Eighteen small civilian planes lifted into a wet, gray sky Saturday afternoon as hundreds of supporters at Opa-locka airport cheered, honked their horns, waved flags and flashed their car lights.
Destination: the Florida Straits, where four Brothers to the Rescue flyers were gunned down by Cuban MiGs a week earlier.
The funeral flight ended about 17 miles north of Cuba, where pilots -- from the Brothers group, Rafters Rescue Legion and the Cuban-American Pilots Association -- circled in what they call a "racetrack formation" for about half an hour.
Father Francisco Santana of Ermita De La Caridad Catholic Church, flying in the lead plane piloted by Brothers founder Jose Basulto, said a eulogy while one by one, pilots and their passengers tossed flowers into the sea.
Ray Martin, a Brothers pilot, flew in from Tampa for the memorial service. He was still emotional after he touched ground.
"I got goose bumps," said Martin, who flew 700 feet above the watery graves of his friends, which were marked by the U.S. Coast Guard.
"I had my own little prayer," he said. "I was busy watching the planes to the side, but I could see the flowers falling from our plane. They looked good. It was beautiful."
Basulto and Brothers' co-founder Billy Schuss led the formation. After returning, they gave a quick press conference and were rushed to the Orange Bowl, escorted by police cars.
"The mission was hard," Basulto said. "We had very bad weather. But it was worth it. I'm feeling a great sense of relief."
Also in Basulto's plane was Orlando Gutierrez of El Directorio Revolucionario Democratico Cubano, carrying flowers and a framed photograph of his friend Mario de la Pena, one of the fallen pilots.
"I want to tell Mario that the struggle against injustice will go on," he said.
Ana Roque, wife of alleged Cuban spy Juan Pablo Roque, came to the airport. Through tears, she expressed her allegiance to the group and pinned a black ribbon on Basulto's shirt.
"Although my husband has departed, I am with them 100 percent," Roque said of the volunteer pilots. "I believe in their mission and I believe in a free Cuba."
Mayte Greco, 36, the only female pilot in theprocession, said it was the only way for her and the others to bury their buddies.
After returning, Greco was visibly moved.
"If the guys were up there watching us, they had big smiles on their faces," she said. "All their friends were out here."
PETER ANDREW BOSCH / Herald Staff
© 1996 The Miami Herald.