Remembering aviation great Fred Cabanas

Airshow pilot killed in Cozumel accident

January 16, 2013

A mischievous smile, boundless enthusiasm, and a “type-A-plus character” made Fred Cabanas the kind of person those who met him never forget. He joked that instead of having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, he’d say, “I’ve got two devils, both saying ‘Do it, do it,’” longtime friend and aerobatic performer Gary Ward recalled.

A phenomenal pilot with a proven safety record, Cabanas performed airshows internationally in the Pitts Special S-2C; Hawker Sea Fury; North American T-28, T-6, and P-51 Mustang; Waco; and J-3 Cub. He also competed in the Reno Air Races multiple years, winning Rookie of the Year in 2005. His ability as an accomplished pilot in different types of aircraft preceded him on the airshow circuit. “He was known to be a very good pilot for decades,” said Mike Stewart, founder and flight lead of Team AeroDynamix, who knew Cabanas professionally.

Cabanas died Jan. 15 in Cozumel, Mexico, when the aircraft he was flying while giving a ride to a TV personality crashed. The passenger also was killed in the accident. Cabanas was flying a Decathlon, according to Ward.

Giving back to aviation, Cabanas mentored aerobatic pilots like Ward and launched their airshow careers; introduced others to the joy of flight and world of aerobatics with his business, Cabanas Aerobatics Unlimited, at Key West International Airport in Florida; and provided narrated tours of historic points in Key West in Waco UPF-7s through Conch Republic Air Force biplane rides. “He inspired so many people,” airshow pilot Debbie Gary said. “He was just relentlessly enthusiastic about flying.” Gary became acquainted with Cabanas through her mentor, Jim Holland, and the airshow circuit. She said she often saw him giving rides at airshows, in addition to performing.

He was the go-to person at Key West International, a regular at the airport since graduating from high school and attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He had accumulated 24,000 hours of flight time since learning to fly at age 16, according to his website, and held ATP, multiengine, instrument, commercial, and seaplane certificates and ratings. Cabanas also was an aerobatic competency evaluator for the International Council of Airshows.

“Every field has a go-to guy who can and will fly anything that shows up, and Cabanas is that guy at Key West,” Mark R. Twombly wrote of his involvement at the airport in the 2008 feature, “ America’s Airports: In the Conch Republic.”

For some, he was also the go-to ferry pilot. Cabanas regularly ferried aircraft for aerobatic champion and airshow performer Patty Wagstaff. “Over the years, I worked and flew with Freddy many times at airshows and on television projects, and I cannot remember a time that he didn't make me laugh and feel good,” Wagstaff wrote of Cabanas, who was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and was featured in movies and on television. “He would also drop everything at a moment’s notice to help a friend. Recently I had to leave my airplane in Mexico for another commitment, and who did I call? Freddy went and picked it up two days later.”

“He’s a legend in his own time,” Ward said. Cabanas had taken Ward up for an aerobatic experience in 1992, lighting the fire for him to pursue the sport. The two didn’t cross paths again until a 1999 airshow in North Carolina, and they became fast friends. He helped Ward land his first airshow performance at the age of 57. “It always takes someone to pave the way,” he said. The two flew thousands of miles together over the years, crossing ocean and jungle to perform airshows in Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Panama, Acapulco, Honduras, Guatemala, and other locations.

“He had a real heart,” Ward said, “a tender spot in his heart” for helping others and introducing them to aviation.

“And, most importantly,” Wagstaff said, “he loved and valued his family more than anything else in the world.” Cabanas is survived by his wife, Susan; daughter, Kelly; and son, Fred R. Cabanas Jr.

Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Miller | AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.