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Defecting Cuban pilot commandeers plane, lands safely on isolated Everglades strip

A pilot in an old Soviet-era cropduster took off from Cuba on Friday and landed on a mostly forgotten airstrip in the Everglades. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The mass exodus from Cuba took an unusual twist Friday, when a pilot in a Soviet-era biplane took off from the island just 90 miles south of Key West and landed on an isolated, mostly forgotten airstrip in the middle of the Everglades.

Running low on fuel, the pilot contacted the control tower at the airport used mainly for training about 50 miles west of Miami and said he needed to touch down quickly. The call to the tower gave federal agents enough time to race to the jetport to meet the pilot.

“He said he was a defector from Sancti Spiritus, Cuba,” said Gregory Chin, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department, which owns the airstrip, once slated to become a massive jetport in the Everglades. Sancti Spiritus is located in central Cuba, roughly 270 miles from the landing spot, and is one of the island’s oldest Cuban European settlements.

The plane was reported to be a single-engine Antonov An-2 aircraft, a model that online references describe as built for crop dusting and other work. Late Friday, the plane, which appears to be a vintage model, remained parked off the long runway at the training facility off Tamiami Trail, which is 30 miles almost directly west of the Miccosukee Casino & Resort and Krome Avenue.

The pilot, who said he worked for a Cuban state domestic flight charter company, was the only passenger.

“It’s one guy and he appears to be OK,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Rachel Torres.

The unusual flight had local and federal law enforcement scrambling to what is now known as the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport, a strip that was the site of a planned Everglades Jetport that was derailed over environmental concerns in 1970. The site now averages only about 10 flights a day, Chin said. The plane landed there at about 11:30 a.m.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the biplane was picked up by radar as it made its way over the Florida Straits, or if first contact was with the control tower on the Miami-Dade/Collier County line. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is investigating the flight and its passenger.

Spain-based news outlet Cibercuba identified the pilot as Rubén Martínez, who works for a small Cuban state domestic chartered flight company.

Though it is rare for defectors to fly aircraft from Cuba to the U.S., it has happened before. In two cases in the 1990s, defectors turned out to be high-ranking military figures in Cuba fleeing the communist regime. Both pilots landed fighter jets in the Florida Keys and the flights went undetected during the 10-minute dash across the straits.

In March of 1991, Cuban Air Force Maj. Orestes Lorenzo flew a MIG-21 into Boca Chica Naval Air Station, near Key West. Two years later in 1993, Capt. Enio Ravelo Rodriguez copied the feat, landing his Soviet-made MIG-21 at the Key West Naval Air Station. Rodriguez veered off during a training mission.

And though most defectors in the past were able to settle in the U.S., that wasn’t the case in 2003, when six men who flew from the Isle of Youth to the Florida Keys were accused of air piracy and later sent to prison.

Two decades ago, another flight between the U.S. and Cuba made national headlines — but in yet another strange episode, Milo John Reese, 55, stole a single-engine plane from Marathon in the Florida Keys and flew south, to Cuba. Before takeoff, Reese worked at Pizza Hut. Cuban authorities said he crash-landed near Havana, walking away a little dazed, but otherwise OK.

Friday’s great escape — if that’s what it was — happened as the Biden administration and the Cuban government are in talks about how to deal with the largest exodus of Cubans since the 1960s. About 200,000 Cubans have come mostly through the southern border in the past year, according to federal statistics.

There has also been a steady rise of Cubans willing to make the perilous journey across the Florida Straits. In what has become the largest Cuban sea migration in nearly a decade, U.S. Border Patrol and Coast Guard crews have intercepted more than 550 people from Cuba who have arrived in the Florida Keys — mostly aboard homemade and unseaworthy craft — since the start of the month.

The U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted even more Cuban migrants desperate to leave the country on the waters. Since the beginning of October, the Coast Guard has found 921 Cubans in the Florida Straits. That exceeds the 838 Cubans the Coast Guard stopped at sea between Cuba and South Florida during an entire 12-month period from October 2020 through September 2021.


© 2022 Miami Herald

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