September 28, 2013 – Proud naturalized American, and former Cuban air force MiG pilot, Orestes Lorenzo delivered a poignant and informative talk about his flights for freedom. The event took place at the Florida Air Museum on the SUN ‘n FUN campus. Orestes’ story was not only a gripping account of daring defections by air, but perhaps more importantly it was the acknowledgement of familial love, commitment and faith in God.
Elsewhere on Lakeland Linder Regional Airport a MiG-21 “Fishbed,” one of an airworthy fleet, ironically sat outside Draken International while Orestes informed the interested patrons. The jet was a fitting sight because it was the fighter type Orestes learned to fly as a young aviator during fighter training in the Soviet Union.
Orestes began by introducing his wife Victoria or “Vicky,” who he said, “is the most beautiful woman in the world.” In addition to her being a devoted wife and mother, Orestes, or “Oré” to Vicky, credited her with “feeding values to me.”
For the next 90 minutes Orestes provided the very attentive audience with personal insights into his life and the inherent failings of socialism in Cuba and the Soviet Union. He proceeded to tell those present that the child who would grow to become the man named Señor Orestes Lorenzo Pérez was born in Cabaiguán in central Cuba.
Orestes explained that his lifelong love of aviation began when he was a young boy in 1960 or 1961. Just prior to Christmas, Orestes’ uncle Orlando, who was living in the U.S., brought him a toy airplane. Receiving that simple gift was a seminal moment in Orestes’ life. Thereafter, whenever someone asked what he wanted to be as an adult Orestes would determinedly answer: “I want to be a pilot!“
Indoctrinated into socialism by his father and the post-Revolution Cuban educational system, Orestes, as a child and young adult, embraced the promulgated ideals of socialism. Christmas conflicted with economics, and celebrations soon ceased in Cuba. The State became the sanctioned benefactor of worship. Orestes recalled, “Never again would the entire family be seated around the table, never again would thanks be given to God. Soon I would not even receive a blessing before going to sleep.”
Eventually practical experience and lessons learned in early adulthood shattered the illusions broadcast by the Cuban and Soviet media and governments.
Orestes elaborated, “I returned from the Soviet Union disillusioned about everything we had been told to believe. The socialist system never worked, despite the fact that to the masses socialism was touted as the best form of government. The standard of living was incredibly poor. Sanitary and living conditions for ordinary citizens were atrocious. Alcoholism and adultery were epidemic, and racism was systemic.” Orestes paused to make a critical point, “Humane socialism does not exist.”
His years in the Soviet Union did, however, provide one precious benefit: Orestes began to fly military jets. First he would master the Czech Aero L-29 Delfín trainer. Subsequently, Orestes mastered the supersonic Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21M fighter.
In response to a question Orestes said the classroom content of training in the USSR was “excellent.”
He expounded, “My class was 3 months in ground school which took place in the spring. Instructional materials were plentiful and good. Flying began in the summer.
Typical flying was initially patterns around the local region. We then learned to fly formation and afterward aerobatics. If the training lacked anything it was flying to different airfields. We always took off from and returned to the same airfield.”
Orestes summed up his jet time in Russia: “I logged about 130 hours in L-29s and another 130 or so in MiG-21s.” After graduation Orestes, now a trained combat aviator, returned to Cuba.
Eventually Orestes found himself in Angola with a Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias) contingent where more disillusionment set upon him. There he discovered more “ethics in words but not in conduct.”
In 1986 he returned to the USSR to attend the Marshall Gregory Zhukov War College. Afterward, accumulated discontent, disillusionment and his concerned and loving spouse Vicky spurred Orestes into action. He knew it was not possible to change Cuba. Vicky told him, “Oré, you have to leave.”
Orestes intuitively understood that his wife was correct. “I could not continue to tell the soldiers the lies promulgated by the government and media,” he explained. Orestes stated that he left Cuba because he “did not want his children to undergo a life of indoctrination as he had.” Orestes added, “The heroes of the Revolution were not good men.” For example, he said, “Ché Guevara once brazenly executed a 12-year-old boy.”
On March 20, 1991, then Major Orestes Lorenzo was to have his first solo flight in a variable-geometry or “swing-wing” MiG-23 “Flogger.” During the course of that milestone sortie, he simultaneously implemented his defection plan. Orestes was deathly afraid that somehow someone would find out about his intentions. Even as he waited in the cockpit for takeoff clearance he trembled nervously.
Finally, after waiting for other MiGs to land, with clearance from the tower Orestes kicked in the MiG-23BN’s afterburner and raced down the runway. He lifted off in the sleek MiG, which bore registration number 722, normally but soon dropped down low over the sea and sprinted toward the southern tip of Florida.
Because of pre-set and therefore fixed radio channels, Orestes could not communicate with the controllers at Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West. Thus, he had to visibly communicate his non-aggressive intentions. Orestes was also careful not to fly north of Key West for fear of being the targeted.
Arriving over Boca Chica Key and NAS Key West, Orestes made the MiG “dirty” by extending the aircraft’s flaps, wings, air brakes and landing gear. He was flying slowly at about 1,000 to 2,000 feet and banked to the left once over the base. Orestes made three passes over the runway, all the time waggling the fighter’s wings in an attempt to indicate his benign intent. He noticed other airborne planes. One stunned American pilot shouted, “There’s a Russian MiG in the pattern!” Amused by the mental picture of U.S. pilots’ gawking at the unexpected intruder, the audience collectively laughed.
Orestes landed at about 11:20 a.m., deployed the plane’s drogue parachute and turned onto a taxiway. Perceiving no response, there he sat with the powerful Khatchaturov R-35 turbojet engine idling. Orestes began to wonder. He asked himself, “Is this the right base?” He nervously and impatiently sat inside the MiG with the parachute strung out behind. He was unfamiliar with American procedures. In fact, for years Orestes had heard that Americans were barbarians, corrupt and violent.
Finally, a vehicle with a rotating yellow beacon approached and paused adjacent to the stationary MiG. Orestes taxied behind the small truck to a ramp and, upon receiving a signal from the driver, cut the engine.
A red car containing two U.S. Navy men stopped next to him. One occupant was a Hispanic sergeant, and Orestes figured he was a translator for the elder who was obviously an officer. Not knowing what to expect, Orestes opened the canopy and jumped out onto American soil. He stood at attention.
Orestes noted that he knew no English at the time he defected. Orestes told the attentive audience in Spanish and English the very words he first nervously spoke in America. “Mi nombre es Orestes Lorenzo. Soy mayor de la Fuerza Aérea Cubana . . . y pido protección a las austoridades de este pais por razones políticas.” The younger American duly related to the base commander that the pilot standing at attention before him was Orestes Lorenzo and he was a major in the Cuban air force. Furthermore, the junior man reported that Orestes was asking U.S. authorities for protection and political asylum. The base commander smiled, stretched out his hand in greeting and exclaimed, “Welcome to the United States!”
The U.S. eventually returned the MiG. Orestes showed a slide of the two Cuban military personnel that came to the U.S. to collect MiG 722. He remarked, “The older man was Cuba’s top spy. The other is the pilot who flew 722 back to Cuba.”
Orestes settled in an Alexandria, Virginia, apartment. Orestes found freedom invigorating after living under stifling and constrictive socialist governments. Yet, his thoughts were constantly with his beloved Vicky and young sons Reyniel and Alejandro.
In Cuba, Vicky received offers of a new home and car. These were luxuries for the vast majority of Cubans. Officials ordered a telephone, yet another luxury, to be installed in Vicky’s home. Orestes stated, “It made spying on them easier.”
All the government demanded in exchange for better housing and an automobile was that Vicky denounce Orestes as a “traitor.” She staunchly refused to condemn her husband.
Orestes’ extended family, members of which were already established in the U.S., and friends helped him to maintain himself in America. Three people in particular, Elena, Virginia and Kristina, would play critical roles in the ensuing events.
Soon Orestes began giving speeches and mounted a protest abroad to garner support for the family’s release. Publicity and U.S. pressure were important. Once, while giving a speech in Miami, President George H.W. Bush urged Castro to release Orestes’ family. Even Coretta Scott King urged Fidel Castro in a letter to release Vicky and the children. However, Castro balked.
Orestes knew he had to take matters into his own hands and rescue them by air. Therefore, he pursued Federal Aviation Administration pilot certification at a Leesburg, Virginia, airport. On the morning of December 13, 1992, Orestes passed his “Single Engine Land” practical examination flight in a Cessna 172.
One person funded the purchase of an airplane purchase. The plane was an airworthy Cessna 310F with the registration number N5819X. The seller asked if Orestes if wanted to know about problems with the plane. He replied, “No!” Orestes explained, “To have known about problems would only add to my worries.” The attendees chuckled but understood his logic.
During the planning Orestes called upon all his mathematical and aeronautical knowledge. As a MiG pilot he was also intimately familiar with Cuban air defenses. As visual aids Orestes drew semi-circles on a map. Red half-circles marked SAM (surface-to-air missiles) sectors, a yellow corridor marked an area blind to radar due to terrain and a green line near the 24th parallel indicated the limit of Cuban radar range.
Furthermore, Orestes was aware of Cuban command and control procedures. “I knew that no SAMS could be launched without Castro’s personal permission. The reason for this was that Castro didn’t want to be shot down by mistake when he was flying in a plane.” The audience laughed.
Orestes continued, “I also knew that, if spotted by radar, for a time I could duck into the area that was blind to ground radar. However, I could not remain there for long because we would have to depart for the U.S. The real threat was MiGs. I hoped that they would not be scrambled,” he confessed.
Orestes related several additional concerns. “Also, I counted on the fact that under the Cuban system the fighters are dependent upon ground instruction. Pilots do nothing not initiated by orders.” He then provided a final and valid concern. “I had to fly low and by VFR (visual flight rules), so weather was a factor also outside of my control. What if it were rainy or stormy?”
Orestes’ conclusion after all the calculations and estimations was that the rescue was not possible. Nevertheless, he said, “I felt deep inside that everything would be okay.”
Clandestine meetings and telephone calls followed. Orestes was able to get a note, that contained instructions and details of the proposed escape, to Vicky, via her sister Virginia who served as a courier. Vicky told the audience that, “I read it many times, too many times, and then burned it.”
At the appointed time the plan went into action. Orestes flew to Columbus, Georgia, on December 18 in the Cessna 310. Prior to departing for Marathon, Florida, a nun opened a hospital chapel for prayers. Orestes knew that God would be with him. At one point on that evening Vicky read to the boys and her small niece from the Bible. The niece, so attached to her aunt, had to remain behind. That knowledge nearly broke Vicky’s heart.
Just after 5:00 on the afternoon of December 19, 1992, Orestes began his flight in the Cessna, and to avoid Cuban radar detection flew barely above the waves toward Cuba. It was a beautiful day. Weather would not be a problem.
A man asked Orestes if the U.S. government knew, as some reports indicated, knew of his daring plan? “No,” he replied, “The U.S. Government would have stopped me. An international incident was one possible result, and there could be the deaths of 2 adults and 2 children.” Orestes stressed that, “Only a very few close friends and colleagues knew what I was attempting.”
Meanwhile, Vicky and the boys departed to what was a staging area. When police, perceived by Vicky to possibly be watching the small family, came near Vicky turned to the Bible she’d brought for comfort. After reading and meditating on several verses she knew all would be well. Finally, she set off by car to the pickup point.
Orestes arrived over the designated road and spotted the three on the left side of the highway in their orange attire. He landed, after miraculously avoiding a car, rock, road sign and truck, on the coastal highway of El Mamey beach in Varadero, Matanzas Province. His arrival was shortly after sunset. Quickly Orestes collected the priceless and scared passengers.
As soon as the three were in the cabin Orestes applied full throttle and took off. He retracted the wheels immediately as the Cessna lifted to avoid a ditch. As they sped away, Orestes wanted to curse the Cuban authorities via a radio transmission. Vicky, however, fearing for their safety, pleaded with him to refrain. Orestes held his tongue.
He climbed to 200 feet and remained there until reaching the 24th Parallel. Orestes snapped a few photos, and Vicky took one of him at the controls.
Once in American airspace Orestes contacted controllers and identified the aircraft and destination. He then radioed friends in Miami, who contacted local radio stations. The incredible news of the miraculous rescue spread even before the Cessna landed at Marathon!
Orestes sold the 310 a few years later. When he located it to repurchase the airplane Orestes discovered that it had been destroyed in a hurricane.
After public pressure and the ensuing embarrassment, the Cuban government permitted both Orestes’ and Vicky’s families to emigrate.
As an aside, Orestes noted that the pilot who flew the MiG-23 back to Cuba was recently encountered in Havana. “He now drives a taxi,” noted Orestes.
A final slide showed MiG 722, once a proud bird, sitting in sections beside a Cuban highway. Orestes stated that, “Parts from the fighter are being sold to tourists.”
Notably, Orestes and Vicky celebrated the birth of a third son 18 years ago. When asked about the disinterest about history shown by younger generations, Orestes said the following: “I do not blame them. Here in America they have so many distractions. Even my youngest son does not fully understand what we, his parents and elder brothers, had to endure in Cuba. It is up to the parents to educate their children. Many people here in America take for granted what they have, their freedom.”
Mr. Pérez concluded his speech by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Orestes’ book Wings of the Morning contains many additional details of the saga. Copies are still available.
The author (John T. Stemple) thanks Orestes Lorenzo, his wife Vicky and their family. He also thanks the SUN ‘n FUN organization and the Florida Air Museum.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Aero L-29 Delfín
Boca Chica Key
Cuban Revolutionary Air and Air Defense Force (DAAFAR)
Florida Air Museum
List of Cold War pilot defections
Naval Air Station Key West
Orestes Lorenzo, Wings of the Morning: The Flights of Orestes Lorenzo, New York: S. Martin’s Press, 1994.
SUN ‘n FUN
Top Cuban Pilot Defects to U.S.
100 Minutes to Freedom – People.com