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The 1921 Modesto plane crash that changed history

Over 100 years ago a plane crash in Modesto not only resulted in four young men being cut off from promising futures but forever changed the course of an industrious Italian family who abandoned their quest to become aircraft manufacturers but found success elsewhere.

In 1921 the Jacuzzi family had a bright future as plane manufacturers in their Berkeley shop. The family of Italian immigrants scrimped to invest a small fortune in their plane, the J-7, which made aviation history as the first successful, fully enclosed high-wing monoplane built and flown in the United States. Weighing 1,800 pounds, the plane was a family endeavor among the seven Jacuzzi brothers; even their wives helped by stitching together the canvas to cover the wing frames.

The plane had successfully flown in and out of the Bay Area for months and the family smelled opportunity to recoup on their investment by exploring passenger service and a contract with the U.S. Mail Service to deliver letters by air. On April 16, 1921 the J-7 flew mail successfully from San Francisco to Reno, Nevada. Confident in the plane’s safety and reliability, postal officials were ready to ink a contract with the Jacuzzis for air delivery. Before they agree, however, they are eager to explore passenger service to Yosemite Valley with a trial run.

Chosen to fly the J-7 on its historic flight was a fearless 23-year-old hotshot pilot named Harold Lorenzo “Bud” Coffee, a native of Modesto. An accomplished and confident pilot, Bud Coffee claimed a number of aviation firsts. A Berkeley ground school graduate during World War I, Coffee became an instructor in San Diego where he earned the rank of second lieutenant in the Army Air Service. After the war he engaged in commercial aviation, making the first-ever passenger flight into Stockton, the first flight into Hetch Hetchy (obviously before it was flooded by the dam’s completion in 1923), and the first to land at the Feather River Inn at Lake Tahoe. In early July 1921 the young aviator made headlines when he flew in a record time of over 12 hours from Laramie, Wyoming to San Francisco to relay photos of the celebrated Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier boxing match.

Joining Coffee on the flight into Yosemite were aviation writer John Kauke, 28, Jacuzzi plant technician Archibald Duncan MacLeish, 30, and Giocondo Jacuzzi, 26, whose brother Rachele Jacuzzi designed the J-7. Rachele (pronounced ra-kay-lee), was the brainchild of the family aircraft endeavors and had once worked as a mechanic for James McDonnell, co-founder of the McDonnell Douglas aerospace corporation. While examining planes at the 1915 Panama-Pacific World’s Fair in San Francisco, Rachele came up with an idea for an improved propeller. His Jacuzzi Toothpick Propeller was used by the Army Air Corps and famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.

The J-7 flew over the Central Valley to Yosemite on July 12, 1921 and landed in a meadow sprawling before Yosemite’s majestic El Capitan. The monoplane – with its radiator awkwardly protruding atop the cabin – attracted the attention of curiosity seekers and park officials.

During the time the J-7 sat in the park, Coffee and a gang of mechanics went over the plane with a fine-toothed comb to pronounce the plane in perfect condition.

On the morning of July 14, 1921 the four men climbed aboard the J-7 to return to the Bay Area. Coffee planned to touch down in Modesto at the airfield that would later be abandoned in 1929, now the Modesto Municipal Golf Course south of Tuolumne Boulevard. 

Coffee intended to see his girlfriend, Ora Jennings and had called her ahead of time to tell her the plane would be landing at about 8 a.m. As the plane swept over Modesto, the engine roar caused some residents to gaze upward at the rare sight.

Within moments, spectators on the ground were horrified to see the left wing snap off and the fuselage plunge to the ground. The Oakland Tribune reported that the wings, made of wood struts and covered in canvas, snapped off. Speculation included several theories. One claims Coffee made an ill-timed acrobatic maneuver or hit an air pocket. Investigators suspected a catastrophic design flaw.

The plane fell into a death spiral from an altitude of about 600 to 1,000 feet. The gut-wrenching sight ended with a fireball and black cloud arising from the intersection of Madison and Linden west of present-day Highway 99. At the time the intersection bordered the western boundary of the Maze Wren Park, which was later abandoned when the state built Highway 99.

With no survivors, the crash shattered the families of all four young men.

Lon and Emaline Coffee buried their son in the Acacia Memorial Park on Scenic Avenue in Modesto. The family of Giocondo Jacuzzi laid his remains to rest at the adjoining St. Stanislaus Cemetery.

The Modesto grave marker of Giocondo Jacuzzi notes that he was a “martyr of the Aviation, loved Science, Music and Pictorial Art. His motto was: “Coeli Navigare Necessit Est” and in flying high over mountains and valleys he constantly demonstrated how man is able to conquer the air. His name and work shall remain forever.”

“Coeli Navigare Necessit Est” was a phrase used by Pompey which translates to: “We have to sail, we do not have to live.”

Bud Coffee’s marker at Acacia Memorial Park reads: “‘Smiling Bud’ In aviation at the cost of his own life has demonstrated what can be done by courage, faith and perseverance. He is not dead, life’s flag is never furled; his body sleeps, but in some nobler land, his spirit marches to a new command.”

Plunged into mourning, the Jacuzzis abandoned their dreams of manufacturing planes. Giocondo Jacuzzi’s father, Giovanni Jacuzzi, vowed that no more of his sons would die in the cursed contraptions.

Financially devastated, the Jacuzzis changed directions and eventually developed machine designs, creating a variety of fans, submersible pumps, furnaces, and different wind machines that kept frost off fruit orchards. In the 19490s brother Candido brought the family into riches and fame with the invention of the whirlpool bath.