On September 25, 1912, Alberto Salinas Carranza and Gustavo Salinas Camiña received their pilot licenses from the Aero Club of America. The Salinas cousins were the first of a group of five Mexican pilots sent by their government to the United States to study at the Moisant Aviation School at Hempstead, Long Island. Horacio Ruiz and brothers Juan Pablo and Eduardo Aldasoro would soon earn their licenses as well. The photographs and correspondence found in the collection of Shakir S. Jerwan, their “profesor,” provide a unique glimpse into the early history of Mexican aviation.
Mexican aviators had been experimenting with gliders since the early turn of the century and many of them had successful flights, including Miguel Lebrija and the Aldasoro brothers. Alberto Braniff made the first heavier-than-air flight in Mexico in 1910, simultaneously earning an altitude record due to the elevation of Mexico City. The Moisant International Aviators, an American-based multinational flying exhibition group led by Alfred Moisant and sister Matilde, made their first appearance in Mexico in February 1911.
Mexico had been in a state of revolution against the ruling president Porfirio Díaz for some time. The Moisants’ first flights were over Díaz in Mexican crowds (though Moisant and a few of his aviators also observed the battle lines from the air near the US/Mexico border). By the time the Moisants returned to Mexico in November 1911, Francisco I. Madero, an opponent of Díaz’s, was president. The aviators, who included Roland Garros and Harriet Quimby, put on quite the show over Mexico City. One of the highlights was Matilde Moisant dropping a bouquet of flowers over the Presidential Palace. Then George Dyott invited Madero to fly with him, making the Mexican president the first sitting leader of any country to fly (Theodore Roosevelt had flown in October 1910, but he was no longer in office). Madero was very interested in the potential uses of airplanes and the Moisants soon received an order for five Moisant-built Bleriot-type aircraft.
Madero was also very interested in training Mexican pilots and starting in the summer of 1912, he sent the first of five Mexican aviators to the Moisant Aviation School in Garden City, Long Island. Alberto Salinas Carranza and Gustavo Salinas Camiña were nephews to General Venustiano Carranza, a Díaz opponent turned Madero supporter from Coahuila. The cousins were part of the first Moisant class taught by Shakir S. Jerwan. Originally from the Ottoman Empire (what is now Lebanon), Jerwan had emigrated to the United States in 1904 and became a naturalized citizen in 1910. He learned to fly in 1911 and by 1912 was the Chief Pilot for the Moisant Aviation School.
On August 17, 1912, Jerwan wrote to Carranza about his nephews’ progress. “So far, they have done exceedingly well and passed the smashing stage without any accidents or breakages whatsoever.” Another part of their training was to spend time in the Moisant aircraft factory. “The technical instructions of the art and science of flying, together with the theory of the mechanical knowledge will enable them to point out faults in the construction, and to give directions as to the adjustment of the machines: and also to give suggestions to their mechanicians as to the tuning up of the engines.” Jerwan does warn that “…it will not be advisable for them to do the mechanical work on the machines, because an aviator should keep his head clear of everything else….” Carranza responded on September 3, 1912, thanking Jerwan for the report on his nephews.
A month later, the Salinas cousins were ready to take a Moisant monoplane with a 50HP Gnome engine to the air at the Aero Club of America’s licensing trials at Hempstead Field. Alberto flew on September 12, 1912, and Gustavo the next day. The Aero Club issued their licenses a couple of weeks later—both were among the first 200 aviators licensed in the United States at number 170 (Alberto) and number 172 (Gustavo).
Horacio Ruiz joined the cousins a month into their studies and subsequently found himself behind—a concern for Jerwan and the Mexican government. On October 4, 1912, at Ruiz’s request, Jerwan wrote to Secretary of War and Navy Angel G. Peña ask for an extension of his student’s studies on Long Island. Peña responded on two days later, stating that Ruiz did need to return to Mexico after finishing his apprenticeship (as it was the only way to be paid according to contract), but granting a longer stay “two months at the most.” Ruiz completed his trials on October 31, 1912, and received license number 182 a week later.
Jerwan was invested in promoting the cause of aviation to the United States government and wrote to at least two of the candidates in the 1912 presidential election, dispatching Ruiz with these letters. On November 4, 1912, Jerwan wrote to former president and Progressive (“Bull Moose”) candidate Theodore Roosevelt: “As you are probably aware, the Mexican Government has made quite an appropriation for aeroplanes and this Company has charge of the formation of the aerial corps of the Mexican Army, furnishing them both with aeroplanes and trained aviators.” After Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson won, Ruiz carried a similar letter to the president-elect, dated November 11, 1912.
Brothers Juan Pablo and Eduardo Aldasoro arrived at the Moisant school in October 1912, accompanied by another Mexican aviator, Francisco Alvarez (who had attended the school on his own dime, earning license number 78). Their father, Andrés Aldasoro, had been a minister in the Díaz administration. The brothers had been involved in aviation for quite a few years, building their first glider in 1908 and flying it the next year. In 1911, they built a 2-cylinder 60 h.p. engine in the Dos Estrellas Mine workshops in Tlalpujahua, Mexico. The Aldasoros took their flight trials in Augusta, Georgia. Juan Pablo flew on February 28, 1913 and Eduardo a few days later. Both received their licenses on March 12, 1913, and were issued numbers 217 and 218.
After graduation, the newly licensed aviators returned home to a new regime in Mexico. In February 1913, Victoriano Huerta, a military leader who had served in the Díaz government but initially pledged allegiance to the new president, overthrew the Madero government (which eventually resulted in Madero’s assassination). The Aldasoros (with their ties to the Díaz government) and Ruiz supported the Huerta government. The Salinas cousins joined their uncle General Carranza, Governor of Coahuila and leader of a coalition and the “premier jefe” of the Constitutionalist Army, against Huerta.
Although the Taft administration in the United States had supported the Huerta government, the new Wilson administration did not recognize the new regime and initially supported the Constitutionalist army until this support threatened the States. Eventually an embargo was placed at the border. The Moisants contracted with Carranza to provide aircraft and technical support. In February 1914, three Moisant-built airplanes arrived in Mexico, the only ones to make it through the embargo, and were placed with a new air corps under the command of Captain Alberto Salinas Carranza.
In March 1914, Shakir Jerwan wrote to both General Carranza and Captain Salinas to offer the services of the Moisant Aviation School to train additional aviators for the Constitutionalist cause. Carranza responded in April that he appreciated the offer, but it was not possible to accept the offer. Alberto responded with a handwritten letter on April 19, 1914. He began by referring to the recent loss of one of the three aircraft, attributing the crash by a Major Cervantes, who had trained in France, to “poor schooling.” He complimented Jerwan’s teachings: “…I still remember your advises and I tell you that I am going to stick to them because they will always give me courage and confidence.” He closes with news of his cousin, Gustavo, who was “…doing fine flying with a biplane in Sonora, over the battle ships of Huerta. The military campaign is favorable to us and victory is not far off.”
Gustavo Salinas Camiña trained with French aviator Didier Masson to fly a Glenn L. Martin-built biplane, nicknamed the Sonora, which had been modified to carry bombs. On April 14, 1914, Gustavo and Teodoro Madriaga attacked a Huerta ship using homemade bombs, often considered to be the first aerial-naval encounter. Unfortunately, Gustavo was injured a month later when the Sonora crashed. The United States had landed troops and occupied Veracruz early in April 1914 and the Constitutionalist army continued to win battles in the North. Huerta resigned in July 1915. The turmoil in Mexico continued when the coalition between Emiliano Zapata, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, Álvaro Obregón, and General Carranza, fell apart.
The five Mexican aviators who had studied at the Moisant school under Shakir Jerwan continued to play important roles in formation of the Mexican Air Force and the expansion of aviation in Mexico. Alberto Salinas Carranza organized the Department of Aviation for the Mexican government. Horacio Ruiz served as the first chief pilot at the flying school in Valbuena (and flew the first air mail flight in Mexico in July 1917). Gustavo Salinas Camiña and Juan Pablo and Eduardo Aldasoro brothers took positions within the Mexican Air Force.
Flores, Santiago A. Mexicans at War: Mexican Military Aviation in the Second World War 1941-1945. Warwick, UK: Helion and Company, 2019.
Freudenthal, Elsbeth E. “How Aviation ‘Firsts’ Took Place in Mexico.” The Americas 4, no. 1 (1947): 100–107.
Hagedorn, Dan. Conquistadors of the Sky: A History of Aviation in Latin America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010.
Hansen, Lawrence Douglas Taylor. “Los Orígenes de La Fuerza Aérea Mexicana, 1913-1915.” Historia Mexicana 56, no. 1 (2006): 175–230.
National Air and Space Museum Archives.
Shakir S. Jerwan Scrapbooks Collection, Acc. XXXX.0231
Moisant Family Scrapbooks, Acc. XXXX.0535
Sinalas, Bolare T. [pseudonym and anagram of Alberto Salinas Carranza] “History of the Flight Across the English Channel,” found in the Ernest Jones Aeronautical Collection, NASM.XXXX.0096.
 The Moisant family had made its early fortunes on their coffee plantation in El Salvador, often involving themselves in local politics for their own gains. In 1907, John built an army (with the help of Nicaragua) to attempt to free his brothers (who had been imprisoned for trying to overthrow the government) and…overthrow the government. When he failed, the U.S. government stepped in to stop their executions, but John was expelled as a “pernicious foreigner.” The Moisants also had difficulties with the government due to questionable practices at their bank and when the U.S. consul attempted to have Alfred installed as vice-consul and the Salvadoran refused to accept his credentials. It could be a slight understatement to say that the Moisants were “not quiet, peaceful, or businesslike,” but despite their many misgivings about the family and their role in Salvadoran politics, the U.S. government continued to support them. Additional resources: Doris Rich, The Magnificent Moisants: Champions of Early Flight; Thomas Schoonover, “A United States Dilemma: Economic Opportunity and Anti-Americanism in El Salvador, 1901-1911;” Gavin Mortimer, “The Daring Mr. Moisant.”
 Following the lead of Mexico, Guatemalan President Manuel Estrada Cabrera sent Dante Nannini to the Moisant Aviation School in mid-1913. Nannini received Aero Club of America license number 265 on October 1, 1913. Jerwan and Cabrera maintained their connection and Jerwan successfully lobbied the Aero Club of America to accept Cabrera as a member in 1914. Shakir S. Jerwan left the Moisant Aviation School and served as the Director of Military Aviation in Guatemala from 1915 to 1919. Early correspondence between Jerwan and Cabrera can be found in the Shakir S. Jerwan Scrapbooks alongside the Mexican correspondence.