The Italian military seaplane disaster that rocked Roosevelt Lake
April 6, 1927, held the promise of an epic day. A famous Italian aviator was to make the first known landing of a seaplane in Arizona, with a refueling stop at Theodore Roosevelt Lake, as the craft made its way to the West Coast.
The stopover was part of a promotional tour by the Italian government of Benito Mussolini, a fascist dictator who wanted to showcase his country’s military prowess.
He chose Francesco de Pinedo (pictured at right, via Library of Congress) as one of his champions. De Pinedo, commandant of the Italian air force, had recorded what was, at the time, aviation’s longest journey. His 34,000-mile epic trek in 1925 through the Mideast, India, Australia and the Pacific Rim made him a world-renowned aviator.
In 1927, Mussolini sent de Pinedo on an aerial tour of Europe, Africa, South America and finally the United States. De Pinedo began his trek Feb. 13 – in a custom flying boat named the Santa Maria in honor of Christopher Columbus’ flagship – and his U.S. route included stops at New Orleans, Galveston, Lake Medina near San Antonio and Elephant Butte Lake in southern New Mexico.
The seaplane would be landing for a pit stop on Roosevelt Lake – the world’s largest manmade lake – created by the world’s largest masonry dam: Theodore Roosevelt Dam.
Disaster and suspicion
The seaplane landed shortly before noon. Minutes later, the plane ignited and a great wall of flames and rolling plumes of black smoke engulfed the craft. A stunned crowd watched as a historic event turned into smoldering ruins.
Some of the crowd said they saw a young man fleeing the area shortly after the fire started. Speculation ran rampant, not only at the site of the calamity but also across the nation and in Europe. In Italy, the tragedy was initially interpreted as a plot to discredit Mussolini. The Italian cabinet, all drawn from Mussolini’s Fascist party, demanded revenge.
To help defuse the situation, U.S. Assistant Secretary of War Arthur Davidson sent a telegraph to de Pinedo offering sympathy and U.S. Army resources, including an airplane, to help complete the tour of the United States.
Eventually eyewitnesses and the work of an Arizona Republican newspaper reporter verified the disaster wasn’t a sinister pan-global plot but rather the result of a careless mistake. An 18-year-old boat tender admitted that he flicked a lit cigarette into the water during refueling, unaware of the pool of gasoline floating toward him on the surface. A gracious de Pinedo reportedly would later meet with the young man and forgive his carelessness.
The aviator and his crew were transported by the U.S. government back to New York, where a new plane from the Italian air force awaited de Pinedo. Though his excursion ended prematurely, de Pinedo still covered 16,000 miles. This was only one month before Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, a jaunt of 3,600 miles.
De Pinedo continued to barnstorm and undertake trans-global voyages on behalf of Italy until Sept. 2, 1933, when he was killed in a plane crash in New York while taking off to fly nonstop to Baghdad.