100 Minutes to Freedom
by David Savold
Sometime around 4 a.m. on December 19, 1992, the manager of the Seaward
Motel on Florida's Marathon Key heard the bell ring at the front desk.
In the lobby he found two men waiting to check in. The younger of the
two was wearing shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. The other, who appeared
Hispanic, was wearing a dark blue running suit and moved like an
athlete. He had what could be described as a baby face, but this morning
his eyes were bloodshot and had dark circles beneath them. The name he
signed in the hotel register was Joao Garcia.
The manager probably wouldn't have been surprised to learn that Garcia
wasn't the man's name. This was southern Florida, where drug smuggling,
much of it done by air, was a fact of life. Marathon Airport, a small
facility that handles mostly Piper Cubs and a handful of corporate jets,
was just across Route 1 from the motel. In fact, the two men had just
landed there in a twin-engine Cessna 310.
But the man who was calling himself Garcia was no drug smuggler. He was
Orestes Lorenzo Perez, a former pilot in the Cuban air force who had
made headlines the previous year when he defected to the United States
by flying a MiG-23 to Florida. Though he had gained his freedom, Lorenzo
purchased it at the cost of his family, whom he had been forced to leave
behind. Now he was planning a defection in reverse: a flight back to
Cuba to bring his wife, Victoria, and their two sons--Reyniel, 11, and
Alejandro, six--to the United States.
Lorenzo's companion was Ron Murphy, the Cessna's previous owner. He had
flown down with Lorenzo from Columbus, Georgia, mainly to provide a
voice for the radio, just in case anyone monitoring the airwaves from
Cuba should recognize Lorenzo's voice. Tomorrow Lorenzo would set out
alone for Cuba.
Thirty years after Fidel Castro's revolution, the Pearl of the Antilles
had long lost its luster. Its economy already hard-pressed from a
U.S.-imposed trade embargo, Cuba had recently lost the vital economic
support of the Soviet Union, its major trading partner. As the economy
worsened, fuel and food became scarce. So desperate were living
conditions that in 1992 thousands of Cubans would risk crossing the
Florida Straits in barely seaworthy vessels to escape.
Lorenzo had been born in 1956, two years before Castro's guerrilla
forces overthrew the Batista regime in Cuba. When Lorenzo was three, he
flew his first airplane--a toy his Uncle Orlando had brought for
Christmas from the United States. It would inspire Lorenzo's dream of
flying and eventually lead him to be chosen for a scholarship to flight
school in the Soviet Union. There he learned to fly a small
Czechoslovakian Aero L-29 Delfin two-seat jet trainer. Soon he was
flying MiG-21s in Angola, part of the Cuban forces sent to support the
country's Marxist government against the guerrilla armies attempting to
Lorenzo and Victoria married in 1976. While Lorenzo's military career
forced him to endure long separations from his wife, Victoria studied to
become a dentist. Their first son, Reyniel, was born in 1981. Four years
later the family was sent to the Soviet Union so Lorenzo could attend
officer training school. When they finally returned to Cuba, Lorenzo was
assigned to Santa Clara Air Base, about 165 miles east of Havana. There
he found that the only changes in Cuba had been for the worse. Even
compared to life in the Soviet Union, which was undergoing the thaw of
Gorbachev's glasnost, Cuba was unbearably oppressive. Castro, trying to
distract the citizens from their internal problems, now kept the country
on alert for a U.S. invasion. "I used to sleep three or four days inside
the base because tomorrow will be American invasion," Lorenzo remembers.
"Psychologically, it's terrible."
Now deputy base commander, Lorenzo talked with his wife for months about
what to do. Finally they both realized he must go. "We decided that the
best way to do it, I would fly away. I would try getting out of Cuba,"
he says. On March 20, 1991, Lorenzo suddenly appeared in the Florida
skies over Boca Chica Naval Air Station in a MiG-23, circling three
times in the noon sun and waggling his wings to signify friendly
The Cuban government publicly promised that any Cuban with a visa would
be allowed to leave the country, and Lorenzo had hoped the government
would want to avoid creating a scandal by keeping his family. Yet he
told Victoria on the day he left, "If in a year you are not allowed to
leave Cuba, I will be back for you. I don't know how--in a boat, a
plane, or swimming--but I will be back for you and the children."
Soon after his arrival in the United States, Lorenzo started a campaign
to win his family back. Radio Marti carried his appeals across the
Florida Straits to Cuba. In New York City, he denounced the government
of his former country at an anti-Castro rally. In Geneva, he asked for
the world's help before a United Nations Human Rights Commission. In
Madrid, he chained himself to the gates of Retiro Park and went on a
week-long hunger strike. He met with a host of dignitaries, including
President George Bush, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, and Coretta Scott
King. But it was all to no avail, and Lorenzo began to feel increasingly
helpless. "Every night my children were calling me," he says. "In fact,
I used to sleep a couple of hours and I'd get up scared because I could
confirm that my children were with me in my room. They were talking to
me. They were asking for help."
The Cuban government had told Victoria that the family would never be
allowed to leave the country, and Lorenzo realized he would somehow have
to get them himself. Helicopters and speedboats were out--both were too
expensive. The only way he could get to Cuba and back again was with a
light airplane. So Lorenzo started taking flying lessons. Although he
had flown over a thousand hours in high-performance jet aircraft, he had
never flown piston-engine or light airplanes. He enrolled in a flight
school near his new home in northern Virginia, and for six weeks the
ex-MiG pilot attended classes with a dozen neophyte aviators as fellow
As soon as he got his license, Lorenzo started to look for an airplane.
Through friends at the Valladares Foundation, a human rights
organization founded in 1989 by a former Cuban political prisoner, he
learned of a 1961 Cessna 310F with 6,000 hours on it. Painted white with
a blue racing stripe and a nose the same turquoise as the water off the
Florida Keys, the twin-engine airplane had been manufactured the same
year as the Bay of Pigs invasion and it looked its age. Originally owned
by the state of Georgia, it had spent some time in New Mexico before Ron
Murphy had purchased it in November 1991. He was willing to sell it for
$30,000, and the Valladares Foundation agreed to purchase the airplane
for the rescue attempt.
When he checked into the Seaward Motel, Lorenzo had not slept for three
days, yet once in his room he resumed studying the plans for his flight.
Every night for the past several months he had been working things out
in his tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Washington D.C. suburbs. He had
covered his map, a chart of Cuba's western coast he had purchased at a
store only two blocks from the White House, with equations and sunset
times. He hoped his inside knowledge of Cuban air defenses would help
him slip through the system.
The next morning he walked back to the airport to check his Cessna. He
refueled the two wingtip tanks for what he hoped would be a 200-mile
round trip. Several hours before he had arrived in Marathon Key he had
talked to his wife and, in a carefully planned code, told her when he
would be arriving. He would start his flight around sunset, arrive with
the last rays of the sun, and get out under a descending curtain of
darkness. He needed just enough light to land on a highway, and then
darkness to protect him from any Cuban MiGs that might pursue him. To
arrive at the rendezvous site in Cuba at 5:45, Lorenzo calculated that
he would need to take off at 5:07 exactly.
Later that morning two friends from the Valladares Foundation met him at
the airport. They wanted to take pictures of Lorenzo with his Cessna and
he good-naturedly complied, although he was nervous about creating a
scene. Well aware of the prevalence of drug smuggling in the Florida
Keys, he didn't want to arouse suspicion by hanging around the airport.
He and his friends went for a walk. They had lunch at Pizza Hut. They
got ice cream cones.
At 4:00 p.m. Lorenzo returned to the airplane, did a final walk-around
check, and then climbed into the cockpit. He was still wearing the
running suit, an early Christmas present from friends who had asked him
to wear it on the flight. He sat in the cabin repeating everything until
4:50. Then he started the engine. After one more run-through of his
checklist, he started to taxi slowly to the runway. At exactly 5:07 he
radioed local air traffic: "Cessna 5819. Departing runway 07."
Lorenzo left the Keys, flying about a thousand feet above the flat and
translucent sea. Far off he could see a tanker crossing the Florida
Straits. Ninety miles away lay Cuba.
On his left knee Lorenzo had his flight plan. On his right knee he had
strapped his calculator. He had also brought a camera, but nothing else
except for some soft drinks and a box of chocolates. To protect himself
in the event he was caught, he had left all identification cards at
As he got further out over the Gulf Stream and the sea turned darker
blue, he shut down the radar transponder, lights, and radio to avoid
being detected. After he had been flying for about 15 minutes, Lorenzo
started to descend until he was flying about ten feet above the waves.
His altimeter indicated zero. He had a loran system to navigate and
determine his geographical position. As he approached the 24th parallel,
which lies almost halfway between Key West and Cuba, he realized that he
was ahead of schedule. At Marathon he had gotten figures for wind
velocity and direction, but the tailwinds were a little stronger than
expected. Lorenzo considered making a 360-degree turn to kill time, but
decided against it in case he was already on Cuban radar.
Lorenzo calculated that once he appeared on Cuban radar, he would have
about 15 minutes to pick up his family. He knew it took 20 seconds for
the radar to complete a 360-degree sweep. Even if the radar operator
were paying close attention, Lorenzo knew the radar would have to sweep
the screen three times before the operator could positively identify
Lorenzo's Cessna as an aircraft flying south. But Cuba's P-14 radar
didn't provide altitude information: to get that, the operator would have
to call a PRV-11 radar operator. This would give Lorenzo at least
The key to Lorenzo's plan was the clumsy chain of command that would be
initiated at this point. An alert would require a time-consuming series
of phone calls up the command hierarchy, from a company to a battalion
to a brigade to a division. That would buy him a few more minutes as he
got closer to his destination.
He had other advantages. He knew that the island has daily blackouts to
save power, so the radar is often shut down. The system's old Russian
radar uses tubes instead of transistors, and Cuba's humidity causes them
to break down often. He also knew that the people operating the radar
were increasingly apathetic. "The situation in Cuba is nobody cares for
anything," he says.
In fact, Lorenzo was less concerned that the Cuban air defense system
would catch him than he was that his wife and children wouldn't make it
to the rendezvous point. Victoria would have a difficult trip. When
Lorenzo was checking into the Seaward Motel earlier that morning, his
wife had been getting up at her parents' house in Havana, where she had
moved with her sons after Lorenzo's defection. To reach the rendezvous
spot, she had to travel 70 miles through a country where gasoline was so
scarce that Castro had declared 1991 the Year of the Bicycle. She left
at 8 a.m. and, like many around Cuba, caught rides with passing cars.
For each ride she paid a hundred pesos--in a country where an engineer
made only three times that in a month.
Lorenzo would have liked to pick up his family on a highway where he
used to land his MiG-21 during military exercises. But the rendezvous
would have to take place at a spot that was both accessible to his wife
and yet not likely to arouse the suspicion of anyone keeping her under
surveillance. This meant the rescue site had to be somewhere between
Havana and Matanzas, where his parents lived.
He knew the Matanzas area well because he used to snorkel nearby. For
the rendezvous point, Lorenzo had picked a new highway that ran from the
old coastal highway to a new airport. The only problem was that the site
was located near four anti-aircraft missile complexes. But Lorenzo knew
that authorities would need Castro's personal okay before shooting down
an airplane. Even after Castro had been located and had given the
command, it would still take a minimum of three minutes to warm up the
radar--if it had been shut off during a blackout. Lorenzo also knew that
the missiles' range was only 15 miles. He hoped that by the time the
missiles were ready to fire, he would be well on his way back to
Not long past the 24th parallel, Lorenzo saw Matanzas materialize on the
horizon. First he saw the hills that loom over the city, then the
buildings and the 400-foot-high bridge that spans the Canimar River. As
he approached the bridge he began to climb. His wife was supposed to be
waiting about a mile east of the bridge, where the road curves around a
hill. Lorenzo was flying so low, however, that the hill blocked his view
of the rendezvous site. He banked around the hill at about 20 feet and
finally spotted the rendezvous spot. But he still didn't see Victoria.
He had only a single chance to land, so he reduced speed and dropped the
He was approaching to land on the two-lane highway when he saw his wife
on his left. As he had instructed, she and the children were wearing
brightly colored clothes so he could spot them quickly. It had been 21
months since he had last seen them, and now there they were on the side
of a road, wearing fluorescent orange T-shirts and caps. Below him, a
small car was moving in the same direction as the airplane. Several
hundred yards ahead of it a truck was approaching. Behind that a bus was
trying to pass. Lorenzo planned to fly over the car and land in the
highway between the car and the oncoming truck when he noticed a large
rock in the middle of the road.
He didn't have room for a proper landing, but he knew there wasn't time
for a second approach. He overflew the car and raised the left wing to
pass the rock, then touched down. When the Cessna came to a stop,
Lorenzo found himself staring directly at the truck's driver, who sat
clutching his steering wheel, his eyes wide and mouth open.
Victoria didn't see her husband until the airplane was almost on the
ground. She and the children had their backs turned to the Cessna as it
approached and couldn't hear it because of the traffic on the highway.
Now they ran toward the airplane, Victoria gripping her sons' hands.
While his family was running to him, Lorenzo turned the Cessna around
and then made another 90-degree turn to the left to keep the propellers
away from his family. He opened the door on the starboard side and they
scrambled up into the cockpit: Reyniel, Alejandro, and finally his wife.
Alejandro was barefoot because he had lost both his shoes while running.
"Papi! Papi!" the children cried as they tried to hug their father. But
Lorenzo had to concentrate, and he sternly ordered them to be quiet and
sit in the seats behind him.
His family now aboard, Lorenzo hurried to close the door. Twice he
tried, and each time he failed. "Calmate, calmate," his wife said. "Calm
down, calm down." On the third try he got the door closed.
With the airplane's flaps set for a short field takeoff, Lorenzo began to
accelerate down the highway. As the airspeed indicator showed 60
mph--not fast enough to take off--Lorenzo could see the highway's curve
approaching. He pulled the yoke back slowly and the airplane continued
accelerating, gaining speed.
Finally the Cessna cleared the ground. We did it!, Lorenzo thought, and
he retracted the landing gear. In the back seat, Victoria wrapped her
arms around the boys. They recited the Lord's Prayer.
As he left Cuba, Lorenzo flew over the sea as low as he could. "I had
experience flying at low altitude for the war in Angola," he says. By
flying over the water at night at low altitude and low speed, he hoped
to be an elusive target for any pursuing MiG, which would have to spot
him from above, using radar information from the ground that would be at
least three minutes old by the time the pilots got it. Soon it became
too dark for Lorenzo to continue hugging the water safely. He climbed to
200 feet and maintained that altitude until he reached the 24th
parallel. There he climbed to 3,000 feet and turned the transponder and
lights back on. Victoria and Lorenzo took some pictures with the camera,
and Lorenzo remembered to give his children the box of chocolates he had
brought. It was dark. No moon or stars were shining, but soon Lorenzo
saw the lights of the Keys and U.S. 1 with the lights of cars extending
north to el monstruo, as his kids had been taught to call the country
that was about to become their new home.
"Mira, mira," he urged his wife as he pointed to the lights. "Look
ahead, look ahead." He called air traffic control and they assigned him
an altitude of 7,000 feet. Originally he had planned to fly to Opa Locka
Airport near Miami, but now he was spent, physically and emotionally,
and ready to land. "I was so excited," he says. "I wanted to embrace
them, you know. I don't want to fly. They were free. We did it. We
wanted to enjoy. I was suffering because I couldn't embrace them."
At 6:45 p.m. he was back on the ground. From start to finish the rescue
flight had taken less than 100 minutes. The Cessna was covered with
Transmitted: 94-01-31 19:37:31 EST