In mid-1935, a small airline named “Servicio Aéreo Colombiano” or SACO, was furiously struggling to challenge the mother of all airlines in Colombia, a giant named “Sociedad Colombo Alemana de Transportes Aéreos” or SCADTA, the true forerunner of the current Avianca.
Founded by Cpt. Ernesto Samper Mendoza in 1933, SACO was equipped with two Ford Tri-motors that were operated on a rather small route network which serviced Colombia’s three largest and most important cities: Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. SCADTA, on the other hand, also operated the faithful Fords that were being provided by another giant: Pan American Airways, the business partner of the huge Colombian Airline. SCADTA’s Fords, together with several other aircraft types in the airline’s inventory, covered almost all the Colombian geography on a complex route network, unlike that of SACO.
During that year, the two airlines were playing the proverbial roles of David and Goliath, with Samper Mendoza proving that he was more than prepared to meet the challenge. Fate, nonetheless, would get in his way towards building a great airline.
On June 24th, 1935, a SACO’s Ford 5-AT-B, Colombian registration F-31, took off from Tacho airfield in Bogotá and headed to Medellin, where it was going to be refueled before continuing to Cali, its final destination. The plane was being piloted by Cpt. Stanley Harvey and on board were eight passengers. The time of take off was recorded as 12:45 and less than two hours later, the F-31 landed safely at Las Playas airfield in Medellin, where the passengers deplaned and went inside the terminal for lunch while the Ford was being serviced and refueled. Around three o’clock, the eight passengers were invited to get on board once again, while Cpt. Samper Mendoza ordered Cpt. Harvey to remain in place since he wanted to fly the next leg of the flight.
As the SACO’s Ford rolled down to the head of the runway, another Ford, operated by SCADTA and christened “Manizales”, began to taxi towards the other end of the runway and upon reaching the edge of it, was ordered to hold short while the F-31 was taking off. After an engines check, Cpt. Samper Mendoza began the take off roll managing to rotate the plane in less than 450 meters. It was then when a strong cross wind coming form behind made the F-31 turn slightly to the left. Cpt. Samper corrected the deviation by applying right rudder, and as he was doing so, the plane bumped on a rut and went out of control, turning 25 degrees to the right, directly towards the SCADTA’s Ford on the other end of the Runway. A couple of seconds later, while Cpt. Samper Mendoza was trying desperately to get the F-31 off the ground by pulling the control wheel all the way back, both Fords collided head on. At the time of impact, the main landing gear of the F-31 was one meter high with the tail wheel still on the ground. After the collision, both Fords exploded in flames. A total of seventeen people died during the accident, with only three survivors on the F-31 and none in the Manizales.
The passengers on the F-31 were Carlos Gardel, the foremost representative of the Argentinean Tango and a beloved figure throughout Latin America, even to this day. With him were Alfredo Le Pera, Gardel’s lyricist; José Plajas, Gardel’s English teacher; José Corpas Moreno, Gardel’s personal secretary; Alfonso Azaff, Gardel’s light technician and Gardel’s guitar men, Guillermo Desiderio Barbieri, Ángel Domingo Riverol and José María Aguilar. Of them only Aguilar, Plajas and Samper’s copilot survived. However, for the Argentineans, it was on that fatidic day that the music really died.
After the accident, it was rumored that it had been the result of Cpt. Samper’s daredevilry, since it was said that he had attempted to make a low pass over the Manizales right after taking off. The fact-finding investigation that followed determined that the cross wind and the sorry state of the runway had been the principal causes for the loss of control suffered by the F-31, which Cpt. Samper wasn’t able to correct on time. The Ford 5-AT-B’s max take off weight was 6,237Kg and according to the investigation, the load on the F-31 that day was 6,185Kg., that is, 55Kg below the maximum. At the time of impact the F-31’s speed was 140Km/h and the plane was trimmed for the nose-down position. All in all, the F-31 was within safe parameters when taking off.
The accident marked SACO for life. Two years later its fleet was augmented with two Curtiss T-32C Condors and even later on, in 1939, with two Lockheed 10-E Electras. But it was all for naught, since the airline was absorbed by the giant Avianca the following year, with all its assets passing to such airline, including aircraft. In the end, the Colombian Goliath, the SCADTA, had won the battle, and it only took a crash for doing so. A crash on which the “Zorzal Criollo” (as Gardel was known throughout Latin America) died, leaving the Tango without its most famous voice.
By Mario E. Overall