About First Lieutenant Félix Rigau Carrera (USMC)
First Lieutenant Félix Rigau Carrera (August 30, 1894–October 13, 1954), known as "El Águila de Sabana Grande" (The Eagle from Sabana Grande), was the first Puerto Rican pilot and the first Hispanic fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corps. Rigau Carrera was also the first Puerto Rican parachutist and the first pilot to fly on air mail carrying duties in Puerto Rico.
Rigau Carrera was one of nine siblings born to Felipe Rigau Balbás, a Spanish Navy sailor from Catalunia, and Carmen Carrera de Rigau, a Puerto Rican homemaker, in the town of Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico. There he received his primary and secondary education. As a child he showed an interest in mechanics and used to make model aircrafts, using the local cathedral as a launching pad for his small fixed-wing aircraft replicas.
After he graduated from high school, he enrolled at the Colegio de Agricultura y Artes Mecanicas (CAAM) (now the University of Puerto Rico) at Mayagüez and studied electronics and mechanical engineering. During his years at college he continued with his hobby of building and designing airplane models.
World War l
After he earned his college degree in mechanical engineering, he joined the United States Army and was assigned to the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps (the military aviation service of the United States Army from 1914 to 1918 and a direct ancestor of the United States Air Force). While in the Army, he traveled extensively around the world and became acquainted with many of the world's famous pilots of the era. He became the first Puerto Rican parachutist as a member of the Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps, whose members were among the Army's first parachutist. His stint in the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps inspired him to go and attend various aviation schools upon his release from the military. He received his pilot training in private pilot schools in Seattle, Washington and Minneapolis, Minnesota. With letters of recommendation from Jose Celso Barbosa and Jose de Diego, Rigau Carrera traveled to New York City and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps upon the outbreak of World War l. After receiving additional aviation training, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and assigned to the First Marine Air Squadron which deployed to France as the newly renamed 1st Marine Aviation Force in July 1918. There Rigau Carrera and his unit provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy's Day Wing, Northern Bombing Group. While serving in First Marine Air Squadron, Rigau Carrera became the first Puerto Rican to pilot a fixed-wing aircraft and the first Hispanic fighter pilot in the Marines.
In 1918, after the war ended, the ship in which Rigau Carrera and his fellow Marines were on docked in Yorktown, Virginia. While on leave, he met Bertha Dunston (1900–1989), who became his wife in 1919 and with whom he was to have three children, Félix (1921–1995), Carmen (1923–), and Jaime (1925–1970). He was assigned to the US Naval Aviation Detachment, first at Minneapolis, MN, and then at Seattle, WA, by the end of November 1918. Rigau Carrera returned to Puerto Rico and made it clear to everyone that knew him that his main objective was to be able to someday own his own and fly his own aircraft. Consequently, his four brothers helped him financially to buy his first aircraft, a Curtiss JN-4, which he bought in 1919.
Rigau Carrera piloted his first flight in Puerto Rico, flying out of Camp Las Casas, the exact area where Residencial Las Casas is currently located, becoming the first Puerto Rican pilot to do so. At the time, the area was used by the military as an air base and it was also Puerto Rico's first commercial airport, and Rigau Carrera was allowed to perform his historic flight from the air field. Rigau Carrera then started using the air base frequently, for exhibition flights and to carry paying passengers on sightseeing trips. He became a national hero in Puerto Rico during the 1920s, traveling to many Puerto Rican cities by air. The local town people celebrated his landings with live music and fireworks and he became known as "The Eagle of Sabana Grande".
In 1931, Rigau Carrera was given a license by San Juan's mail system authority to deliver mail via air mail throughout the island, becoming the first pilot to fly on air mail carrying duties in Puerto Rico. Rigau Carrera then established a system similar to the one used by the airlines today, where he would fly people from one point of the island to another, with paying customers on board. Not all of his career went without problems, as Rigau Carrera almost lost his life during flights twice, once in San German and another time in Guanica.
Rigau Carrera settled in Gloucester, Virginia in the early 1920s. He lived with his family in an old Abingdon Glebe School House and constructed a building to house a flour mill and other enterprises. Rigau Carrera founded the Rigau Concrete Works which manufactured a wide variety of items to meet the industrial needs of the developing county. Besides concrete blocks, he cast septic tanks, culverts, burial vaults and yard furniture. Rigau Carrera and his wife Bertha, who were certified undertakers, established a funeral home. He amassed a fortune as the owner of a funeral home and a concrete factory.
When the United States entered World War ll, Rigau Carrera joined the Merchant Marines and served throughout the war years. During these years, Félix and Bertha divorced. He met and married Estella Martins from the Azores of Portugal with whom he had three more children, Félix, Philip, and Maria.
Rigau Carrera died at the age of 60 and was buried with full military honors at Abingdon Episcopal Church Cemetery. His native hometown, Sabana Grande, named a street Calle Félix Rigau Carrera in his honor. On September 14, 2011, he was honored posthumously during the Hispanic Heritage Awards at Cleveland International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio.
Awards and recognitions