Home-built aircraft thrill and kill

Fifteen hundred feet above Miami, the tiny plane shakes like the last leaf on a dying tree. Below, the suburbs of Kendall and Pinecrest stretch for miles like a massive computer motherboard. Beyond, Biscayne Bay is a sea of molten gold in the midday sun. But despite the beauty and the freedom and the fresh air streaming in at 110 miles per hour through open windows, all I can think of is the wind.

One gust after another grabs the aircraft and rattles it like a child's toy. Beside me in the pilot's seat, Luis Sotero struggles to keep the joystick steady. After all, his 970-pound SeaRay boatplane is little more than a motorcycle with wings. Its single 115 horsepower engine stubbornly keeps us suspended in midair as if by magic.

Suddenly, the air gives way. The plane sinks 50 feet in a second, and my stomach churns. Sotero, a short, 39-year-old Cuban-American with a hard-core adrenaline addiction and bristly goatee, isn't fazed. He knows his four planes like the back of his hand. He should: He's built most of 'em.

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So-called experimental aircraft, including home-built planes like Sotero's, grabbed headlines around the world this summer when a Florida daredevil crashed his World War II-era P-51 Mustang into the crowd at an airshow in Reno. Jimmy Leeward's heavily modified plane killed 11 people and injured nearly 100. Just a few months later on October 29, two aviators died when their experimental ultralight airplane crashed in Homestead.

Sotero is one of several hundred South Florida pilots who aren't content with merely defying death at high altitude — they want to do so in aircraft they've assembled themselves from components out of cardboard boxes delivered in the mail. Across the nation, the number of home-built craft has soared, in part because they cost a fraction of factory-built models and are encumbered by less regulation.

But they are also a hell of a lot more dangerous. Home-built aircraft are five times as likely to crash as professionally made planes. And if an accident does happen, their pilots are seven times as likely to die, according to federal investigators. So far this year, 212 home-built aircraft have crashed around the United States, killing 63 people; in the Sunshine State alone, almost 70 have perished in hundreds of crashes in the last decade, including 13 wrecks this year.

Time may be running out on home-built and experimental plane hobbyists, as deadly accidents and tightening regulations threaten to curtail a cutting-edge lifestyle that advocates say is worth the risk because it advances aviation by leaps and bounds.

Every headline about a fiery death-spiral leads to a more basic question, too: What drives these guys to risk life and limb?

There's only one way to find out: Hop in the plane with Sotero, a guy who's chased one adrenaline rush after another his whole life, from speedboats to motorcycles to planes — evading death by the same narrow margin he's stayed out of prison.

As our SeaRay barrels toward Biscayne Bay, Sotero suddenly looks at me through his sunglasses and shouts over the roar of the engine at our backs: "This is where it gets fun!"

Then he cuts the engine. The plane nosedives toward the sea.

Long before the motorcycles and the skydiving, the cigarette boats and the DIY airplanes, the operations and scars, there was just an emptiness where Luis's father should have been. His murder was the spark that has fueled his son's death-defying escapades.

Luis Sotero Sr. was a doctor in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, when Fidel Castro took over. But he hated the socialist. So when a small band of Miami exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in April of 1961, the young forensic pathologist planted bombs inside the dead bodies of Castro's soldiers. He fled to Miami with a death warrant on his head.

Sotero settled in Little Havana. Then one day in 1968 he awoke to a fierce argument. Sotero's landlord was screaming at his neighbor and insulting the neighbor's pretty 17-year-old daughter, Mayra. Sotero dragged the landlord up to the second-floor balcony and threw him off.

"You could say it was love at first sight," the younger Sotero jokes of his parents' first meeting. Mayra gave birth to Luis Sotero Jr. on July 14, 1972, and another son, Albert, 18 months later.

Neither son would ever get to know his father. Sotero Sr. was at his usual Hialeah café in April 1976 when a customer began insulting a waitress. When Sotero told Mario Cimadevilla to lay off, he shoved Sotero. A mutual friend, José Luís Núñez, broke up the fight.

But Cimadevilla was humiliated and wanted revenge. Núñez, a convicted felon, was in need of money. Together, the two cooked up an idea to rob Sotero by claiming to have a boat for sale at a farmhouse in Hialeah. But when Sotero arrived, there was no boat — just Núñez stepping out from behind the house with a gun in his hand.

"Shoot me or I'm going to shove that gun up your ass," Sotero shouted as he rushed the gunman, according to Sotero's son. Núñez blasted Sotero twice in the stomach. The wounded man managed to climb back in his car, but died under a bridge a few miles from the emergency room. Cimadevilla and Núñez were both convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison. (Both men are now free, but neither could be reached for comment on Sotero's story of the murder.)

His dad's violent death forever marked the life of little Luis. Unlike his younger brother, he was old enough to recognize his mother's inconsolable grief, even though she did everything to shield him. "I didn't take him to the funeral," she says. "It would have been too ugly an impression for a child. Instead, I always tried to portray his [father's] death as a beautiful thing."

Whether it was Luis Sr.'s sudden death or his single mother's long work hours, Luis was a rambunctious child. Although he would dutifully assemble complicated electronics for his mother, he ran wild when she was away. Once Mayra came home to find the teenage boys missing and noises coming from the bathtub. When she peered inside, she shrieked: It was full of dozens of baby alligators.

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She drove around their Westchester neighborhood searching for Luis and Albert. After an hour, she returned home. But when she walked in, she saw the two brothers watching television as if nothing had happened. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded. "Why are there alligators in the bathtub?"

"Alligators in the bathtub?" said 14-year-old Luis quizzically. "You're crazy, mama." When Mayra checked again, the bathroom was gator-free.

But Luis was involved in more serious mischief. That same year, he was on his bike racing another boy on a go-cart when a cement truck slammed into him. He and his bike were crushed like tin cans. When Mayra arrived at the hospital, doctors told her that Luis had been declared dead, only to suddenly regain a pulse.

Miraculously, Sotero survived. And instead of scaring him into submission, the near-death experience only stoked his high-octane urges. "I've always had a need for adrenaline," he says. "It's in my blood. I guess it has something to do with [my father's death]."

Sotero dropped out of high school at 17 and started racing motorcycles. The electronics whiz paid for his habit by installing car alarms for as much as $3,000 a pop. Then, a few weeks after Luis's 18th birthday, Iraqi troops began pouring over the border into Kuwait. Sotero wanted in. A few months later he enlisted. "I joined the military to be a nuclear firefighter," he says. "For $14 bucks an hour, I would have glowed in the dark.'"

The day before he was to report to boot camp, however, Sotero was returning to Miami from a skydiving trip near Lake Okeechobee on his motorcycle when a boy on a bicycle pulled out in front of him. Sotero swerved, clipping the bike's wheel and skidding across the concrete at 80 mph. His right knee was shredded. He spent two days in the hospital and months on crutches.

The wreck ended Sotero's chance to serve in the military. He swore to his mother that he would never ride again. But soon he had a new dangerous obsession: racing around Miami Beach at 120 mph on cigarette boats. Sotero was the "throttle guy," in charge of deciding how much gas to give the engine.

It was in April of 1996 during his 43rd race that Sotero's luck ran out. With his then-wife Evelyn Menendez and toddler son Luis Sotero III watching from the stands, his two-person boat plowed into a wave head-on, wrenching him forward. He was thrown against the console as other vessels raced past.

The boat's driver desperately gave Sotero CPR on the damaged deck. Then a helicopter whisked his crushed body to Jackson Memorial. The crash had broken three ribs, his left arm, hand, and wrist, dislocated his shoulder, and punctured both lungs.

Two decades after losing his father, Sotero was losing control of his own life.

When I arrived at hangar 439 on a breezy early November afternoon, Luis Sotero was supergluing his plane together.

"These are vortex generators," he said, fastening a tiny, translucent shark fin to the top of a wing. "They help create lift to keep the plane from stalling. I don't know of any other experimental plane that uses them."

In fact, the plane that had crashed in Homestead only a week earlier had just been outfitted with similar vortex generators. The experimental aircraft spiraled to the ground near Richards Air Field, killing its pilot and passenger.

"They never should have gone up in that wind," Sotero said. "See those palm trees over there?" he asked, pointing to a line of fronds near his hangar. "That's how I tell if the wind is safe to fly."

My concerns were not entirely assuaged. In the week leading up to our much-delayed flight, three planes had crashed in or near Miami, including the Homestead disaster and an incredible emergency landing on the Florida Turnpike that could have killed dozens but instead injured only its pilot and one passenger.

"We don't want to be number four," Sotero told me as he handed me a life jacket. Sandwiching myself into the miniature cockpit next to Sotero was like trying to fit a family of eight into a Mini Cooper.

Sotero tried the engine. It coughed anemically. He tried again. Another cough. Finally, on the third attempt, the engine roared to life and we started taxiing toward the runway. As if playing with my anxiety, a recorded voice on the radio warned us to "use caution with birds and wildlife near the airport." Just for good measure, Sotero told me he once hit a bird while landing on the ocean and nearly died.

As we taxied, Sotero tested the foot pedals. He pumped them back and forth, sending our SeaRay — which Sotero had painted like a giant American flag — swerving like a drunken bride down the aisle.

We reached the end of the runway. Sotero lined us up. A staccato voice shrieked over the radio that we'd been cleared for takeoff. Suddenly, Sotero sent the plane sprinting forward. Three seconds later, we were in the air with nothing but the flimsy Plexiglas windows between us and a fatal fall.

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As the streets shrank, the city expanded beneath us. We climbed above 1,000 feet and Sotero checked his instruments. The trim indicator was stuck. He slammed the gadget with his fist. "Now it's OK," he said.

The turbulence was terrifying. Each ripple of air sent the plane shaking like an amusement park ride. People do this all the time, no problem, I thought to myself. But I couldn't help worrying that Sotero had misplaced a bolt or forgotten some tiny part. His personal "mantra," as he called it, wasn't reassuring.

"You live and you learn," he said. "Or you crash and you burn."

Sotero has crashed just about everything you can imagine: bicycles, motorcycles, cars, boats, and yes, even planes he's built. "A lot of the time I refrain from talking about it," he says when asked about his half-dozen glimpses of the Grim Reaper. "Let's just say I'm very lucky to be alive."

But there is another reason Sotero sometimes clams up about his adrenaline-soaked life. His thrill-seeking has led him to break more than speed limits. He's not just lucky to be alive — he's lucky not to be in prison.

On March 31, 1995, about a year after his near-fatal boat wreck, he and Menendez went to Black Point Marina in Cutler Bay to pick up a pair of Yamaha boat engines. Sotero cut a check for $2,150, including a $100 tip for the mechanic.

The check bounced. So did two others Sotero wrote for the salvaging and repair of his speedboat. He had half-heartedly tried to cover his tracks by changing one number on his driver's license and the month of his birthday. It was as if he was daring cops to catch him.

"It was a thrill thing," Sotero now admits. "I was young and stupid. What else can I say?" He was arrested two months later and charged with grand theft. A judge withheld adjudication, and Sotero was given one year of probation.

But Sotero was just getting started. Each arrest only seemed to spur him to commit another brazen crime. Barely two months after the first case was closed, Sotero wrote another bad check, this time to bail a buddy out of jail. Then, starting in the summer of 1996, Sotero went on a fraud frenzy.

According to court records, he bought a Toyota Camry, Kawasaki motorcycle, Dodge Viper, Cobra speedboat, and a furniture set — all with fake documents and bogus checks. The coup de grace was a '96 Porsche that Sotero bought under the identity of Richard H. Lumpkin, a Miami attorney.

"It was all white collar stuff, basically," he says. "I would pick up the phone and buy a $100,000 race boat, have it delivered here, filled with fuel, and then shake the guy's hand. It was like Catch Me if You Can," he says, laughing. "And the insurance companies were the smart ones that paid for it."

Sotero laughs recounting the crimes, but he was flirting with disaster. "I sold one boat title for $180,000," he remembers. "I cashed that check, bro, at the worst bank in Liberty City. People there were getting shot for $10, and I did it intentionally: a little white guy in shorts and flip-flops."

By fall of 1997, however, Sotero's lies had caught up to him. He was arrested for the Porsche scam on October 22. Miami-Dade Judge Lisa Walsh told him that the only reason he wasn't spending up to 14 years in prison was his "miracle worker" of a lawyer, according to court records. She then sentenced Sotero to 18 months in prison and five years' probation.

"Corrections corrected me," Sotero says now, 12 years after he walked out of a Miami-Dade prison.

Indeed, he hasn't been convicted of a crime since. Sotero now makes a living selling real estate, and says he neither hides nor advertises his criminal record. But he still believes his past schemes — like his death-defying hobbies — haven't hurt anyone except himself, calling them "victimless crimes."

Lumpkin, the attorney whose identity Sotero used during his spree, disagrees.

"It took me forever and a day to clear my name," he says. To this day, Lumpkin keeps copies of the police reports to convince creditors that it wasn't him. "Hopefully Mr. Sotero has rehabilitated himself."

Sotero caught the flying bug in an apartment on South Beach, when he heard the whine of a small engine. He raced outside to see what looked like a pair of bucket seats strapped to some wings, sea floats, and an engine. As the tiny drifter raced by at eye level, Sotero's pulse quickened.

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.

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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."

"Oh fuck!" Luis Sotero screamed into his headset as his drifter plummeted toward a line of trees. "Why are you doing this to me now?" Moments before, Sotero and a friend had lifted off from a private lake in Homestead. But after a few seconds in the air, the engine had started to sputter and fail. Now they were careening toward certain death.

Sotero ran through the list of emergency responses. He didn't have time to double back and land on the water. Behind his chair sat a white tube containing a giant parachute, but they were too low to the ground for it to open in time. As a tree loomed up in front of them, he suddenly had an idea.

"My flaps!" he thought, punching a switch to raise the edges of his wings. The tiny plane vaulted over the tree, branches scraping its underside. Then the aircraft dropped like a stone for 30 feet into an empty field. The floats on each side exploded on impact but, astonishingly, Sotero and his passenger — a cameraman for National Geographic who filmed the malfunction — walked away unharmed.

"Bad fuel," Sotero claims now, a year later. "Some asshole sold me bad fuel that day. It nearly killed us."

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Crashes like Sotero's have become far too common, endangering not just their pilots but people on the ground. The reasons why home-built and experimental planes fail are multitude — from dangerously untested modifications to pilot error to badly installed parts — but federal investigators are now conducting a multimillion-dollar, yearlong study of the wrecks to see if there's a bigger, underlying problem: a lack of regulation and oversight.

As the rules stand today, tinkerers can change almost anything on their planes without having the alterations reinspected by federal investigators — an experimental freedom that sometimes leads to catastrophe. So far this year, the National Transportation Safety Board has sent investigators to the scenes of 212 home-built crashes to sort through the twisted metal. They have found 63 corpses among the wreckage, and logged pages of data about what contributed to the accidents.

"Why are all these accidents occurring? That's what we want to know," says Dr. Loren Groff, one of the authors of the NTSB study.

The feds' concerns made international news on September 16, when a heavily modified, experimental World War II-era plane smashed into the crowd at a Reno airshow. The P-51 Mustang killed 11 people and injured nearly 100. Jimmy Leeward, the pilot at fault, was from Ocala; investigators are still trying to figure out what happened, but many have speculated that unregulated changes to his aircraft could have contributed to the disaster.

Here in Florida, more than 200 home-built airplane accidents have peppered the landscape over the past decade, at a rate of nearly two crashes per month. Six people died in home-built airplane crashes in the Sunshine State last year. As recently as September 3, a home-built, two-seat Durling RV-6 lost power after lifting off from North Perry Airport in Hollywood. The pilot aborted the takeoff. The small plane skidded off the end of the runway and through a fence, injuring two.

Then, on October 29, a banana yellow, experimental, ultralight airplane crashed in Homestead just 1,000 feet from private Richards Field Airport. Pilot Rick Blanco and passenger Sandra Bronnenberg were killed as the impact thrust the plane's engine into the cockpit. The owner, Rich Bragassa, hung up on New Times. But Bronnenberg's husband, Dick — himself an experimental pilot — didn't blame the aircraft.

"I was there when it happened," he said. "I pulled her body from the wreck, so I know it wasn't the plane's fault."

Sometimes the smallest miscalculation can lead to fatalities. Take a crash on the evening of December 5, 2002, here in Miami. Employees at the Federal Reserve Bank in Doral were drinking eggnog at an office holiday party when they felt an explosion rock the building. When they ran outside, they found the fiery remains of an experimental two-seater airplane dashed against the northeast face of the building. Copilot Garry Williams's dead body was inside, but the charred corpse of pilot Rick Grannis was mysteriously found miles away in a lake at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa.

Investigators later learned that a month earlier, Grannis or Williams had swapped the pilot's chair for the motor-driven seat from a 1980s Cadillac Cimarron. But the pilots hadn't installed a powerful enough circuit breaker. The seat had likely caught on fire midflight, forcing Grannis to jump from the cockpit to his death.

Such deadly mishaps have become so common that federal investigators say they have to act. "Our mandate is to investigate accidents and make recommendations to prevent them from re-occurring," Groff says.

To many experimental pilots, that sounds like new regulations are on their way. There are 33,000 home-built aircraft in the U.S., yet only 5,000 owners responded to the NTSB's survey.

"I don't think home-builts are any more dangerous if they are properly built and inspected," Mosk insists. "It's really a question of who's inspecting it. If you get a lax NTSB inspector, then you're going to have a problem."

Sotero agrees. Besides, home-built airplanes are too popular for the feds to scrap. "There are too many of them," Sotero says. "And there's too much money to be made. Everyone including the FAA lives off the money we give them."

The feds won't release their study until next summer, but Groff insists the goal isn't an end to the home-built era — dangerous as the risktakers' modifications might be.

"There is also a lot of innovation coming out of this area," he says. "We don't want to take anybody's rights away."

Biscayne Bay rushes up at us at 120 miles per hour, blue and beautiful and deadly as a brick wall. Beside me, Sotero just laughs.

Despite his maniacal streak, he's a good pilot. Even after cutting the engine and tilting the seaplane down toward the ocean like a roller coaster, Sotero is in complete control. That's the point. As we plummet below 100 feet, he pushes the throttle and we level out over the water like a seagull skimming the waves.

"This is my playground," he says as we skate five feet above the bay. Here, in his own plane, he can forget about his criminal convictions. Here, he has momentarily mastered life and death: his father's and his own. However dangerous this might be, it's worth it.

"I have always taken risks," he says. "But now I take educated risks. Everything is controlled. Would I get on the back of a jet bike right now and do 200 miles per hour? No. Would I get in a plane and fly upside down over a runway? Yes."

We sweep out over Virginia Key — Lolita the killer whale stirs in her Seaquarium tank below us — before circling back southwest toward the Tamiami Airport. Sotero drops the landing gear and veases the plane down on the runway. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" he asks with a smile.

But as we taxi back toward the hangar, Sotero gets quiet. He opens the window and somberly stares off into space. "I just worry about when I reach the plateau with this," he says finally. "What will I do then?"

We return the plane to its hangar, and he seems to remember something. His face brightens again and he beckons me toward the hangar's back door. Sotero opens it and points toward a ferocious-looking French military jet parked nearby that he's been coveting for months. Its red nose glints in the light as if on fire.

"That's my next project," Sotero says slyly. "Four hundred and seventy miles per hour."

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