The Aviators

Death and near-death experiences haunt these fly guys

The three planes soar perilously close to one another. Only six feet of airspace separates them as they wing over the River of Grass just west of Tamiami-Kendall Executive Airport. Sax is the lead, Lewis on the left, and Schlafly on the right. If an engine sputters, or some other mechanical calamity occurs, the planes could crash into each other or plummet into the muck.

The loud buzzing of the propellers makes casual conversation nearly impossible. Sax communicates with his wingmen by using hand signals and, when needed, barking instructions into the headset.

Sax looks to his right, then makes a fist with his right hand and moves it up and down as if pulling on a train's air horn. Schlafly, who in his bright yellow and black helmet resembles a wasp drone, slows and then lines up to the left of Lewis.

Sax and his buddies roll the CJ-6 onto the tarmac
Jacqueline Carini
Sax and his buddies roll the CJ-6 onto the tarmac
Best friends Gary Pope (left) and Samuel Sax have been 
flying together for sixteen years
Jacqueline Carini
Best friends Gary Pope (left) and Samuel Sax have been flying together for sixteen years

"Echelon left!" Sax commands. In one majestic, synchronized move, the three planes bank sharply to the west, zipping past some turkey vultures. Sax then instructs Schlafly to break formation and fly on his own, while he and Lewis begin a series of high-pitch turns. The Sax Machine's cockpit feels like a roller coaster barreling down a corkscrew.

Before the flight, the pilot had listed things to do in case the plane went down: how to release the five-point seat harness, how to open the dome-shape cockpit window, and most important, how to drop clear of the plane before opening the parachute. "We're lucky," Sax had said. "Parachutes are not a luxury you find on most small aircraft."

Sax and Lewis regroup and head east. But Sax has lost track of Schlafly and scans the cumulonimbus clouds pouring water on Southwest Miami-Dade. Then he sees that his buddy in the Yak 52 is heading northwest.

Sax calls his wingman on the radio: "You're going the wrong way. You're gonna end up in Naples."

"Where are you?" Schlafly responds.

"We're right by the big black cloud to your east," Sax says.

As Schlafly rejoins the formation, the three planes disappear into the pounding rain and soar toward Tamiami Airport. "Fantastic," Sax raps into the radio.


Walter Orth, a retired vice president for Lucent Technologies who has piloted small aircraft since 1971, is a tall, broad-shouldered man with sleepy blue eyes and a pronounced jowl. His white T-shirt is tucked into blue yachting shorts. His faded baseball cap is pulled tightly over his scalp. "I like to push the entire aerobatic envelope," he chimes.

Orth began flying war birds in 1991, when he bought an Aeronca L-3B Grasshopper, a World War II-era plane used for patrols, transporting VIPs, and spotting enemy artillery. Three years later, Orth moved to Miami. In 1997 he purchased his first AT-6D, dubbed the "Texan." Built in 1943, Orth's Texan was used by the army's special forces for training.

Orth restored the plane to its original state, down to the U.S. Army decals affixed to the bottom of the wings. It strikes an imposing profile with its metallic silver paint job and bright orange tail and nose. More than 17,000 Texans were produced for service in the army, navy, and air force. But only 500 are still flying today. Recently Orth spent $6000 to replace three engine pistons on his AT-6D. He purchased the plane in 1997 for $120,000. He estimates he has invested another $50,000. "But these planes appreciate in value if you know how to properly maintain them," Orth allows. "My plane is probably worth $175,000 now."

In 2001 Orth and Thomas Righetti, a noted Miami radiologist who owned several types of war birds, founded Wings Over Miami, an aviation-theme museum at Tamiami Airport where they could show off their vintage planes to the public. The museum also showcases Miami's role in aviation, from Amelia Earhart's fateful Opa-locka takeoff to the rise and fall of Eastern Airlines. "We're not just pilots," Orth says. "We're caretakers of history."

Sax met Orth and Righetti during the mid-Nineties. The men developed a kinship from flying vintage military aircraft. "We all share a passion for military aviation," Orth says. "We don't do this out of casual interest."

So when Orth and Righetti opened the museum, they invited Sax to display and park his CJ-6 in the museum hangar. Today that hangar, not far from the control tower, is like a giant model airplane display case. In addition to Sax's plane there are three versions of the Texan and a 1942 Boeing Stearman PT-17, one of the last biplanes to be used for military training. Then there are the Russian jets, like the L-29 Delphin, which can reach up to six-degree g-forces.

The museum has become a shop-talk home base for dozens of flyers like Sax, Lewis, and Schlafly. Every other Saturday the trio practices tactical aerial maneuvers in their war birds — while others, like Orth, tinker with their aircraft.

Most of the pilots at Wings Over Miami, including Sax, are experienced flyboys who take off from Tamiami-Kendall Executive Airport with no particular purpose other than training themselves for the state's air-show circuit, where they get to strut their piloting skills. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are 912 civilian pilots in Miami-Dade County. Only a handful is certified to perform stunts.

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