Historic Key West-Cuba flight back in spotlight

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Domingo Rosillo del Toro, Wright Brothers, and the Key West to Havana flight, a report by Ken Kaye of The Sun Sentinel.

It was a time when aviation was in its earliest stages, when it took guts just get in a plane, let alone fly over 90 miles of open water.

But tempted by a competition with $10,000 in prize money, Domingo Rosillo del Toro steeled his courage on May 17, 1913 and took off from Key West to Cuba. He was accompanied by a monkey, handed to him at the last minute as a good luck charm.

While little is known about the monkey, the good luck part worked. Rosilllo flew two hours and eight minutes before landing his monoplane on a patch of grass near Havana. He was greeted by 50,000 Cubans and hailed as a hero.

Less than 10 years earlier, the Wright Brothers had made the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Rosillo’s act of daring made him the first pilot to fly from the United States to Cuba and set a world record for distance over water. It also made him to first to deliver international air mail, when the mayor of Key West gave him some letters to take over.

“Flying was his whole life,” said his son, Albert Pauls Rosillo, 87, a retired Miami attorney, who, unlike his father, never wanted to be an aviator. “He was adventurous.”

In honor of the 100th anniversary of that flight, a celebration will be held May 17 in Key West, with Monroe County officials and the Rosillo family in attendance. A second ceremony is to be held at Miami International Airport on May 20, when a plaque in Rosillo’s honor will be placed on the same Concourse E wall where plaques commemorate Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart.

At the time Domingo Rosillo attempted the flight, Woodrow Wilson was president and automobiles still resembled horse carriages. Flying over a long stretch of open ocean was a particularly daunting proposition. French aviator Louis Bleriot held the record for the longest water crossing — a 21-mile trip over the English Channel in 1909.

Rosillo’s plane, a Morane-Saulnier, had an open cockpit, weighed less than 1,000 pounds and had a puttering 80 horse-power engine. He had only a small compass for direction and no flotation device to protect him in case his plane went down in the water.

Rosillo’s motivation: after graduating from an aeronautical school in Paris in 1912, the 34-year-old yearned to fly to Cuba, where his parents lived. He decided to give it a try when the City of Havana sponsored a competition to fly across the Florida Straits.

Initially, Rosillo was pitted against a pilot who then pulled out. So he attempted the journey alone on a day when the weather was iffy and the winds swirly. Someone handed him the monkey in Key West to serve as copilot.

Because Rosillo took over the Key West mayor’s letters, he became “the first air mail pilot between the two nations,” said Sebastian del Marmol, a family friend.

Lumbering along not much faster than 40 mph, it took Domingo Rosillo more than two hours to complete a flight that today would take a jetliner about twenty minutes. Then again, today most charter flights to Cuba are made from Miami, with tight travel restrictions.

By the time Rosillo set down on the outskirts of Havana, he was out of fuel and his engine was overheated. Still, the flight landed him a place in history. Military guns sounded at the nearby Havana Fortress to celebrate his arrival.

“It was an epic hard flight,” Albert Rosillo said of his late father. “He was a pioneer.”

For the original report go to http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/broward/fl-key-west-cuba-flight-20130516,0,1305042.story

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