De Pinedo Savoia-Marchetti S-55 Santa Maria
First Albuquerque Visit: 1927
Italian Air Force Colonel Francesco De Pinedo planned a flight around the world during the winter of 1926-27. The aviator would be flying a Savoia-Marchetti S-55 sea plane named the “Santa Maria”, after one of the Christopher Columbus ships.
Colonel De Pinedo and his three member crew consisting of co-pilot and meteorologist Captain Carlo Del Prete and mechanic Lt. Vitale Zacchetti, left Italy at the end of March 1927. With his dedicated crew, De Pinedo attempted Italy’s first flight around the world.
De Pinedo’s planned flight to four continents first took him to North Africa and then across the Atlantic Ocean to the Amazon Basin and then on to Colombia. From there the Santa Maria flew across the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans, Louisiana. After departing New Orleans, De Pinedo then flew across Texas and into the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. The Santa Maria landed on Elephant Butte Lake in southern New Mexico on April 5, 1927 at 3:15 in the afternoon local time.
The Savoia-Marchetti S-55 was a mono-wing seaplane with two engines, one pusher and one puller. The Franchini water-cooled engines gave the airplane the capability to lift a large amount of weight at sea level but this performance created a serious problem for De Pinedo when he landed at Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico due to the lakes much higher elevation.
While in New Mexico, De Pinedo, as a world famous aviator, presented one of the Santa Maria’s damaged propellers to Albuquerque resident, Ettore Franchini, on April 5, 1927, in Hot Springs, New Mexico. Mr. Franchini, a representative of the local Italian Colony known as the Colombo Society, dedicated to preserving the history of Christopher Columbus, was part of the Italian contingent welcoming De Pinedo to New Mexico.
The following morning, April 6, 1927, De Pinedo attempted to take off from Elephant Butte Lake but before he could become airborne the crew was forced to remove 250 gallons of fuel along with tools and spare parts. Once airborne, the plan was to fly to Roosevelt Lake in Arizona for refueling and then on to San Diego, California.
Colonel De Pinedo and his crew arrived at Roosevelt Lake about 11:50 a.m. on April 6, 1927. By 12:15 in the afternoon, the aircraft was totally consumed by a fire that began during refueling. It is believe a cigarette was the cause of the fire that destroyed De Pinedo’s airplane and it sank below the surface of the lake within a few minutes. Italy’s plan of having the first aviation team to fly around the world was over.
The Franchini engines of De Pinedo’s plane were recovered from the bottom of Roosevelt Lake on April 19, 1927 by members of the Christopher Columbus Society out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The recovery team was led by three men, Ettore Franchini, Tom Domenici and Pete Vichi of Albuquerque and an Arizonian diver named Charles Granger among others. The team recovered the engines from forty feet of water at Roosevelt Lake and the engines were eventually shipped to back to Italy.
Colonel De Pinedo had previously been presented the Grand Gold Medal by the Royal Geographic Society for his accomplishments in aviation. After World War II, Ettore Franchini was awarded a gold medal by the Italian government for his effort in returning the engines to Italy and the engines eventually were used for a memorial to the De Pinedo flight around world that terminated at Roosevelt Lake.
General Francesco de Pinedo was killed on September 2, 1933 in a fiery plane crash at the Floyd Bennett Field in New York while taking off for a non-stop flight from New York to Bagdad.
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