Sunday, April 10, 2011

Los Pilotos Cubana-The Cuban Pilots

I had the pleasure of flying with and knowing a large group of Cuban’s 40+ years ago. They had all left their country after Castro took over. A couple of them stole boats; one flew his whole extended family out in a large Russian crop duster. Several left the island as crew members at the controls of a Cubana Airlines transport. They crossed into Florida, Santo Domingo, Panama, or walked off a plane during a fuel stop in Canada into an uncertain future. The ones that took a plane or commanded it were on Castro’s death list. All missed home.

Not one was the same, a mixed bag of educated gentlemen that contained scoundrels, adventurers, thinkers, comics, and businessmen. The majority ended up flying with the CIA in the Congo then going to Miami or Puerto Rico to work at what flying jobs they could find. For a few warm years I flew as their co-pilot in some tired freighter or passenger plane as we crisscrossed the length and breadth of the Caribbean. The older men taught me patience and polished my skills, the younger challenged me to be as much a man as they thought they were. Machismo ran deep.

Mike Encisco had flown in the RAF during WWII. He lived for electronics and he taught me amateur radio. Armando Piedra had been a senior pilot at Cubana and was a skilled SCUBA diver. He had been the first man in Cuba to use an Aqua Lung. From Piedra I learned to think logically in emergencies, the meaning of command, to care about family, and to dive. Reginaldo B. was an excellent pilot and one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met; yet he got messed up in the fast money drug world. He was smart, so smart he ended up spending 15 years in a Spanish jail.

They’ve scattered to the wind or gone to their reward. Yet, I think of them as we were-sitting in the cockpits at night. The soft blue reflections from the flames exiting the engine exhaust stacks from four throbbing engines flickering against the cockpit ceiling, the dark ocean below us and the deep black of the night sky with pin points of starts winking about us. Armando would bring out his charts of the stars and point out those galaxies that guided him across the Atlantic so many times. Miguel would try to contact another Ham on the SSB, trolling for some remote spot in the world. Pablo would tell me about his latest “chica” gesturing with eyes and hands about her form and dimensions.

The hour’s pass and land comes into view. We are on old Blue 4 and the lights of Cuba begin to twinkle below, Florida is still 150 miles ahead. Armando puts his star charts away and retreats within himself. He is looking at the land that he is able to see between the spaces from the cockpit to the #2 engine. Bending close to the windscreen, the reflected light from the engine exhaust is brighter and animated on his face.

The faint lights below us wink out one by one as we pass out to sea. In the coal dark sky ahead faintly a few pinpoints of lights begin to appear. I contact Miami Center and say hello. Armando is now looking aft of the wing; a faint glimmer to the west is all he can see of his Cuba; but of that he treasures like a man glimpsing his last sunrise.

He turns to me and says very quietly, “Do juu know what et iss never to go back to home, Osswald?” then he turns his head to the window and remains quiet for the next few minutes.

I was truly blessed to fly with these gentlemen of Cuba. I miss them.


Makasi said...

Captain Mike:
Would you please contact me at I'm in contact with the Cuban pilots that are still with us.
Janet J Ray

hudsoncs said...

I can not tell you how meaningful that post is to me. I am Armando Piedra's grand daughter one of ten. The blessings I have received as a result of my family's courage to leave Cuba are innumerable. I am SO thankful for men and women such as yourself who care enough to tell the story. If you are able, please contact my mother (Silvia Piedra) at 786-307-7498.