The Lost Brothers; Castro's Air Force Downs Two Rescue Planes

By Watson, Russell | Newsweek, March 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Lost Brothers; Castro's Air Force Downs Two Rescue Planes


Watson, Russell, Newsweek


THE LITTLE, PROPELLER-DRIVEN planes were a familiar sight in the sky between southern Florida and the coast of Cuba. For years, they had gone out looking for balseros--people on homemade rafts trying to escape from Cuba. When they spotted a raft, the planes circled low, dropping small radios in waterproof wrapping so that the air crews could talk to the balseros and offer to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help. Last Saturday afternoon, three of the planes took off on another mission. But as they flew parallel to the Cuban coast somewhere north of Havana, they were attacked by Fidel Castro's air force. A smoke marker appeared in the sky, suspended beneath a parachute. A MiG fighter dove right in front of one of the Cessnas. Another smoke ball appeared. Two of the little planes splashed into the sea, taking four men down with them and leaving only an oil slick behind.

The third plane made it safely back to, Florida. Its pilot was Jose Basulto, a Bay of Pigs veteran and founder of Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban exile group that has been operating the rescue flights since 1991. "We were all in international waters," he told reporters in Florida. "We reported our position, our intentions, our goals, our presence" to Cuban air-traffic controllers. The planes were flying several miles apart, staying in touch by radio, when the attack began. Suddenly, Basulto lost touch with the aircraft piloted by Carlos Costa. Moments later, the plane flown by Mario Pella went off the air. Basulto dove into cloud cover and headed back to Florida.

He insisted his planes had been on a routine mission of mercy., But in the past year, Basulto had mounted more than one kind of mission. In addition to the rescue flights, which have saved hundreds of rafters, his planes have flown into Cuban airspace on at least two occasions, dropping propaganda leaflets over Havana urging civil disobedience. "We are in favor of confrontation," Basulto told an 'interviewer recently. "The difference is, we confront without weapons." Stung by Basulto's challenge, Castro issued a warning: if anyone tried it again, he'd shoot them down. …

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