Florida Keys News
Friday, March 22, 2013
Up in the clouds with Raymond Cabanas

For all the unique experiences I've had since moving to the Florida Keys 18 years ago, I'll always have one regret: not flying with famed stunt pilot Fred R. "Freddy" Cabanas, who died in a plane crash two months ago in Mexico.

I knew him, of course. Everyone in Key West did. He was one of those larger-than-life characters you seldom meet during your time on this planet. But I never did steel my courage to fly with the guy, widely considered a "good stick," by his colleagues for his ability to fly just about any kind of plane.

So when my boss asked me last week if I was interested in taking a thrill ride as part of the Navy air show this weekend, I sucked up my fear of flying (well, fear of suddenly not flying, to be precise) and nodded in the affirmative.

Thursday morning, I headed out to Naval Air Station Key West on Boca Chica Key to await my fate.

For good luck I wore the "Life is the Pitts"/Cabanas Aeronautics Unlimited" T-shirt that Freddy's good friend Bertica Mira gave me to wear the day of his burial at sea.

It was a prescient move, as my pilot turned out to be none other than Freddy's son, Raymond Cabanas, who has taken charge of the family business since his father's untimely death.

"Now you get to fly with Freddy 2.0," Cabanas said with a chuckle that reminded me of his dad's mischievous laugh.

I was to hear that chuckle again during my all-too-short flight in Cabanas' beloved Pitts Special Aeronautic Biplane.

Like an idiot, I dropped my pen on the floor of the cockpit as we prepared to taxi down the runway.

"Don't worry," Raymond said. "Once we're up you'll be able to pick it off the ceiling."

Uh-oh, I thought. Here's where I find out if he approved of my coverage of his father's demise and memorial service.

As it turned out, my fears were misplaced.

Raymond, who -- like his sister Kelly -- has been flying since about the time he learned to walk, has inherited both his father's talent for flying and good-natured sense of humor.

"I'm gonna go and wake up ma," Raymond said as we barnstormed over the Cabanas family home on Geiger Key.

A short time later, the Boca Chica control tower announced that another Cabanas plane had left the ground. Raymond, aka "Conch 2" at the tower, responded over the radio.

"I've got three planes up right now," Cabanas said. "It's great to have your own air force."

And then, suddenly, up was down, sea became sky, and I felt like James Bond in "Moonraker" when his face nearly peeled off in that out-of-control flight simulator.

"This is like a roller coaster ride with no track," I said to Raymond.

"Yeah, but smoother," he replied, adding the hallmark Cabanas daredevil chuckle.

We did barrel-rolls, dive-bombs, loop-de-loops, flew upside down, sideways, backwards, you name it.

"This is what it feels like in space," Raymond said as we hit zero gravity.

"No doubt," I responded weakly.

Now, I've never been much of a thrill-seeker, but this was an adrenaline rush with the gorgeous scenery of the Keys as a backdrop.

It was a fantastic experience, made all the more special by the security I felt knowing a Cabanas was at the controls.

And then, as quickly as it began, my first stunt flight was over, leaving me with major bedhead from the headgear and some insane memories that will last a lifetime.

The week of Freddy's final trip, out to the reef, The Citizen ran a Tosh editorial cartoon showing the late pilot performing his tricks for throngs of applauding angels.

It's sweet to imagine that he's now looking down, with pride, on a son who's doing a damned fine job of carrying on the family tradition of bringing joy to people -- without flying too close to the sun.

Godspeed, Kelly, Susan, grandson Riley and the rest of the Cabanas family.

And thank you, Raymond, for the thrill ride of a lifetime.

You're a good stick ... just like the old man.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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