With that first sighting, Sotero embarked on the path toward building his own planes — a siren song that has pulled in at least 2,235 in Florida and 33,000 nationwide. Each year, they spend millions on building and upgrading their planes, inventing new designs in the process. It's a hobby defended lustily by those like Sotero who point out that scores of innovations in small aircraft construction have come about because of risktakers and hobby builders.

"The vast majority of these planes are really well built," says Yale Mosk, who heads the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. "Some of them are real works of art. Plus they are usually a lot more economical to fly than certified planes and are faster too."

Sotero's younger brother, Albert, had started flying when he was a teenager. But Luis had been too busy racing to follow suit. Besides, he had always been bored by the idea of cruising so high that speed was an afterthought.

Luis Sotero Jr. prepares for take-off in his turbocharged SeaRay boatplane.
Giulio Sciorio
Luis Sotero Jr. prepares for take-off in his turbocharged SeaRay boatplane.
Sotero flies airplanes he builds himself.
Giulio Sciorio
Sotero flies airplanes he builds himself.

Make your own paper plane with this week's New Times cover.

A few days after first spotting the drifter, Sotero was on the ocean with friends when the same plane skidded to a stop next to their boat. The pilot told Sotero that he had built it himself, making it an "amateur-built" airplane according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That meant he could do all the repairs himself, and tweak the engine and design, as he'd done with his boats and bikes.

Sotero immediately forked over nearly $40,000 for a kit. It arrived in several giant cardboard boxes in the mail. Over the course of a few months, he and a friend slowly assembled the plane. Finally, the plane — and Sotero — was certified to fly.

When Luis told Albert about his new ride, the younger, more experienced pilot scoffed. "Those things are a piece of shit!" he said. Luis invited him up for a ride. "You're fucking crazy," Albert answered. "You crash everything! You think I'm going to go up in a plane with you?"

But his reluctance gave way to awe when he saw Luis doing flips and barrel rolls that would have been impossible in his fleet of Cessnas.

The Sotero brothers are now mainstays at Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, Miami's hub for experimental aviation. (Albert operated a large portion of the airport until this spring when Landmark Aviation took it over.) Here, inside metal hangars the size of suburban garages, middle-aged men and balding retirees hunker over home-built aircraft in various stages of completion.

Not all of them are adrenaline junkies like Luis Sotero. But building their airplanes does fill some deep-seated psychological need. There is a midlife crisis behind every sliding hangar door.

Take José Méndez, an affable Puerto Rican with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee, who has spent two years and $55,000 of his savings on building a helicopter. Not just any helicopter: a jet-powered helicopter that would look more at home in a James Bond movie than hovering over Miami. It bears the word EXPERIMENTAL in block letters. Méndez repairs emergency room equipment for a living at Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach. Building his own helicopter saved him $100,000 and let him trick out his baby like an East L.A. lowrider.

"This is the only set of controls like it in the world," he says, gripping what looks like a computer game joystick connected to a Samsung tablet. He pushes a button and Windows XP boots to life.

Unlike Sotero — who keeps a photo on his phone of his Porsche speedometer hitting 201 miles per hour — Méndez is no speed freak. Instead, his helicopter is a chance to make up for decades lost. He learned to fly before he could legally drive in his native Bayamon, but with five children, he didn't fly for 23 years.

Now that he is divorced, the helicopter has taken center stage in his life. For two years, Méndez spent six days a week working on it. "I have to have something to motivate me," he says. "So I built this."

He flicks on the engine and the machine whirs to life like Robocop, the engine screeching as it sucks in air. But Méndez cuts it after only a few seconds. The craft isn't certified yet, and won't get key parts until maker Helicycle inspects the chopper. "Without them, the vibrations would lead to catastrophic failure," he says matter-of-factly. "If this overheats," he says, pointing to a T62-32 Solar jet engine the size of a Harley-Davidson motor, "it would be like a missile going off."

Mosk, the association head, doesn't build his own planes, but he's spokesman in chief for the several dozen Miamians who do. The 77-year-old still flies a red and blue biplane whose design dates to 1926. While in the Army from 1955-57, Mosk flew unmanned aircraft around the deserts of New Mexico — the prototype for the Predator drones now tracking Al Qaeda members around the Middle East.

He says there's no reason to worry about pilots who build their own craft.

"There are always some around who don't know what they are doing and are going to hurt themselves," Mosk says. "[There are] plenty of people who should not be building airplanes. They should stick to rebuilding cars. But you can usually spot them right away."

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14 comments
Rkrawitz
Rkrawitz

I enjoyed this article very much. Go fly a man, but what I do not understand is why the writer felt the need to point out that you are"Cuban-American"as far as I'm concerned you are"American"you were born in this country, and that's that. There was no need for Mr. Miller to include that term. I understand his life story made him the man he is today. But why must we label him as Cuban-American, when he was born in the United States. We are the great melting pot. until we stop labeling each other,we will never be truly united.below is a copy of an open letter to Mr. Ben Jealous of the NAACP and it explains my idea and how I feel about putting America first.

Dear Mr. Jelous, I have become quite alarmed at the casual use of African-American. The American experience is insulted every time we hyphen America. The American experience is a great melting pot, we come from all spices of the world to be Americans. America has never demanded one to forget their heritage, we add that to the great experience of America. But in order for us to be unified as a country, we must put America first. And that means we must stop hyphenating America. I will agree that Americans of African dissent have a very unique reason for being in America. And for that there is no argument to your suffering for equal rights. Also, when I refer to hyphenating America, I'm also talking about all other ethnic groups too. I will refer to the great melting pot of America also. I believe that all the cultures in the world add their flavors to the American melting pot, and language, especially a single language, is the broth that brings the flavors together in the wonderful soup that we call America. But that's another conversation, but I will refer to it in my argument for my proposal. I've always been a student of history, and the plight of the worlds persecuted that came to America for a better life. They came here to be Americans. This is been part of my core values since I was very young. What started me on this quest, was watching a show called" In search of" with Leonard Nimoy, in this particular episode, the host was examining the interment of Americans during WW II.. He was interviewing a woman who was born in the United States. He made it a point when introducing her, to refer to her as an "American" of Japanese descent. That spoke volumes to me. The 14th amendment states, if were born on this soil, we are American citizens. This interview, laid dormant in my brain for many years until blacks started referring to themselves as African Americans, and I remembered how Leonard Nimoy referred to this woman, who was born in this country. And knowing American history, after the English, the Africans were the next people's to immigrate to the US.(Even though it was not by choice). And I realized, that the blacks ancestors have been in this country longer than 80% of the other ethnic peoples who have immigrated to the US. So by default, they are more Americans than most other people. I'm not trying to diminish the experience of Americans of African descent, for it was an abomination to those people. But nevertheless, American blacks are not Africans. They don't talk like Africans, they don't think like Africans, etc. etc. etc. just like any other ethnic group you wish to look at, for example. Americans of Italian dissent, they connect with the old country, but if you were to take an Italian and compared to an American of Italian dissent, it would be quite different. The American experience is unique. I feel when we hyphenate America, we separate ourselves from each other. If we continue down this path, we will never get rid of racism. Etc. etc.. Every time I have a job application, college application, census , they asked me to check a box for my race. They have many options, I refuse to check any box. When the censers came around, I did not check any race. And would you know, I got a phone call from the Census Bureau asking me to designate a race. I refused, explaining to them that we cannot end racism until we refuse to check the box on what your race is. As far as I'm concerned, we are all Americans, and that's all I need to know. A couple years ago there was a photograph of a DJ in a newspaper. The caption was DJ ????(i for got his name), a Puerto Rican- Cuban- American. And I asked myself, well, what is he, is he Puerto Rican?, is a Cuban?, is he an American?, he could not have been born in Puerto Rico and Cuban at the same time, and it's obvious that one parent is Puerto Rican, and one parent is Cuban. He was probably born in the United States of America. But why did they not put America first?????? I will be happy to celebrate your ancestry, and the unique contribution to America, but let's be Americans first!. That's how I felt when I saw all the caption under his photograph. Living in Miami for many years I've gotten to talk to people from around the Caribbean. When I asked a Haitian of African dissent who he is, he says with pride, I am Haitian, when I ask a Jamaican of African dissent, who he is, he says with pride. I am Jamaican. When I asked a Cuban of African dissent, who he is, he says with pride, I am Cuban. The message is clear, they have pride in their birthright. Most blacks who come from the Caribbean, identify with the country they were born in. They all have great national pride. Thay have knowledge of their African dissent and celebrated it and integrate their African heritage into their unique experience of the Caribbean, but put their country first, with great pride. The blacks in America, as far as I'm concerned do not have pride in their birthright. That is not limited to just Americans of African descent, I'm referring to anyone else who wants to put their heritage first before their birthright of America. Again, I do not wish to deny anyone their heritage, I welcome and enjoy the spice and flavor they bring to America. It is time that all peoples of this great nation celebrate their birthright. For the last 20 years, this issue has been a passion of mine. When talking to people of all ancestries, people generally agree that we need to put America first. In a perfect world, our race and ancestry would not be an issue. I hope that I get to see that day. But in the meanwhile, let's not worry about what is politically correct. Let all peoples of the world who have immigrated to United States of America refer to themselves as Americans of____________( insert ancestry) dissent. When we identify ourselves as one people, then and only then will we be able to leap beyond the label of race. We must start somewhere and resolving this issue that the government has been continued labeling of individuals. I hope that my argument and my experience that I share with you will inspire you to join my cause. Every time I watch the news and they refer to a black individual as African American, it makes my blood boil. I yell at the TV" he's not African". You must understand, Mr.Jelous, I love my country and all the people and it. I may not agree with them, but I will defend their rights to be Americans. And when Americans of African dissent or any other dissent, who is born in this country is referred to themselves as hyphenated- American doesn't seem right. I do see the black community has a pride in their uniqueness of their particular American experience. And I think that is awesome. All of the arts that have come from black Americans, is uniquely American. The blues, R&B, rap, etc. etc. and that's only music. There's a great deal of contributions of black Americans to America,that makes America unique. Without the black American experience in slavery, we wouldn't have the blues, and without the blues, we wouldn't have rock 'n roll. Do you see where I'm going with this. Morgan Freeman once was asked about Black history month, his feelings were that it should not be" Black history", because people like George Washington Carver were Americans first. And should be celebrated as an American first. That black Americans, should not be referred to as blacks or Africans, but simply as Americans and we should abolish Black history month. And I believe it to be a very noble idea. Because we're all Americans, and we should celebrate that and only that, regardless of color or race. I think that's what I'm trying to convey to you today. This subject has been on my mind for many years. I have many thoughts and ideas on the subject. I hope that I've been able to convey to you my passions and desires for unifying the United States of America. Where a country where no one asks what color you are. I know it's a long journey away, but we must start somewhere. I did not know where to start my campaign for America first. But after watching you on the Ed Schultz show I decided that the NAACP President would be a good place to argue my case. I feel that you to have a unique experience of your own America , and I feel that she would be sympathetic to my case. I love my country, and I'm a staunch independent. From time to time, I'm guilty looking at my fellow citizen with question, though I know my core values will prevail. And I will greet my fellow man with love. All my friends who are of African dissent, agree with me that referring to themselves as Africans first is affront to be an American. At first, they are skeptical, but after argue my case with logic and . They come around to my side. Please consider my argument in my proposal, for I only wish that we all come together as Americans first. I love my country, and I love the idea of America. I just hope, however, you came to this country, you embrace the idea of America, life has been hard for many peoples Africans, Irish, Scottish, German, Russian, Italian, Greek, Chinese, etc. etc. etc. who have come to this country for a better life. Let's be" Americans of______________(insert ancestry) dissent. Even though this is not what I want to see. I would like it if we would not have any designation of race or ancestry, but we have to start somewhere. We need a nationalistic pride, not the kind of nationalistic pride that brought forth things like the third Reich, or Italian fascism, or Soviet communism, but the kind of nationalistic pride that brings peace to everyone in our country. I know it sounds a little liberal and dreamy, but I think it could be done. And my 20 plus years of talking to people of all walks of life, it would seem that about 70% of the people fall in the middle and agree with our basic core values. It's the 30% of the blowhards on the right and left that dominate the media, and in turn, dominate mainstream thinking, or so they want us to think?, but my experience is that most people agree with what I'm saying. Thank you for your time. And I hope that my letter has inspired you to start a new movement of"America first". I guarantee from my experience, a majority of Americans are in favor of my ideas. There is a silent majority out there, that is yet to be tapped.how would you like if I always refer to myself as Robert Krawitz, an Scottish,English, Russian Jew, maybe French or Puerto Rican (to be determined) American,(see how absurd that sounds). We need to stop this insanity. Sincerely,Robert Krawitz PS. Please respond that you've received this letterPSS. This letter was dictated Dragon

Luis Sotero
Luis Sotero

Now you can read it straight from the horses mouth. My name is Luis Sotero. I am the person mentioned in this article. I'm going to start by saying that I was misquoted friend a lot of things in this article. I am gonna try to get some of that straight for all the readers. but before doing that I'm going to start with a green with some of the reply I had just raed. most of the aircraft that the reporter took the liberty of talking about his article or actually certified aircraft, not under the experimental category meaning of the recent plane crash with the exception of the homestead tragedy. The Sea Rey is a very very safe fun plane to fly, like I had mentioned to reporter which he failed to put a quote me on. most of the pile is that fly experimental or home built aircraft, have nots knowledge of the aircraft to know what to look for when something is wrong and be able to make a safe and honest determination of rather to fly it or not. unfortunate that is not the same in to the general aviation world. map to put any pile it down. but a big mike joe ready of jenna 1 aviation hide it no little to nothing what to look for an airplane. that's why they always go to the mechanic for the annual inspection, what happened wonders of those bolts in the all around 4 something is wrong with the flops or say something stuck in the gear. or when we have a maid air engine failure. other than the training that we get most of the time that's all we can rely on on the aviation training we get. not much on the mechanical off the plane. like the faa only says safety is no accident. and in 1 man's opinion weaning myself there is no se for pilates in the 1 that knows how to fly I know the airplane in n out. I feel the reporter definitely try to make fun of the aviation world and got me for fool. I took time out of my day to try to properly educated tell me in reference to be great airplanes I love to fly. 42 weeks after he did the interview call me an ask me about my criminal past. winnie ask me I was really forthcoming with him and said I was young and stupid which meaning I didn't know any better. a part of my life that I wish would of never happened and I woulda been on the other side of the fence hoping stop what are you actually did. since 1997 thought I'd been doing is pain society back in my own way are you doing good for others or at least trying to. I don't feel he honestly represented me in the way that I truly am. yes almost full blown adrenaline junkie. but there is another side of me that he failed to show it is article. the father and friend that I am too most or try to be . 1 someone told me everyone leave it to self inflicting. and I could not agree with him anymore than I do. the reporter of this article annie's editor has completely let me down and disappointed me to say the least. to tell you the truth when I pulled back on the power to be able to discern to a safe altitude and we made out of controlled air space the reporter turns pale as a ghost. mind you this is a plane that flies my son and my daughter in with me. the reporter misquoted me on several occasions friends and I never raced 43 races I dont erased 14 total, wheni ask me about my past and I was forthcoming to him about it. I was never talking to him in a joking matter. as a matter of fact I did speak to him that I wish it would never gone down the way did. for him to go out of his way and we open the account warms with mister lumpkin, then reopen bose ones that he must of suffered in is past, thanks to me that is just wrong. unfortunly we can turn back time. I can see once again is that I was young an extremely stupid. he even made a church that was not even mike judge at that time, he quoted the wrong judge my judge was mis. evans. you got the name of the judge that sits in the division to date now map 14 years ago. yes thanks for the great attorney that I had back then and still use for traffic tickets peter heller. I am a free man today extremely grateful come. Irritated and in no need of never falling back into that other again. aviation is my asleep for most things. and I've never done drugs and I have no have it is the only thing that I look forward to when I wake up to when I go to sleep. he never took in consideration that you can be hurting someone my son and daughter had no clue that I had to stop I never wanted to hurt them and now things to miss demanding now they know that was unnecessary. today I have no wonder standing out this article started with airplane and it was so involved around me. this article and some of things I said and volunteered was completely misconstrued. I love my home built experimental plane and I don't think that I would ever consider getting involved with anything other than this. text even has the wrong hanger number it was 339 if you want to. but nevertheless it's about ignition in a different type of claims that there are out there ashlea we have options and has a face different strokes for different folks. you shoulda got more homework are you are you been invited this gentleman to a splash in which is the gathering for experimental sea planes. wall what if I finalize this 1 comment I will be back in right again but I apologize for any readers who've been offended by this type of journalism. by the way the crash that is joe tomorrow for stew is over 4 years old when I get a bird he got you did you get all your facts right. I really hope that the FAA the EAA a will not take part in any interviews with the news times newspaper ever again. mind you that's the reason they came to me use to do they eat a h n tamiami airport. I am disgusted and disappointed with the extra information that you put into this article which was invited to the story.

Christopher
Christopher

Great story don't listen to these people haven't written anything since they were in school. Tell buddy wassup with a plane ride.

Mike
Mike

What ever happened to the idea that a "journalist" should thoroughly research his/her topic with appropriate history, background and technical accuracy. This article reminded me of something more akin to a movie review. The Searey has been flying for almost 20 years with more then 500 planes in the air. It has a very strong safety record and a dedicated customer family of pilots and owners. This reporter needs to be disciplined or perhaps fired and the newspaper sued for defamation and false claims.

Reddavewilson
Reddavewilson

Sorry guys, this is just a one sided hit piece. You profiled the scariest and most reckless guy you could find, spent 3 out of 6 pages on his non flying antics, then reached a conclusion that is hysterical and simply untrue. Try attending a fly in, like the EAA's Oshkosh event and see what's actually being done.

Pr2640
Pr2640

WOW!! What a total misrepresentation of the facts. How many people die in car accidents everyday you imbecile!! The ignorance is mind boggling!!

strahler13
strahler13

Can I get a job at this newspaper? It's obvious you don't need to know how to write. How did this guy get a job writting?

N360rb
N360rb

Terrible article....Been flying High Performance Experimental aircraft for 18 yrs. Article does not convey what it's all about. It's not about death defying ego driven pilots.....those guys don't last very long.

pulga
pulga

Great story. Im getting a space shuttle kit .

Rob D.
Rob D.

What a horrid article. The author obviously did no research on this sensationalist piece of garbage.

This is akin to interviewing and taking a ride in a redneck broken down piece of trash truck, and reporting about how all road vehicles are unsafe.

Mr. Miller should be ashamed of these lies and filth.

Miss Gail
Miss Gail

Americans have been building and flying homebuilt (experimental) aircraft since 1903. All meaningfull advances in aircraft technology have by definition been tested on experimental aircraft.

Your sensationalistic reporting simpley inflames the emotions of the unknowledgeable.

Riki Garbanzo
Riki Garbanzo

Boy is this lousy 'journalism'.... Not even remotely accurate in it's assessment of experimental aviation. Very, very poor.

celebnewspost
celebnewspost

Wow, one of the worst pieces of sensationalist journalism I've seen in a while. It's clear that this author did NO research before writing this mischaracterization of experimental aviation. The writing is pathetic too; high school level at best.

Luis Sotero
Luis Sotero

I completely agree, but in no way am I scary or reckless it's actually all very controlled... I truly believe the reporter should a paid more emphasis on the aircraft and less of me. in my opinion he made it sound like anybody that flies in experimental home filter has to be nuts . we all know that's not the case thank you experimental at home bills what we know I general aviation and commercial aviation is a whole lot safer thanks wally innovations. I just wish mike would of done a little bit more homework and not try to sell so dramatic. as opposed to be 4 I am extremely disappointed in the new times if you actually go this far and try to make a v show so negative. I guess this is what happens to the men and women not good don't have the courage to actually do things that'll make your life a whole lot funner. I am disgusted by most of the things I said, disappointed the way he misconstrued my words and misquoted me on a bunch of topics. the good thing is that not everybody goes out and pick up the new times in ashley waste their time reading it. therefore my exposure is minimal. excuse any grammar or spoke check problems I am writing this as I drive I am furious... and disgusted beyond belief... those that know me well which are quite a few most I said that the new times article is complete without research... I'm surprised the editor is this much of a fool an idiot to allow this to hit the public it makes him in the new times look just as bad as the writer... that is my 2 cents for now... and 1 more thing like I said in my prior post it's funny that the planes that I actually went down 3 out 4 were not home bill bailey general aviation certified planes he try to say that the insurance companies were the smart 1 the paid 1 the truth lies they did not pay they were the smart 1 never realized what was actually going on. by the way it no time was the insurance company I know times are the smart 1 here they posted information what are you doing a proper homework.

 
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