In spring 1919, three years after the terrible war in Europe, the fledgling aeronautical industry began producing innovative and excellent aeroplanes. The signing of the armistice opened up the gates to peace, bringing with it a historical milestone in the development of commercial air transport.
In 1919, the heroic flight of Aviation pioneer Pierre Latécoère, along with a number of other coincidental events, located and inaugurated Malaga Airport.
Pierre Latécoère was a businessman from Toulouse who had inherited an old family workshop. The factory formerly produced railway parts, but had also offered its aeronautical ingenuity to the French army during the Great War. Pierre, however, had his own dream and it was not of war, but rather of connecting France and South America via an airline. He was already determined to link Toulouse with Casablanca (capital of the French protectorate of Morocco) before he even arrived in Santiago, Chile. The distance between the two cities was just over 1850 km. His aircraft with wings made of fabric and a single engine had a flight range of just 500 km. Therefore, the flight had to be divided into several stages and Malaga was chosen to be one of the stops.
Latécoère was a man of action. Frustrated by the administrative red-tape holding the project back, he decided to go ahead without the support of the French government. He had already obtained permission to fly across Spain from King Alfonso XIII and he also had the financial support of an Italian aristocrat friend. With his mind made up, Pierre set out to fly to Casablanca by his own means in order to get the backing of General Lyautey, the Governor General of the Protectorate of Morocco.
He and his team had already faced failure. During the first test one of his planes had crashed in Barcelona due to a propeller fault; another had damaged its landing gear in Alicante. Misunderstandings caused by rainfall during the preparative stages had led to runways not being properly built. Nevertheless, Latécoère was determined to reach Casablanca and decided to send one of his pilots to Malaga to ensure the condition of the runway, as he did not wish to run any unnecessary risks. At the same time, he took a train to Toulouse to perform tests on a new aircraft.
On March 8, 1919, five days after the accidents in Barcelona and Alicante, Latécoère and his pilot took off once again from Montaudran Airport in Toulouse. The flight to Barcelona went smoothly, landing just two hours later. After refilling both the fuel tank and feeding themselves, they continued on their journey to Alicante where they were warmly received just less than three hours later. That same afternoon, they attempted to repair one of the damaged aircraft, but were unable to do so. Despite his companions’ insistence to give up, Latécoère followed his instinct and decided to continue his adventure with a single aircraft. He sent a telegram to Malaga to announce that they would arrive the next day.
On the morning of March 9, 1919, Latécoère observed the sky with some concern. The forecast for very bad weather conditions did not bode well. “What should we do?”, he asked his pilot. Both looked at each other in silence. The pilot then pulled on his leather gloves and replied, “Malaga awaits us”. A few minutes later, the roar of the engine drowned out the murmurs of the Spanish civil servants, French technicians, and curious onlookers; the plane then took off and disappeared into the clouds.
Once in the air, Latécoère’s fears were confirmed. Raindrops from a heavy storm only a few kilometres from Murcia began to beat down violently on the aircraft’s fragile fabric wings. If the rain turned into hail it would put more holes in them than his father’s favourite cheese. He signalled to the pilot, “What should we do? Turn back or carry on?” Turning back meant defeat, but continuing on implied ascending through the clouds to fly over them. The decision was not easy.
In 1919, there were no tools to aid navigation. Pilots followed the geographical reference points located on land. Since leaving Toulouse they had followed rivers and the French and Spanish coast lines, and ascending through the clouds would put them between the clouds and all points of reference. A precise navigation to Malaga would therefore be impossible. They could even end up flying out to sea, perhaps by a hundred kilometres before realizing, too late, that they were out of fuel and with no chances of help, with the cold waters of the Mediterranean their only destination.
Furthermore, to manoeuvre through the cloud layer posed an even greater danger. Firstly because they were unaware of its thickness, and secondly because it would be a miracle if they managed to keep the aircraft in a horizontal position as they passed through the clouds. Subjected to the force of the wind and the aircraft’s inertia they could easily become disoriented in the fog. They could end up upside down without even realizing it. Any attempt to fly without visual references was tantamount to suicide. Nevertheless the pilot, without even replying to his boss, revved the engine; they had to cross the dense layer of low clouds at any price.
Meanwhile, aviation enthusiasts and onlookers were already waiting at the makeshift airstrip located in La Misericordia, near the port of Malaga. A telegram had confirmed the departure of the flight from Alicante shortly after half past seven, but the delay of the aircraft was not expected; it should have landed in Malaga over half an hour earlier. In a few minutes it would be three hours since they had set off, and there was only sufficient fuel for a flight of just over three hours and fifteen minutes. All eyes were fixed on Mount Gibralfaro but there was nothing to see; not a single sign of movement.
Not far away, Latécoère was signalling to the pilot. He had managed to make out something on the ground through the clouds. It looked like the port of a large city; it had to be Malaga. They breathed a sigh of relief; they only had enough fuel for little more than ten minutes of flight. Taking the plane down, they started circling the area which their colleague had previously chosen for landing. On the ground dozens of men and women watched them with a mixture of relief and anguish. After a few reconnaissance laps, the pilot decided against landing. The track had too many pools of water due to rain the night before. After similar problems with landings in Barcelona and Alicante, he was taking no chances. A few hundred metres to the west, the pilot spotted a fallow field near the town of Churriana, which offered a safer spot to land. “We’re heading there!”, he thought.
At that very moment the plane’s engine began to fail. They watched the needle on the fuel tank drop to almost empty, leaving them with only a minute or two, at best, but no more. They had to make a decision … and fast!
Without hesitating the pilot took the controls and directed the plane towards the safer ground, but the plane descended too quickly, hit the ground, and bounced like a stone thrown up and down by its own weight: once, twice, and then on the third bounce they managed to steer the plane onto an uneven terrain which made them lurch as if they were cowboys riding wild horses. Shortly thereafter the machine stopped. On March 9, 1919 at half past ten, they had landed on the grounds of the Cortijo del Rompedizo.
Without even knowing it they had just inaugurated the Malaga Airport; their last minute decision had chosen the site where the future airfield would be built.
Note: On 9th March at one o’clock in the afternoon, the plane took off from Malaga, heading to Rabat and Casablanca and arriving on the same day. On 12th March, on the return trip, the plane had planned to land on La Misericordia beach in Malaga, but again the instability of the land and simple prudence led them to decide for the countryside around El Rompedizo. That same afternoon, Mr Latécoère negotiated the rental of the land from the owner, Félix Assiego, for 7,000 pesetas (42 euros) per year, with the intention of building the aerodrome there.