Pilot Sterling Rohlfs visited Tucson three times. He landed on Tuesday, August 2, 1927 and on August 9, 1927, both times carrying passenger Wallace Springer (see news article, below) and both times flying the Fairchild FC-2 (S/N 7), NC1418. Based at Vermejo Park, NM, these two visits appear to be part of a week-long trip from Douglas, AZ to San Francisco, CA and back.
Rohlfs was a Captain in the reserve and remained with the military until at least February, 1927. Corroborating this is the fact that he appeared in the Register three times during 1926-27 as a passenger in military aircraft. The signatures are similar enough for both pilot and passenger Rohlfs to identify them as the same person.
As a passenger, Rohlfs landed with Ray H. Clark on May 5, 1926 in a de Havilland DH-1-4B, 63-813. Based at El Paso, TX, Biggs Field, Clark and Rohlfs were westbound from Biggs to San Diego, CA. On Tuesday May 11, 1926, he flew in from San Diego with pilot H.C. Collins in a Douglas O-2-C, 25-399. They remained in Tucson overnight and departed next day eastbound to El Paso. Collins listed his home base as Hampton, VA, Langley Field. Rohlfs could well have been catching a ride back to El Paso with Collins.
His third military landing as a passenger seems to be part of a round robin flight from Denver, CO. On Sunday February 6, 1927, he landed with pilot Captain J.R. Schumacher in a de Havilland DH-4M2, 30-814. Schumacher entered Denver as his home base. They remained in Tucson until February 8th and then departed for Denver. No purposes were given for any of the flights wherein Rohlfs was passenger.
Back to his visits as a pilot, interestingly, both landings at Tucson were met with inspections by the U.S. Border Patrol. In the Remarks column of the Register for the first visit appears the annotation by the Border Patrol officer, "Chester Gracie U.S.I.S. B.P." For the second visit appears, "R.V. Cummins U.S.I.S. Border Patrol".
His third visit as pilot was on Friday February 24, 1928. He was solo this time, eastbound from Nogales, AZ to his home at Vermejo Park, NM.
His Granddaughter states about him, "Sterling had four daughters, only two lived to maturity, Anna Louise and Rozamond. Anna Louise is my mother and there are no other children who survived except me. Sterling was a Captain in the reserve .... He was also a good student of Spanish and was getting ready to take on a huge ranch in Mexico as manager where they were developing a drought resistant cotton. .... Another friend of the Rohlfs family was Katherine [Stinson] Otero from Santa Fe a well known woman pilot.'
Sterling Rohlfs was born in Brooklyn, NY May 18, 1887, long before airplanes even existed. His mother, Anna Katharine Rohlfs (Green), was a noted 19th century mystery author. She died April 12, 1935, outliving pilot Rohlfs by some seven years. Rohlfs was killed in an airplane accident March 27, 1928, almost one month to the day after his last visit to Tucson. The NY Times of Wednesday, March 28, 1928 reported, "Three Americans Die in Mexican Air Trip; Plane Crashes at Toluca While Flying From Mazatlan to Mexico City."
A contemporary news account follows courtesy of a site visitor from the Netherlands. Her annotations are in [brackets].
Binghamton Press Wednesday evening, March 28, 1928
[Headlines] 3 Americans Die in Mexican Airplane Crash, Son of Anna Katherine Green, Writer, at Controls When Wind Downs Plane, Falls Thousand Feet, Former Buffalo Man Used Plane to Cover Great Arizona [New Mexico] Ranch
Mexico City, March 28 -- (Associated Press) -- A sudden gust of wind caused a plane carrying three Americans from Nogales, Arizona, to Mexico City to crash in the streets of Toluca, yesterday, killing the occupants.
The victims were: Sterling Rohlfs, wealthy New Mexico cattle man. William E. King, authority on mining law, of Douglas, Arizona. Wallace Springer, cattleman of Cimarron, New Mexico. Word of the tragedy was sent here by Riva Palacious, governor of Toluca, to Alexander W. Weddell, American consul general. The governor said the airplane, piloted by Rohlfs, was about 1,000 feet above the city when a strong gust of wind caught it. The pilot attempted to make a landing, but the machine went into a nose dive and crashed in a side street near the center of the city.
Rohlfs and Springer were killed instantly. King, his body badly broken, lived less than an hour.
Rohlfs was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Rohlfs, of Buffalo, N.Y. Mrs. Rohlfs is Anna Katherine Green, writer of mystery stories. The son was manager of the Bartlett ranch [Vermejo Park] in northern New Mexico. He took up flying about five years ago both as a pastime and to enable him to cover speedily the broad territory of which he was in charge.
Rohlfs flew the plane from New York to Douglas [Arizona]. On Thursday he left Douglas for Mexico City by way of Nogales [Arizona] with King and Springer on what was understood to be a pleasure jaunt.
King, who had offices in both Douglas and Mexico City, was a close friend of President Calles [the current Mexican President] and General Obregon [former Mexican President and soon to be reelected as President, and then assassinated], candidate for the presidency. He was counsel for many mining companies in Mexico, including the Cual Mexicana and the Cia La Venturea. He was interested with the late General John C. Greenway, L. D. Ricketts and H. C. Dudley in organizing the Ahumada and Erupticion companies at Los Lamentas, Mexico.
Sterling Rohlfs, and brother Roland, were both pilots, receiving training at the Curtiss Flying School in upstate New York. Sterling settled in New Mexico and ran cattle. He married and had a son and a daughter. His death received national attention because of the relationships of passenger King with Mexican high officials. His funeral was attended by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Morrow, whose daughter Anne married Charles Lindbergh a while later. The cause of the crash was labeled a "mystery" by the NY Times. Some people thought Rohlfs and his passengers were on a secret mission for the U.S. government when their plane went down. This was never proven.
Ms. Martinelli states, "The stories about the trip being a secret mission for President Coolidge seem odd, especially since the dispute with Mexico, which was over U.S. ownership of mines and other businesses, was resolved just before their fateful flight. It seems more likely that when the ownership dispute was resolved, the three men thought they might check on business opportunities, and have some fun too."
And further, "Rohlfs was a mine engineer with a degree from the Colorado School of Mines, in Denver. It was after his marriage that he joined his father-in-law in the cattle business. He was travelling with two others who were closely involved with mining, so it suggests it was probably a bit more than a pleasure trip."
Incidentally, Rohlfs' father, Charles, was a famous art nouveau furniture designer and maker, whose exhibitions still attract visitors to this day. Google/Images "Charles Rohlfs" to see his works.
THIS PAGE UPLOADED: 11/18/08 REVISED: 11/25/08, 11/28/08, 06/20/12