Adventure on the Air
On June 19, 1919, Barranquilla's sky seemed to tremble. It was the first time the city's 65,000 residents saw a metal contraption that could fly. Some people thought the end of the world was near. But the noisy machine that crossed the sky—leaving cloud dusts in its trail, taking away the coolness of the five o'clock hour and causing a commotion in the city—didn't signal the end of the world. It was a Curtiss Standard biplane that landed in nearby Puerto Colombia carrying a sack with 164 letters, piloted by William Knox Martin, "The Intrepid American."
Barranquilla had thus witnessed the first airmail flight in the history of Colombian aviation.
This wasn't so unusual in a city that by the mid-19th century became the country's first ocean and river port, despite not having its foundation officially registered in history. On the shores of the Magdalena River and the Caribbean Sea, Barranquilla welcomed immigrants from the Middle East, Italy, France, Germany, China and Japan—and thanks to the popularity of steamboat transportation, also thousands of immigrants from other Colombian cities. Once a dock was built in Puerto Colombia in the late 19th century, everything seemed to fall into place.
The city wasn't just a stopover for merchandise entering and leaving the country, but a melting pot for cultures from around the world. Despite having streets made from yellow dust that would get blown around by the wind from the river, by 1905 Barranquilla already had more than 38,000 residents. The city was founded not by one hero who made it into the history books, but by multiple anonymous people with individual success stories.
One of those stories, among so many adventures related to Barranquilla's beginning, was that of aviation. William Knox Martin, known as "The Intrepid American" because of his aerial stunts, was exactly that: an adventurer. It's said that in 1915, he was hired by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata to support the Mexican Revolution from the air; that he trained pilots for Sun Yat-sen's Chinese revolutionary movement; and that he fought for the U.S. Marines during World War I. The arrival in Barranquilla of this sort of tropical Indiana Jones could not go unnoticed.
The co-pilot of the Curtiss Standard that Knox flew on that afternoon in 1919 was a young entrepreneur from Barranquilla, Mario Santodomingo. This flight sought to tout the advantages of using airplanes for mail transport, thus drastically reducing the delivery time for letters. Martin was in talks with representatives of the Colombian government to turn the demo into an enterprise, and Santodomingo was one of the potential investors. Despite the success of that first mail delivery, the business didn't take flight; the government didn't invest and Mario Santodomingo chose to invest in a brewery instead.
However, the sound of the engines of the Curtiss Standard was already etched like a scar in Barranquilla's sky, and attracted the attention of eight entrepreneurs. The deal that would lead to the creation of the Sociedad Colombo-Alemana de Transportes Aéreos (SCADTA) was sealed in the Hotel Victoria, one of the city's first hotels—close to the wide, dusty Camellón Abello (today's Paseo Bolívar), an avenue where the Barranquilleros of the time would stroll wearing liquiliquis and straw boater hats. It was a meeting place for patriarchs, poets and musicians who turned the Camellón into the city's busiest artery and the center of many public events, like Holy Week processions, elections, military parades and carnival parties.
SCADTA's initial investors were eight businessmen—Alberto Tietjen, Ernesto Cortissoz, Rafael María Palacio, Cristóbal Restrepo J., Stuart Hosie, Werner Kaemmerer, Jacobo A. Correa and Aristides Noguera—each of whom invested 100 pesos to create the company. On Dec. 5, 1919, before the Second Notary Public of the Circuit of Barranquilla, they officially set up the continent's first airline.
A few days later, the new company's capital increased to 100,000 pesos thanks to contributions by investors from Barranquilla, Bogotá and Medellín. But since an airline is made on the air, the new businessmen sought the necessary contacts to fulfill the second of its articles of incorporation: "commercial exploitation through hydroplanes or any other device appropriate for air transport." First, they brought two F-13 airplanes from Germany designed by Professor Hugo Junkers. The aircraft arrived in Puerto Colombia by ship in April 1920. They came in two huge boxes accompanied by floating devices and landing gear.
Technicians brought from Germany put together the aircraft, following the manufacturer's instructions. The first test flights included the area of Veranillo, Puerto Colombia and the surroundings, and the weight limit for cargo was 220 pounds. SCADTA's first commercial flight took place in September 1920; Fritz Hammer was the pilot, Wilhem Schnurrbush the mechanic and interpreter, and Stuart Hosie, one of the partners, the first passenger.
SCADTA also contributed to the growth of the city. In the 1920s, Barranquilla started to develop and progress. The aqueduct was enlarged and streetlights were installed; thus, the walks and social gatherings in Camellón Abello, back then known as Paseo Colón, would last into the night.
Herbert Boy, a company pilot, described in detail the ambience of the restless Barranquilla of those years: "In the docks, the noise made by the stallholders, representatives of Barranquilla's hotels and the tropical fruit vendors would deafen you like nothing I had ever seen. Naked black children looked at me inquiringly with their big eyes round and white, stretching out a hand […]. The sun was high up in the blue sky when we entered the station in Barranquilla. In a dilapidated carriage, drawn by a sweaty old horse, we went to the British Pension. Whirls of sand that lashed my face and left large yellow stains on my shirt would come up from the streets. The streets were dry channels carved in the yellow dust and the sidewalks were so high that it was difficult to climb up on them at the intersections." [From: Andrés Salcedo; Barrio Abajo, el barrio de donde somos todos; Editorial La Iguana Ciega, 2008.]
Slowly, SCADTA started up water-based operations along the Magdalena River, in Calamar, Zambrano, Plato, Magangué, Mompox, El Banco, Gamarra, Puerto Wilches, La Dorada, Barranca, Puerto Berrío and Girardot, from where people could get to Bogotá by train. In 1928, the airline began its first international routes. That same year, for the first time in the history of international commercial aviation, an aircraft crossed the equator: the hydroplane Boyacá, piloted by Col. Herbert Boy, our amazed narrator.
Led by Eduardo Santos Montejo and due to the world's new political and economic situation, SCADTA would merge with another company, Servicio Aéreo Colombiano (Saco), and continue offering services under the name Aerovías Nacionales de Colombia (Avianca). In 1939, the budding Avianca shared the condor logo that identified SCADTA during its 20 years of operation. As a tribute to the same spirit and drive with which it began by transporting 164 letters from Barranquilla to Puerto Colombia, today the airline is still Colombia's proud flag carrier in the world's skies.
The author received a bachelor's degree in education from the Universidad del Atlántico in 1997. An officer of the Archivo Histórico del Atlántico for 18 years, he's a historian of his native Puerto Colombia. He's currently the processing coordinator of the Archivo Histórico del Atlántico and responsible for the Preventive Conservation Workshop.