The Aviators

Death and near-death experiences haunt these fly guys

The next morning, the search crew found Righetti's remains. He had never left the pilot's seat.

At 12:30 p.m., Amos was in her Coconut Grove home, anxiously awaiting word from Snodgrass, when the phone rang. It was the search leader, who thought he was calling Snodgrass. When she said she was Righetti's wife, "There was silence on the other end for a few seconds," Amos retraces. "He said, öI'm sorry, ma'am, but there were no survivors.' It was the end of my life as I knew it."

According to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Righetti might have experienced spatial disorientation when he flew into bad weather.

Jacqueline Carini
Three war birds soar above Tamiami Airport during the Wings Over Miami air show earlier this year
Jacqueline Carini
Three war birds soar above Tamiami Airport during the Wings Over Miami air show earlier this year
Miss America is one of three fully restored Texan 
World War II-era training jets on display at Tamiami Airport
Jacqueline Carini
Miss America is one of three fully restored Texan World War II-era training jets on display at Tamiami Airport
Gary Pope
Jacqueline Carini
Gary Pope
Walter Orth reviews a flight plan
Jacqueline Carini
Walter Orth reviews a flight plan
Even though flying frightened her, Betty Amos Righetti 
never kept her husband Tom from his hobby
Jacqueline Carini
Even though flying frightened her, Betty Amos Righetti never kept her husband Tom from his hobby

Among the first people to pay Amos their respects was Sax. "Righetti's death was a devastating blow to all of us who knew him," Sax comments while munching on a tuna burger at the Keg, a quaint sports bar near Tamiami Airport. "He was a kind and giving person. He was a very close friend."

At the funeral, Sax, Pope, Orth, and Vincent Tirado Jr. performed a missing-man formation in honor of Righetti. "It starts out as a regular four-plane diamond formation," Sax says. "But then the third wingman starts to pull away from the formation until you can't see him anymore, symbolizing our departed comrade."

A memorial to Righetti greets visitors near the museum's front entrance. Every time Amos, now the president, arrives at the museum, she kisses the keystone-mounted bronze plaque that depicts her late husband.


This past September 2, shortly before noon, Sax is inside the museum hangar, reviewing his checklist before takeoff. He walks around his CJ-6, inspecting the propeller blades, securing the engine cowl cover, probing the landing gear, wings, and tail. He looks for fuel or oil leaks and meticulously reviews every detail. He apologizes to a visitor if he seems standoffish. "It's not like I can stop on a cloud should something happen," he says. "So it's very important that I don't lose my concentration during the preflight check."

Today is the last time he'll fly his plane before departing for Israel. He's going to a family wedding.

Sax's best friend Gary Pope pulls up to the museum hangar in his menacing, midnight black CJ-6. In the United States, a CJ-6 typically goes for $70,000 to $80,000. But Pope saved about $25,000 when he bought his Nanchang directly from China and had it shipped to the Port of Miami in 2001. This year he installed underneath the wings two extra fuel tanks that add about 24 gallons. "The tanks are made to look like two bombs," Pope says enthusiastically.

Pope, the son of an airline pilot, parks the plane in his private hangar, also located at Tamiami. His wife of 21 years, Mary Ann, isn't crazy about her husband's hobby. "It's not my favorite thing," she admits as she watches him prepare for flight. "But you just say a little prayer and hope for the best." She has flown with Gary in the CJ-6. "I really enjoyed it," she says. "I didn't feel as closed in as I did in his other planes."

Soon Sax and Pope are decked out in olive green jumpsuits. They have decorated them with arm patches that read: "The Warbirds of America: Keep 'Em Flying" and "Redstar Pilots Association." Sax, sweating profusely, unzips the suit's left calf pocket and pulls out a towel to dry his brow.

Sax and Pope strap themselves into their CJ-6s, kick on the engines, and depart from Tamiami Airport. High above the Everglades, Sax guns the engine and performs a series of stomach-churning, brain-mashing barrel rolls and loops. Then he rejoins Pope. The two CJ-6s bounce across the horizon like dragonflies buzzing over the River of Grass. For Sax, testing the plane's limits is an outlet for the stress of life on the ground. "It's a healthy way of getting high," Sax quips, "a peaceful, fun escape."

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