View online edition


Tempting Fate

Emilio Carranza’s last flight—and his life—ended in the Pine Barrens.

by Vince Farinaccio

The report from the Weather Bureau that arrived early on the morning of July 12, 1928 at New York’s Roosevelt Field identified that the day would be partly cloudy to cloudy with variable winds at higher altitudes all the way from New York to New Orleans and with the threat of local thunderstorms throughout. Conditions from New Orleans to Mexico City were better.

Weather had been the deterrent for Captain Emilio Carranza’s return trip to Mexico for over a week. Since July 3, the 22-year-old aviator was forced to continually postpone his flight from New York, where he had completed a goodwill mission that had taken him to Washington, DC and the Big Apple. Weather was the primary concern for nearly everyone except the pilot around 7:18 p.m. on July 12 when he lifted off from Roosevelt Field in the midst of a storm and against the advice of the airfield’s crew as well as his friend and fellow aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Carranza’s flight plan had him passing over Philadelphia; Washington; Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina; New Orleans; Galveston, Texas; and Tampico, Mexico. But his trajectory also included New Jersey, sections of which would be pummeled by the predicted thunderstorms.

The New York Times identified that a plane that might have been Carranza’s had considered landing at Trenton Airport due to harsh weather conditions, circling the runway but soon veering off in a southerly direction.

Over the next half hour, Carranza encountered the fiercest part of the storm somewhere over the South Jersey Pinelands outside of Tabernacle, where his journey home would end.

A resident of the area, J.C. Holloway, told the New York Times the next day that he heard a plane, which he assessed was having engine problems, flying low over his home at approximately 9:30 p.m. on July 12. The aircraft headed west but returned 10 to 15 minutes later. Shortly afterward, Holloway said he heard an explosion. That sound emanated from a clearing amid a dense section of woods about a mile-and-a-half away.

Around 3 p.m. the following day, John Henry Carr, a nearby resident, arrived in that section of woods to pick berries. Noticing splintered wood in the area, he followed the trail. He told the New York Times that he came upon one of the plane’s wings before discovering the body of Carranza. In the clearing, approximately 120 feet further, was the plane’s fuselage and motor lodged in the ground. Beyond them was the other wing of the plane.

Two theories as to what had happened were quickly proposed. Local police posited that the plane had been struck by lightning, their belief based on the charring of Carranza’s jacket and one wing of the plane.

But a military examination of the wreckage determined that the plane had crashed while its pilot attempted to land in order to escape the storm and was blocked by trees. The latter theory prevailed. It was also thought that Carranza probably had leaped from the plane before it crashed.

The aviator’s predicament over the South Jersey Pinelands may have begun at Roosevelt Field. Mechanics at the airfield interviewed by the New York Times said they believed the aircraft “was weakened by the intense strain of getting off the wet field with its heavy load of gasoline” necessary to travel the 2,400-mile distance.

Carranza’s body had been taken to Mt. Holly, where police contacted the Mexican Embassy in Washington. Arrangements were soon made for the body to be transported to the Mexican Consulate in New York.

One of the items found in the pockets of Carranza’s flight jacket was a letter that had arrived just before the aviator’s departure from New York. It was from his superior officer in the Mexican Army and, translated into English, it reads, “Leave immediately without excuse or pretext, or the quality of your manhood will be in doubt.”

Next Week: A Monument

Jersey Reflections