Sunday, May 22, 2016

An American Icon goes to Costa Rica

For several months I have been blogging about a 1929 Curtiss Robin airplane, nicknamed "The St. Louis Robin".  We have featured this plane and re-visited some of its colorful past as a world's endurance flying record setter back in 1929 when flown by the famed aviator team of Dale Jackson and Forrest O'Brine. There will be more blogging in the future about our time caring for this plane.

But now, it is about time that we should share the beginning of a new chapter in the story of this phenomenal airplane that is considered by many as an American Icon.  She will always be known as the one and only "St. Louis Robin 1".  But as this new chapter unfolds, she has taken a new nickname of affection, the "Espiritu Tico" (#2).

Many people have asked about its new owner and have wanted answers to the questions, 

"Who is the new owner who is taking this Icon from the USA?" and, 

"Why is it going to Costa Rica, of all places?"  

Well its a long story.  But it is a rather fascinating one that involves a historic past and now, a new beginning of history.  The man who bought the plane and hired us to help him get the airplane down there was named Carlos Macaya Ortiz.  His father, Roman Macaya Lahman is considered one of (if not the main) forefathers of aviation in Costa Rica.  Roman brought a Robin from San Francisco CA in 1933 to San Jose Costa Rica. I have blogged about it here, translating and paraphrasing the story from a Costa Rican webpage in Spanish.  This plane was the first used by Macaya in establishing a successful air line operation that lasted over a decade and opened up the country for efficient transportation, expedient delivery of mail and supplies, and quicker attention to medical needs.


Early in 2014, The St. Louis Robin was selected for some new adventures, sure to make new history.  The whole project was a planned effort with several players working to help Carlos to fulfill his dream to bring a Curtiss Robin airplane to the people of Costa Rica, who had little more than a few photos and stories about their father of aviation and Carlos' actual father.  He named this project "Espiritu-Tico", after the nickname of his father's Curtiss Robin (originally NC911K).  Originally, the plan was that Carlos wanted to repeat the momentous achievement of his father and actually fly a Curtiss Robin to his homeland from the USA.  Carlos (and three other Costa Rican aviation people) first contacted me by phone in February of 2014 with his idea and wanted to know if we (my little side business) could make some modifications and help prepare a Robin to make the long trip.  At the time he was looking to purchase a nice Curtiss Robin (NC988K) from Bob Colby in Kalispell Montana. Bob's Robin was in flyable condition with a mostly reliable Continental radial engine, but needed a new annual inspection. He wanted us to coordinate the inspection, get the airplane into our shop in Texas, add radio equipment, lights, and go through all of the airplane systems to make sure the plane would be in tip-top shape.  This was certainly an intriguing proposition, and one that I felt we could surely support from our small shop.  I got busy working on the logistics and I have to admit, enjoyed every aspect.

After a couple of weeks planning the logistics, another call came from Carlos and his team from Costa Rica.  They called to say Carlos had changed his mind about the purchase in favor of a different Robin, which had been for sale in New York on Long Island for several years.   As soon as the airplane's location was divulged, I knew right away which Robin it was. Well familiar with the endurance flying history of this plane, my very first reaction (but unspoken) was.... "You can't take this American Icon away to a foreign country!" 

Like a flash, in my mind, I must have paused on the phone briefly as I was going through many thoughts about the airplane's history.  I thought about the various pieces of memorabilia that I had already collected about this specific airplane.  I recalled that Dad and I had seen that airplane person at Blakesburg Iowa in 1977 and I remembered how beautifully it had been restored by Joe Erale Sr. and son, 'Joe-Joe' Erale. And then a rather grave concern came over me as I thought, "Oh this airplane has an original Curtiss R-600 Challenger engine."  Now granted, I am maybe the only guy who continually preaches that "you just gotta love those Challengers".  But even I know that these engines are very rare and are thought of as unreliable.  Parts are almost non existent.  They can run great with the right type of care and attention.  But they require a lot of tinkering and a certain tender operation to keep them running right. The 1700 mile flight from Texas to San Jose would be risky enough in a Continental powered Robin.  It just did not seem like a do-able trip in a Challenger Robin.

So my first words to the men on the other end of the phone were.... "Do you realize that airplane has a Curtiss Challenger engine?"  They answered, "Yes and that's why we want it."  They went on to explain how this is the same engine that Carlos' father had flown behind in his Curtiss Robin, "Espiritu Tico". That's when I first began to realize there is a bigger picture in mind for this project.  It became clear that these men were intent on Historic accuracy for this project.  All logic was telling me that this whole idea was too risky.  But then I thought back to my dad and how much he loved flying his Challenger Robin.  I remembered how he just packed his wife and 11-year-old son (me) many times and flew all over the southwest US, and doing it with a sense of pioneering adventure.  Now, I was hearing this same kind of adventurous spirit from these men and realized that we CAN take this Icon to a new place. I warmed up to the idea that after sitting for 30 years, it is high time that some new history can be made here with this plane. And if it's going to happen, I want to be a part! 

If you followed the project over the past two years on social media, you know that the whole story hasn't been shared in its entirety.  But I have tried to drop pieces here and there as time has permitted.  Seriously, there's so much to the story and so many side stories involved with this airplane, it takes a lot of time and energy to lay it all out.  We'll not go into it all here.  Some parts are already on past blog postings here, and others we hope to share in the future.  So, for the sake of space, I am skipping a lot of cool detail and fast forwarding to the most recent developments as the plane made its trip to Costa Rica and what has transpired in the short time since.

Ultimately, for many reasons, a wise decision was made to have the airplane sent by sea in a 40 foot shipping container, rather than fly it down.  The main reason was due to Carlos Macaya Ortiz health had begun to fade from relentless prostate cancer. In February of 2016, it became an urgent effort to get the airplane on down.   I'll post more soon on the painstaking process of packaging the plane for its overseas journey.  For now, I am taking this into the next chapter of the story about this American Icon going to Costa Rica.

Now we have the answers to those questions... 

Who?  Carlos Macaya Ortiz, and 

Why?  Because of Carlos' father Roman Macaya Lahman, the father of Aviation in Costa Rica.


So we shipped the airplane down to Costa Rica for Carlos Macaya in March 2016.  Once it arrived, Carlos had us flown down to assemble the airplane, teach the new caretakers about the plane, and to participate in a most wonderful celebration of its arrival.  On April 16, 2016, the Robin was the featured centerpiece of a grand party in honor of Roman Macaya's aviation career.  Over 250 people were in attendance where several important aviation people gave speeches... followed in dramatic fashion by a drum-roll... curtain drop.... confetti... a marching carnival band.... dancing... festival music...all for a very exciting unveiling of the new "Espiritu Tico" Curtiss Robin.  A priest gave rites of blessings over the plane as the people watched.  The party was absolutely phenomenal; an experience that I will never forget.  Until we found ourselves in the middle of all of this comotion my family and I had no idea that were a part of something so big and with so much meaning to many people.  I was overcome with many emotions, some of which were thoughts about my own father.  But on that day, we were especially happy that Carlos fulfilled his dream. He shared that special day with over 250 of his family and friends. We now fully understand that his primary goal was to give his own sons and the people of Costa Rica a tangible gift from which the legacy of his father could be forever remembered.  He brought to them this beautiful Robin just like the one his father flew and placed it into their hands, into their care.  

Very sadly, Carlos Macaya Ortiz passed away 10 days after the party. 

So now (as of May 15, 2016) the ownership of the airplane is being sorted out.  I am in touch with one of Carlos' trusted friends who is helping establish a corporation that will own the airplane.  At the helm of this corporation, will be Carlos' nephew named Roman Macaya Hayes, who currently serves in Washington DC as the Costa Rican Ambassador to the US. The airplane is currently hangared on Pavas Airport in San Jose Costa Rica at the facilities of CARMONAIR Charter Services.  It is a safe place with over a dozen employees who have accepted the role of caring for the airplane. Some arrangements are being made for an assigned hangar just for the Robin where it will be kept.  Someday, the organizers hope to begin an aviation museum, founded on the Curtiss Robin and the story of Roman Macaya Lahman.  Once the ownership and registration paperwork gets squared away, there
are future plans to fly the Espiritu Tico / St. Louis Robin through the skies of Costa Rica, including one special flight of the Robin with another celebration a few miles away at the International Airport (SJO).

We feel as if God has blessed this wonderful airplane over the years in such a way that brings together and unites people in unique and special ways.   It was truly an adventure and honor to have been a part of this project; an experience we will always cherish.


Complete, with all the trimmings!

Jose A. Giralt one of several speakers.
Confetti falls after the unveiling!
Ernesto Macaya assists the Priest in blessing the plane. (Jose Giralt photo)
Gloria Macaya autographing copies of her book, "Espiritu Tico".

Our family, proud and emotional to be a part. (Jose Giralt photo)


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