Cold War Era

The story of the Cuban Air Force pilot that defected to the US with his MiG-23, borrowed a Cessna 310, flew back to Cuba and brought his family to America

During a training mission on Mar. 20, 1991, Orestes Lorenzo Perez flew the MiG-23 from Cuba to Key West. When he finally landed undetected by American radar, speaking in Spanish, he told the pilot who met him on the ground that he was seeking political asylum.

The Soviet-built MiG-23 was designed to replace the widely-used MiG-21. The MiG-23’s advanced radar and fire control system could fire missiles at targets beyond visual range. Variable “swing” wing geometry, similar to that of the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, and robust landing gear allowed the MiG-23 to operate from short, remote runways. The pilot could select the wing sweep for low-speed take-off and landing or for supersonic flight.

More than 5,000 MiG-23s of all types were built.

The MiG-23 was widely exported by the Soviet Union. Among the users there was the Cuban Air Force that flew MiG-23ML/MF/BN/UB aircraft until the late 2010s.

On Mar. 20, 1991 MiG-23 pilot Orestes Lorenzo Perez circled the Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West three times, waggling the wings of his Flogger (the NATO reporting name for the MiG-23) to signal friendly intentions, hoping that no one would shoot down the Soviet-built fighter jet.

Perez said he borrowed the aircraft from the Cuban government.

He didn’t know a single word in English, he said. But he was escaping Cuba for freedom.

As explained in an extensive piece appeared on The Ledger, Perez, a former Cuban Air Force pilot has received a lot of attention since his escape and daring flight back to Cuba to rescue his family. He even wrote a book about his journey in 1994.

His friends called his daring rescue a suicide mission.

He was risking his life and the lives of his wife and two sons, but he said it was worth it because they were pursuing their dreams.

While serving in the Cuban Air Force, Perez earned a scholarship to attend flight school in the Soviet Union, where he learned to fly a small Czechoslovakian Aero L-29 Delfin two-seat jet trainer and a MiG-21.

He was part of the Cuban forces sent to Angola to support that country’s Marxist government.

He deployed a second time to the Soviet Union and then he and his family finally returned to Cuba where he was assigned to Santa Clara Air Base, about 165 miles east of Havana.

What he found was a country littered with propaganda and so oppressed by the government that his family knew there was only one thing for him to do — try to escape.

So, on Mar. 20, 1991, Perez said goodbye to his wife, Victoria, promising to return for her and their two sons. She had to pretend that she knew nothing of Perez’s escape plan.

She prayed that her husband would make it to the US and to freedom.

During a training mission that day, Perez flew the MiG-23 from Cuba to Key West. When he finally landed undetected by American radar, speaking in Spanish, he told the pilot who met him on the ground that he was seeking political asylum.

Perez said once the pilot understood, they shook hands and the pilot said, “Welcome to the United States.”

Orestes Lorenzo Perez’s MiG-23 at NAS Key West

He was immediately flown to Washington, DC, for a briefing and to receive paperwork. Once he was granted political asylum, he started campaigning to get his family out of Cuba.

His wife and two sons were issued US visas, but the Cuban government wouldn’t let them leave.

Perez said the government put surveillance on them.

His family lived under constant watch for 21 months, while Perez campaigned across the US to try to gain their freedom, he said.

Then-President George H. W. Bush directed a speech to the Cuban government, asking Fidel Castro to let Perez’s family go.

But Castro refused so Perez had to think of a better plan.

The only way to rescue them would be to fly back in an airplane.

Through a human rights organization founded by a Cuban political prisoner, called the Valladares Foundation, Perez learned that a 1961 Cessna 310 was for sale. With help from a donation the foundation agreed to pay the $30,000 to purchase it for his rescue attempt.

Although he took flying lessons and received his pilot license in Virginia, he had very little experience flying the Cessna before his rescue attempt. Perez had only landed the small plane once, with a co-pilot.

But at exactly 5:07 p.m. on Dec. 19, 1992, Perez left from the Florida Keys, flying low across the ocean. His wife was given a note to meet him at a location about 165 miles from her home in Havana.

Perez didn’t know whether she would be there with the boys, or if he would make it to the spot before the Cuban government saw him, but he had to try.

Flying less than 100 feet above the ocean, Perez came over cliffs on the Cuban coastline and saw his wife and sons wearing bright orange T-shirts, just as he had asked them to do.

Perez landed the Cessna about 10 yards from a pickup truck, turned the plane around, hurried his family inside and flew away.

When he landed in Marathon less than two hours later, he felt a sense of relief.

Perez is one of only a handful of Cuban military pilots to defect to the US during the Cold War.

Perez and his family became all American citizens.

The MiG-23 was returned to Cuba shortly after Perez gained political asylum and the Cessna was destroyed in a hurricane.

Orestes Lorenzo Perez after landing at NAS Key West

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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