for General Alvaro Obregon,” the leader answered.

The surprised flyer said proudly, “So do I!”

“We think you lie,” the leader said gruffly. “You are a revolutionist. We keel you.”

“But I’m a friend of Presidente Obregon,” Fierro remonstrated. “I fight for him.”

“We keel you,” the sullen leader repeated. “No one on our side has enough money to buy an airship.”

The leader grabbed Fierro’s arm and started down the path. It was useless for the 136-pound flyer to try physical resistance. The leader swung a glistening machete in the air and yelled, “Viva Presidente Obregon! ” As they walked on, he mumbled, “We keel you.”

For several days, while Fierro was kept in a stockade, the unquenchable optimism of this story-book adventurer kept hope alive. But finally he was taken to Puerto Mexico to be executed, as an object lesson to the natives—to show them the dangers of being a revolutionist.

At Puerto Mexico he was placed in jail and guarded closely. An elderly woman brought food to him. He commended her tortillas and tried in every way to ingratiate himself with her. One day he asked whether she could locate an Army officer. Then it seemed all his words of flattery had been wasted. The woman’s bovine eyes looked at him blankly; she turned without replying and left the cell.

Early the next morning Fierro was awakened by men walking outside the jail. A bad omen; they had never come so early before. The leader of the squad grinned sourly as he unlocked the cell and said, “Come on, rebel.”

This was the payoff, Fierro thought, as the group surrounded him and marched him out; the woman had probably told of his request, and it had brought on the crisis. In his mind he could already see the firing squad lining up and hear the sharp crackle of rifle fire in the pink dawn. They reached the patio. There she was, the lady of the tortillas—

His hopes rose sharply; she’d brought an Army officer. Despite Fierro’s weakened condition, his tattered clothes, and the growth of beard which masked his face, the officer recognized him and ordered his release.

IN 1928 Roberto Fierro led a group of twelve planes sent by the president to help General Juan Almazan crush revolutions in Northern Mexico. His first job was to clean out a nest of smugglers bringing in arms and ammunition from the United States, who had headquarters in Canon del Pulpito, a valley near the border.

“The rebels are going to march on Chihuahua City before the Federal troops arrive,” General Almazan told Fierro. “They are headquartering at Jiminez and they have a lot of ammunition stored there.”

“If Chihuahua City falls, they’ll control the entire state,” Fierro reasoned.

“That’s correct,” General Almazan agreed. “Now is your chance to prove your contentions—to show what airplanes can do.”

This indeed was the chance Fierro had waited for. Like our own Billy Mitchell, he had long advocated the airplane as an effective combat weapon—not merely a vehicle for scouting—but at every meeting before the War Department his pleas had been overruled by infantry generals.

He left the adobe hut which General Almazan used for his headquarters and hurried to where the planes were parked. His men began mounting machine guns on the planes and packing away home-made bombs to be dropped by hand.

Their target was a large building at the edge of Jiminez where the revolutionists had their ammunition stored. As soon as the first plane was equipped, it took off on its mission. On its return, the pilot reported that their bombs had done little damage because the rebels’ rifle fire had made them fly too high for accuracy. Bullet holes in the plane proved his statements. Plane after plane went out and came back with the same report.

Then Fierro began to load his own ship, and the aviators knew from the look on their chief’s face that he intended to make this a fight to the finish. His smile was gone and deep lines creased his face.

An extra box of bombs was tied onto one wing.

As the motor was being warmed up, Fierro said to his observer, “Captain Valle, you don’t have to go. I can handle it alone."

Captain Valle swung his leg over the cockpit, dropped down into the seat and grinned. “I just want to go for the ride.”

The runway had been recently cleared of mesquite bushes and cacti, but it was rough. As Fierro taxied to the far end, the overloaded plane wabbled like a crippled bird, the wing tips almost touching the ground. Fierro swung the plane around, stopped momentarily to rev his motor, then gave it full throttle. The watches held their breath as it came bouncing and careening down the field, fearful that each bump would explode the bomb load. They let out a sigh of relief as the wheels left the ground.

“THERE it is,” Fierro shouted, and pointed down at a building. “Let ’em have it! ” He circled over their objective and Valle dropped bombs. When Fierro saw they were not hitting the building, he called to Valle, “We’re too high.”

“Like hell!” Valle yelled back, and pointed out a bullet hole in the wing. That bullet had grazed the box of bombs. “We’re too low."

Fierro ignored the comment, made a wide circle and shot down to a lower level. Now they could plainly see the revolutionists shooting at them. Bullets spatted against the motor. A sudden spray of lubricating oil started blowing back into their faces.

“They’ve hit the oil line,” Fierro said.

“That’ll put us out of commission,” Valle answered.

Fierro banked the plane. Let's try once more,” he said.

Valle climbed out of the cockpit onto the wing and untied the box of bombs. He slid it over to the edge of the wing and braced himself against the strut.

Fierro pulled the nose of the plane up until it stalled. “Let it go!” he yelled.

Valle gave the box of bombs a shove, then started to climb back into the cockpit. Fierro dropped the nose, banked the plane, and gave the motor as much throttle as he dared. As the plane lurched upward, there was a terrific explosion. Fierro and Valle looked back. Where the building had stood, there was now a cloud of dust and flying debris.

“Can we make home?” Valle asked.

“Not this time,” Fierro answered.

The two flyers knew they would be killed immediately if they landed among the rebels. Fierro continued to nurse the motor, trying to get back into the country as far as possible.

“Here’s where we land,” he said as the motor squeaked and the propeller stopped. He put the plane into a glide, and skillfully maneuvered it to a safe landing.

“Good work,” Valle said as he jumped to the ground.

“We must get out of here—and quick,” Fierro said. “Let’s hit for the hills.”

The day had been extremely hot. They did not travel that night, fearing the rebels were searching for them. With bleeding fingers they clawed a hole in the ground among the bushes, and crawled into it.

The next morning they could see small groups of armed men out over the valley searching for them. Their lips were swollen and their throats raw from lack of water and from chewing roots, leaves and bark. The desert heat was driving them mad. Fierro knew they must make an effort to escape while they still had strength.

They pushed on. One evening they came to the hut of an old peon couple, who gave them food, clothing and shelter. When they regained their strength the peon outfitted them with burros and they passed through the lines of the revolutionists disguised as tattered wood peddlers.

AFTER the success Fierro had in blowing up the revolutionists’ headquarters in Jiminez and thwarting a march on Chihuahua City, General Almazan openly declared himself in favor of a large air corps. Fierro was given another assignment. He was ordered to help clean out Casas Grandes, a political hot spot where disgruntled leaders were trying to incite the people to revolt against the government.

General Almazan planned to have the infantry and Fierro’s flyers arrive together for a surprise attack. When the airplanes arrived, they could not see their own troops or any signs of revolutionists. They circled low over the town and when no one came out to shoot at them, Fierro told his observers, "Guess there can't be any revolutionists here."

Fierro wabbled his wings to indicate they were to land. He selected a level strip at the edge of the city for an airfield. One by one the-planes laned and taxied up into a line. As the propeller on the last airplane stopped, the aviators heard shouting and shooting at a distance. From some hidden place hundreds of armed men mounted on horses appeared and were charging toward them. The aviators jumped into their planes and cut loose with the machine guns. The startled leader of the revolutionists called his men to a sudden halt. Several men gathered around him, remaining on their horses. Presently one of them left the rebel group and rode toward the planes alone, carrying a white shirt on his rifle. It was the first time in the history of the world that airplanes had captured a town.

When an aviator turns politician, that’s news. This experience was thrust upon the colorful bantam flyer by a presidential order. It was during the era when many states in Mexico were having political trouble. Fierro’s native state, Chihuahua, was among them. They had eleven governors in four years. As fast as one faction put a man in office, another would kill him or run him out of the country. President Rubio did not like such publicity under his administration, and noticed the Chihuahua Congress that he was sending Roberto Fierro to take over the governorship.

A none too enthusiastic Fierro flew to Chihuahua City to take the governor's chair. He knew his job would be extremely dangerous. He found he not only had the people and State Congress to satisfy, but several political factions as well. In typical Fiero fashion, he chose to satisfy the common people. At the expiration of five months he wired the President:

"I have broken the record. Everything is peaceful. May I return to flying?"

When the people of the state heard he planned to leave, they threatened to have another revolution. It was eight months before the State Congress would allow him to go.

AVIATION experts agree there is no better mechanic in Mexico than Roberto Fierro. Even to this day, despite his high rank, he delights in working at the bench and does the work on his private plane. As his wife smilingly expressed it, “There’s no one in Mexico who can get as greasy as he does.”

“He’s still just like a boy,” his 95-year-old father added.

“Are you going to allow your young son to fly?” I asked the general as he stopped to help a mechanic adjust a propeller.

“Why not?” he answered as he whirled around to go to the defense of aviation. “I can’t think of any vocation that has a better future. Nor one that is any safer.” He wiped some grease from his hands, his eyes beamed and a smile came to his lips. “Thank goodness, the kids now have better equipment—and better instruction-than I had when I started.”


FOR many months the Navy has been working on a system whereby they can reduce the time wasted by sea-plane patrols as they wait to be refueled by the airplane tenders. Since the tender can only handle e few planes at a. time, the lost minutes often mount up and this may be just enough to enable a submarine to get away.

A possible solution to the problem may be found in the invention of Commanders Paul E. Pihl and Charles F. Coe, officers in the United States Navy. The device is called a gasoline bubble and is protected by patent 2,287,824. The device consists of a waterproofed fabric bag that will float in water even when full of gasoline since the gasoline has a specific gravity less than the salt water.

Whenever the number of planes waiting to he refueled exceeded the number that the tender could service, the crew of the tender would throw the gas-filled bags onto the water. The plane crews could then fish them out and get their tanks refilled self-service style. The balloons are all equipped with secret anchors that prevent drifting away from the tender. Each bag also contains a flash of carbon dioxide gas which the plane crew releases into the bag as the gas is poured into the tank. The carbon dioxide has speeds up the refueling process and then keeps the bag afloat until the tender crew gets around to picking them out of the water.

Earl Herbert