In the summer of 1993 I was approached by members of Tampa’s Brothers to the Rescue. They needed an instructor pilot for twin engine ratings in order to legally fly the aircraft they had just purchased. With this twin engine plane, they could spend more time airborne patrolling the Gulf waters between Cuba and Florida looking for the rafters who were leaving Cuba and communism for Florida. Many died – disappeared. So many that Brothers to the Rescue was formed to help locate them in order to enable their own boats and the United State Coast Guard to intercept them and bring them safely to Florida.
We finished their twin engine training at Peter O. Knight airport, and I was invited to join them in Key West which was their base of operations. I flew a number of missions with them out of Key West and one day was asked aside by one of their leaders–we’ll call him Carlos–to take on a special mission. They needed a float plane pilot to fly into Cuba and rescue a family with a disabled child who needed special medical care and would not survive a raft crossing.
Carlos owned a seaplane operation that flew tourists to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson. He would make a seaplane available for the flight. I suggested that he say I had turned down the mission and had told him that he would have to find another pilot, making it very clear that only the two of us should know about my actual mission.
I filed a flight plan from Key West, flying around the east end of Cuba to Montego Bay, Jamaica.
I selected Ragged Island for the point of departure and flew there a few times to stash fuel. On the night of my mission, my flight to Ragged Island in the Bahamas went as planned. I landed and beached on that very small remote cay and topped off the fuel tanks. Ragged island is one of the most remote islands in the Bahamas and the one closest to Cuba. My destination was in southwestern Cuba – to the Bahia west of Santiago de Cuba. I then waited for the full moon to rise.
Once airborne, I leveled off at 200 feet above the water, planning to go even lower once I was inside Cuban airspace; low enough to evade long range air defense radar.
Carlos had painted the entire aircraft a dark blue with gold trim a few days before, including the floats, and had installed a large muffler to cancel engine noise. At full power the only noise came from the propeller. I throttled back, leaned the engine to its best cruise power, turned off the transponder and navigation lights and was now flying like a Caribbean drug runner.
I leaned the engine to its best cruise power, turned off the transponder and navigation lights, and was now flying like a Caribbean drug runner.
My destination was due south: Bahia Cabanas, a large bay with a narrow inlet about six miles west of Santiago de Cuba international airport. I had made several night seaplane landings with a full moon, practicing to make that night water landing in Bahia Cabanas to rescue the mother and her children. I would fly them to Montego Bay, Jamaica, refuel and return to Key West and freedom.
Now with autopilot engaged, I leaned back and relaxed, listening to the calming hum of the engine, waiting until the northern coastline of Cuba appeared, illuminated by the full moon off my left wing. The moon cast a helpful shadow of my aircraft on the water, helping me judge my height above the waves and to set my altimeter for crossing the mountainous terrain ahead. I calculated landfall in about 30 minutes and another 30 minutes to cross over the moonlit mountains that should be showing up soon on the horizon.
My passengers were to drive alone that day to a beach on the east bank of the inlet leading to Bahia Cabanas; to pitch a tent, enjoy the day, wade in the surrounding waters to check the depth, cook on a campfire, and wait for my arrival at three in the morning.
We’d instructed them weeks ago that they should become occasional weekend campers. To go there from time to time even with friends to create a routine. I would arrive at approximately three that morning and water taxi to that beach. They would flash a light to let me know where they were and that it was safe to land.
They were told not to come out to the aircraft until I turned the float plane around. I didn’t want them to be hit in the darkness by the propeller, as I would not stop the engine but leave it in idle to ensure a faster departure.
When I saw her signal, I landed, taxied the float plane into the shallow water and almost up to the beach, then pointed its nose seaward again. She woke the children, and I helped get them onboard as quickly as possible. We taxied out and took off to the south to fly back to Key West Florida via Jamaica.
It was both an exciting and rewarding mission and I have kept this story secret, since if the FAA had known what I did, they would have revoked my pilot’s certificate.
It is also sad that that after I no longer flew with the Brothers to the Rescue, the Cubans shot down that twin engine aircraft with four people on board. There is a memorial to those lost on the corner of Dale Mabry and Columbus Drive.
Cornelius “Neil” Cosentino became a US Air Force pilot in 1960 and went on to log over 6,000 hours in military, commercial and private flying. He flew the B-47, KC-135, F-4CDE, including three tours in Vietnam. He was awarded 9 Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Neil joined OLLI-USF in 2018. He has taken classes in writing, music, teaching, activism and online searches. Neil is always interested in new projects.
All right. Your turn. Is Neil telling you the truth or pulling your leg? Scroll down to the Comment section below and vote! And “tune in again next week” for another episode of OLLI Connects‘ To Tell The Truth challenge. — Editors