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

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.

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.

"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.

Orth and Sax are among those accredited to lead formation-flying routines at air shows. This sort of aviation involves two to four military planes flying in sync. "When you get into a tight formation with guys you trust and you do it well, it is one of the most exciting experiences," Orth says. "[Sax] is one of the very best."

In fact Sax was the first of the war-bird pilots at Tamiami to obtain his formation-flying certification. He trained best friend Pope as well as Orth, Lewis, and Schlafly. Every year they fly together in three to four air shows across the state. They plan to participate in St. Petersburg's Suncoast Airfest in October and the Stuart Airfest in November. The Tamiami aviators also perform their routine at the Wings Over Miami air show every February and at Lakeland's Sun 'n Fun Fly-in every April.

Air-show organizers typically cover only the pilots' fuel costs. "Sometimes our own expenses exceed the allowance they give us," Sax says. "But we do it because we love the camaraderie, the excitement, the fun, and the sheer exhilaration of flying these types of aircraft."

It's sort of like people who enjoy fishing, Sax explains. "By the time you catch ten fish, it would have been cheaper to buy them in the store," he says. "It might be more expensive than the perceived value, but we just love flying at air shows."


Betty Amos Righetti and Samantha, her four-month-old Jack Russell terrier, are sitting in a chair inside the Wings Over Miami museum's gift shop and library. The white-and-brown spotted puppy frantically nips at her owner's fingers. "Samantha, be a good girl for Mommy," coos Amos, a petite 64-year-old blond with a warm smile. Then she turns away, as if trying to hide her watery blue eyes.

Conversing with a visitor, Amos is recalling the life and death of her second husband and Wings Over Miami cofounder Thomas Righetti. "Things happen the way they are supposed to happen," Amos whispers, "whether we like it or not."

Amos, a CPA and local philanthropist who owns and operates three Fuddruckers restaurants in South Florida, began dating Righetti in 1977, a year after she finished her MBA at the University of Miami. Righetti's then-medical-practice partner introduced him to Amos. "It was instantaneous," Amos says, describing the romance. "I knew he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."

The couple married in 1982, the same year Righetti began flying ultralights. "I thought I was marrying a doctor," Amos jests, "not some crazy pilot."

Amos reveals she was frightened by Righetti's new pastime. "Tom always joked to people that I would not fly with him on any plane that could go upside down."

But she never tried to dissuade her husband from flying, Amos insists. "He absolutely loved it. And the museum was his dream."

Righetti bought his first war bird, a Czech-made L-39, in 1997. The low-wing, turbofan-powered jet was designed for basic and advanced training. One year later, he purchased his prized possession, the F-86 Sabre, which cost him approximately $350,000 and four years of restoration work. He also owned a Russian MiG 15 that cost him 300 G's.

In spring 2000, Righetti met Dale Snodgrass, a retired naval air captain who holds the world record for most flight time on an F-14 Tomcat. By the end of this year, Snodgrass's record will become permanent. The U.S. military is retiring the F-14, its most famous combat jet, to make way for the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Snodgrass, who resides in St. Augustine, was looking for someone who would let him fly an F-86 Sabre full-time on the air-show circuit. He found his man in Righetti. "They became instant buddies," Amos remembers.

Snodgrass, a fighter commander during Operation Desert Storm, says things worked out nicely for both pilots. "I had all the access and contracts to the air shows," he recalls during a recent telephone interview. "And Tom had the planes."

They developed a simulated dogfight routine in St. Augustine. Righetti flew the MiG 15, and Snodgrass the F-86. "We would chase each other, do barrel rolls, tight turns, and other aerobatic maneuvers," Snodgrass says. "I would simulate a gun-kill, and Tom would turn on his smoke to make it look like his plane was on fire. The [air show] crowds loved it."

On September 18, 2002, Righetti was en route to participate in an air show at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, where he and Snodgrass were slated to perform their dogfight routine. "The prior morning he was like a little kid," Amos recalls. "He was so excited."

First Righetti flew to St. Augustine in the small PT-17 to pick up the MiG. Then he made a fuel stop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Ten minutes after takeoff, Righetti radioed he was experiencing bad weather and heading back to Myrtle Beach. That was the last time anyone heard from him.

Later that day, after Righetti failed to show up in Virginia, military search-and-rescue teams found the wreckage in Columbus County, North Carolina. Storms prevented a navy helicopter from dropping in a search team member to determine if Righetti was still in the cockpit. "I tried to keep positive," Snodgrass recollects. "But that was a difficult plane to get out of. The cockpit release was not functional."

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.

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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