Joe Costa
Courtesy of Richard W. Vockroth, 5-8-04
The Flight of the Crystal City
by Richard W. Vockroth
     Hazards await those who would challenge the skies in search of adventure. Inclement weather, fickle powerplants, deceptive instruments, and physical incapacitation have taken their toll of pilots, while others, like Amelia Earhart, simply disappeared without a trace. Only one claims the dubious honor of having fame and fortune torn from his grasp by the tiniest and least siignificant of creatures, a colony of termites. Yes, termites! And therein lies a tale...
     The year was 1937, the twilight of an era that future historians would call the Golden Age of Aviation. A heavy tropical rainstorm battered the windscreen of the glistening white Lockheed Vega winging southward toward Rio de Janeiro, reducing the already scant visibility to near zero. The lanky Portuguese-American pilot bobbed and weaved like a welterweigtht as he scanned the rain-streaked glass for a single landmark in the Brazilian wilderness that would mean survival. Flying, for one of the few times in his life, was more work than fun for Joe Costa.
     Life had never been easy for Joe, but some would say that much of the hardship was of his own making. He was stubborn. Born in Portugal, he was brought to this country as a young lad and grew up in the tiny upstate community of Corning, NY, where a willing hand could find steady work and good pay at the glass factory. But Joe wanted to be a flyer.
     He saved his money, and learned to fly in the summer of 1929 at the Curtiss-Wright Flying School in nearby Syracuse. There, aspiring aeronauts exchanged $35 per hour to be cursed, browbeaten, harangued, and occasionally instructed in the idiosyncrasies of the Curtis "Fledgling" biplane. Never rich but seldom hungry, he spent the next few summers operating a small grass strip west of the city and the winters in the glass factory.
     Life was running too smoothly for his liking. People in aviation were making headlines, and names like Roscoe Turner, Wiley Post, and Charles Lindbergh were household words. Cash prizes were offered for intercontinental jaunts, and the adventure in his soul was stirred. He would cross the Atlantic to Portugal!
     Such an attempt in his fragile biplane was out of the question, but rumor had it that Standard Oil of New Jersey had a 1929 Lockheed Vega, less engine, for sale. Following inquiries and a brief period of haggling, Joe became the proud new owner for the then princely sum of $2,400. In Ohio, he located a 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engine (the powerplant used now in the Schweizer Ag-Cat) which made the craft complete.
     All Corning became caught up in the excitement as word spread about the project. Ever popular and respected, Joe was a local hero and the proposed flight became a community endeavor. A variety show, and then a dance, helped provide funds for modifications of the Vega. The landing gear was reinforced in anticipation of rough landings in hostile terrain. Fuel tank capacity was increased to 444 gallons for the long overwater leg of the trip. Finally, the transformation of NC105N was complete with several coats of gleaming white enamel and the name, "Crystal City" was emblazoned on the side in honor of the community and its citizenry who so proudly stood by as "one of their own" set out to make history.
     At this point fate dealt the young pilot a cruel blow. Spain was moving toward civil war, and the U. S. Government, concerned about the possibility of an international incident should his plans go awry, denied his visa request. Joe was heartbroken -- but not for long. Another cash prize was offered for a flight to Rio de Janeiro where (for a change) the natives were not restless. Why, he reasoned, could he not make that flight, collect the prize, then apply for permission to go from Rio to Portugal?
     And so it was that on a brisk November morning in 1936, a crowd of well-wishers gathered at nearby American Airlines Field (now Elmira-Corning Regional Airport) to watch the "Crystal City" take to the air enroute to Miami, Florida.
     The flight down the eastern seaboard was uneventful until he neared Jacksonville, 300 miles short of his scheduled stop. Forced down by heavy rain, he remained overnight, refueled and set out early in the morning for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Again fate intervened, this time in the form of a leaking fuel line. He was forced to land at a small airfield near Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, they had just had a revolution ("probably the third one that week", says Joe philosophically) and, suspicious of his motives, they slapped him in jail.
     By morning clearer heads prevailed, and someone who seemed to have a lot of authority suggested that Joe could save everybody a lot of paperwork and headache if he were to get back into his airplane and move on. Without so much as a "Say again" the intrepid airman sealed the cracked line with a bar of soap, wrapped it tightly with a handkerchief, and made the short hop to San Juan where the line was replaced. The journey resumed.
     Scheduled stops at Georgetown, Guyana and Belem, Brazil were uneventful except for a few anxious moments when haze from steaming jungle growth transformed otherwise routine landings into severe tests of piloting skill. From Belem he would fly directly south to Rio on the most dangerous part of the trip, transiting the forbidding Brazilian jungle over which no other man, before or since, has flown in a single-engine light airplane. Ironically, it was here that for the first time he would allow the prospect of success to interfere with good judgment.
     The final leg would be a long one, over hundreds of miles of dense jungle with no identifying features and no place to land should trouble develop. The flight would be the severest exercise in dead reckoning -- strike a compass heading and hold it for hours on end until, if all went exactly as it should, the Sao Francisco River would come into view and lead the way to Rio.
     He was at the primitive Belem airstrip before dawn, anxious to be on his way. Tanks had been topped the previous evening, and all had seemed in good order, so Joe opted to trade off a careful preflight inspection for a few more minutes of flying time. This, to use one of his favorite expressions, was "Mistake, number one".
     By late afternoon he was searching the jungle below for sign of the Sao Francisco, the solitary landmark in the thousands of square miles of back country, through a heavy tropical downpour. No more the confident, almost careless daredevil who had casually dismissed the early morning preflight; he was again the intense, thorough, professional pilot. Methodically, he checked compass, gauges, the jungle below, and the steady hum of the engine for the slightest indication of something amiss.
     The fuel gauge warned that it was time to transfer gasoline from the auxiliary tanks to the wings, where the gravity feed system would then ensure a steady supply to the engine. Joe activated the wobble pump fitted to the left side of the cabin and began pumping rhythmically as he had done so many times before. After a few strokes he realized that this time no fuel was moving. The auxiliary tank was dry.
     Later investigation would reveal that sometime during the night, back at Belem, thieves had pilfered most of the fuel from his tank, and in his haste to depart he did not make that final check to ensure a safe flight. This, however, was not the time to analyze the cause of his dilemma; with no reserve and the wing tanks only partially full he wisely decided to make a precautionary landing in the most likely open spot available, while still in complete control to the aircraft.
     None of the terrain was inviting, but a gentle slope with deep grass offered at least a chance of survival; an alternative to the heavy trees and brush. Joe circled once, selected the most likely approach, and lined up for a straight in, short field landing. The Vega touched down gently and rolled through the thick grass. Suddenly a loud crash and screech of tearing metal ripped through the cockpit, the airplane lurched to one side, and with a brief, sharp pain Costa was slammed into unconsciousness.
     It was some time before awareness began to return, his senses returning one at a time as if responding to some vague, ethereal muster. His head ached. The steady rain, beginning to diminish now as nightfall approached, tapped lightly on glass and metal. The smell of leaking gasoline drifted through the cramped cockpit. The instrument panel drew into focus slowly, the glass, the dials, the numbers.
     He moved gingerly at first, anticipating the sharp pain that would signal a broken bone or torn muscle. None came. Slowly he worked his way back through the cabin, out the passenger door, to the deep wet jungle grass which engulfed the craft like quicksand. He traced the matted vegetation back a few paces to where the mangled landing gear lay, and then a few more to what appeared at first to be a huge rock. It was a termite mound, nearly invisible even from a few feet away, swarming with its industrious tenants frantically repairing the breach left by the Vega's undercarriage. He returned to the wreckage, still reluctant to accept the obvious -- the Crystal City would fly no more.
     As darkness was closing in, a small contingent of local villagers approached excitedly, having heard the roar of the engine as the airplane circled overhead. Joe spoke to them in Portuguese and they, thrilled about the unexpected event that had broken the monotony of rural life in that remote region, took him in until arrangements could be made for his return home. He had landed near the village of Serra, Brazil, nearly within sight of the Sao Francisco and right on course for Rio.
     Using hand-made tools the friendly Brazilians helped remove the engine, which eventually was brought back to Corning. But the airframe was a total loss. A few weeks later Joe was taken on to Rio for a brief respite and then, at the expense of admiring Brazilian officials, he was flown home to a hero's wlecome. The cash prize for the Rio flight went unclaimed and with the advent of World War II interest in such competition ended.
Joe Costa
Courtesy of Richard W. Vockroth, 5-8-04
       Joe and his son "Joey" still maintain the strip west of Corning and Joe, at age 82, instructs while Joey and the mechanic, maintain aircraft based at the field, hop passengers, and rebuild wrecks. Hardly a week goes by without someone asking questions about the "Brazil flight" and Joe is always glad to oblige, always glad to recall the excitement and the many friends he aquired. "You can't believe" he says now, "how nice and helpful people can be even when they have so little to give."
     He has nothing but kind words for eveyone he met in Brazil. Except, of course, for the termites.
     This article was orginally published in the Pegasus Magazine, December 1989/ January 1990. It is reproduced here through the kind permission of the author, Dick Vockroth.

     Sometime after the article was published Joe related another trivial tidbit which you might find interesting: When he purchased the Vega, it was equipped with a binnacle-mount compass, similar to the ones on large boats. He was given a "new" compass, like the ones we use now, and mounted it on top of the instrument panel. In the flurry of activity preceding the flight, he never got around to taking out the old compass so he had two. While over the jungles in Brazil, the new compass somehow malfunctioned ( I don't recall how) and he was forced to navigate with the old one he hadn't gotten around to taking out! Tell your wife that story next time she tries to tell you that procrastination is bad!
Courtesy of Richard W. Vockroth, 5-11-04

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