Last Brothers to Rescue plane sold for hurricane relief

November 18, 2008

Elain de Valle, Miami Herald

The last plane belonging to a famed search-and-rescue group that helped Cuban rafters make it safely across the Florida Straits was sold this month to help the people of Cuba and Haiti recover from a brutal hurricane season.

Brothers to the Rescue founder and President Jose Basulto decided to sell his own plane -- the one that escaped a Cuban government MiG attack in 1996 -- to fund humanitarian aid missions to Cuba after hurricanes Gustav and Ike earlier this year.

A check for $100,000 -- the final price for the twin-engine, 1970s Cessna Skymaster 337H -- will be presented at a news conference Tuesday to the Sisters of Charity in Miami, which regularly sends food and medicines to be distributed by individual travelers, churches and religious groups inside Cuba.

The buyer: Benjamin Leon, founder and chairman of the board of Leon Medical Centers, who flies his own planes. But he didn't buy the plane for travel purposes.

'He has other planes that are better than that one. He certainly doesn't need it,' Basulto said. ``He is doing it out of the goodness of his heart.'

'I didn't buy it to fly it,' said Leon, who already owns a four-seat Cessna 182 and a six-passenger Turbo Plus that, he says, is called ``a Ferrari in the air.'

The Brothers plane is a treasure, he said.

'I bought it because of its historic significance,' Leon told The Miami Herald last week. He called Basulto, a friend of his wife's family, as soon as he learned of the planned sale through El Nuevo Herald.

``It has great historical value, since it was the only plane to escape the aggression of the Cuban government. . . .'

On Feb. 24, 1996, Cuban MiGs shot two Brothers to the Rescue planes out of the sky, killing two pilots and two passengers.

Said Leon: ``As a Cuban, I feel very proud to be in the position to do this.'

Leon said he would not change the plane's color or tail numbers -- N2506 -- in honor of the Bay of Pigs brigade Basulto served on.

'It [the plane] represents an organization that we are all proud of because it saved lives,' said Leon, who added that the head of transportation for his company was spotted by Basulto in that very plane after he became stranded on Cay Sal in the Bahamas.

'I think we all know someone who knows someone who was personally helped by Brothers to the Rescue,' Leon said.

'I don't know what I'm going to do with it,' he said about the plane. ``But I'm going to use it to educate my grandchildren about Cuba.'

Basulto said he could not be more pleased.

'I knew God would send me a Cuban pilot with the financial resources and a heart in the right place,' he said.

'I am very happy because I found someone who will fulfill both purposes,' he said. ``One, making it possible for us to use the equity in the plane to once again help the people in Cuba, and the other is that the airplane is preserved like the historic object that it is.

``He has a hangar and the resources to maintain it. What I can't do, he will do, and I am very grateful for that.'

The last symbol of an organization whose missions ended in 2003 as a result of the 'wet foot/dry foot policy' that called for the repatriation of rafters caught at sea, the plane sat unused at Opa-locka Airport, except one day a year -- the anniversary of the date the two planes were shot down.

The plane was the last of the Brothers' fleet, which once numbered six: One plane crashed in the Everglades. Another went down on Cay Sal. A third was sold to raise funds for the group's humanitarian efforts and the college education of a pilot injured in an accident.

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