The Aviators

Death and near-death experiences haunt these fly guys

The sun shone bright and hot just before noon on a perfect July 4 when 35-year-old Samuel Sax took off from Tamiami Airport in his 1946 Globe Swift. There wasn't a dreary storm cloud in the sky.

He made his way north in the nimble single-engine two-seater, cruising over Key Biscayne and skirting the Miami Beach coastline, where he spotted thousands of sunbathers, boaters, and swimmers. Around 12:35 p.m., Sax faced a pilot's worst fear. "The engine quit while I was flying over the News Café," he recalls. "I radioed the tower at Tamiami to let them know I was in trouble."

Sax looked below. He thought about putting her down in a shallow area with the landing gear up. "But I saw all these dots in the water," Sax continues. "The dots were people swimming. I didn't want to decapitate anyone."

photos by Jacqueline Carini
Walter Orth (left) helps Samuel Sax with his radio-equipped 
Jacqueline Carini
Walter Orth (left) helps Samuel Sax with his radio-equipped helmet

He couldn't land in the deep part either, because he might drown inside the sinking plane, which had cost him $20,000. Then, around 800 feet above sea level, Sax noticed a space of sand between the beachgoers and a boardwalk west of the shrubbery and immediately south of Sixth Street. "I had enough altitude to make a complete circle so I could drop the flaps and the tires," Sax says. "And I landed behind the sunbathers."

Mind you, only 45 seconds had elapsed between the time the engine went out and Sax touched down. The pilot, who had served in the Israeli Air Force from 1974 to 1978, had the presence of mind to find a safe landing spot. "In order to survive, you have to maintain a certain gliding speed," Sax explains. "In my case, it was 64 miles per hour. You keep flying the plane until it stops flying."

A little luck helps too. Had his speed slowed to less than 64 mph, Sax probably wouldn't be here today. He says of the descent: "I could feel the artery in my neck pulsating. I was scared. But it's okay to be afraid in those situations. Anyone who says otherwise is full of crap."

The emergency landing made instant news. As soon as Sax had radioed the Tamiami tower, Miami Beach police and fire rescue as well as the U.S. Coast Guard were notified. At the same time, an outdoor concert off First Street was teeming with uniformed and plainclothes cops as well as television news crews. "Once I got out of the airplane, I see all these police officers and detectives running toward the plane," Sax says. "And following them are all the TV trucks."

There were officers on horses, all-terrain vehicles, and in sport utility trucks. "They even had a DEA Blackhawk out there," Sax says incredulously. "When the first police officer came up to me, he asked for permission to search my plane. I guess they thought I was smuggling something."

In the middle of the ruckus, Sax phoned his best friend, airplane mechanic Gary Pope, who owned a truck capable of towing Sax's plane back to Tamiami Airport, where he stored it. Pope also owned a Swift. "We're like brothers," Pope boasts during a recent conversation. "If he needs my help, I'll drop whatever I'm doing."

Pope arrived on the scene. He and Sax took apart the Swift's wings and loaded them onto the bed of the pickup. Pope then used a contraption that allowed him to hitch the plane's tail to the back of the truck. Later that evening, Sax videotaped news reports about his brush with fame.

At his West Kendall house this past September 3, Sax showed off the July 5, 1991 Miami Herald front page. Above the fold, the newspaper posted a photo of Sax landing the Swift behind a group of stunned sun revelers and their umbrellas.

Then he played the news montage of the emergency landing on the flat-screen TV set in his family room. Sax's ten-year-old daughter smiled throughout the viewing. "I think my dad is so cool," she said afterward. "But I really don't like to fly in small airplanes."

Fifteen years after the South Beach mishap, more than 3000 feet above the swampy marshland of the Everglades, Sax guides his cobalt blue Nanchang CJ-6, the "Sax Machine," through storm clouds rolling in from the east and west. "I needed to wash her anyway," he says in a gravelly Israeli accent.

Wearing a radio-equipped helmet, aviator sunglasses, and gloves, the former Israeli Air Force pilot looks like he's flying a sortie over southern Lebanon. With two fellow aviators, Terry Lewis and Fred Schlafly, he is working on a formation-flying routine this muggy morning.

Retired airline pilot Lewis is behind the controls of his own CJ-6, a plane almost identical to the Sax Machine, down to the blue color scheme and the red-and-yellow Chinese decals. But there are a couple of notable differences between the Nanchangs. Lewis's CJ-6 has a standard two-blade propeller powered by a stock 265-horsepower engine, while the 365-horsepower block on the Sax Machine is outfitted with an industrial-strength three-blade propeller. "It adds about twenty percent more thrust," Sax says, adding he spent about $35,000 on the upgrades.

Schlafly, a retired Miami-Dade Police commander who enjoys bear hunting and other death-defying hobbies, is flying his white and cardinal red Yakovlev 52, the Russian version of the CJ-6.

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