We were cruising in Mayte Greco’s Cessna 340 twin just above the Gulf of Mexico, flying the same search pattern she used to spot Cuban refugees trying to get to Florida. Flying a straight line, you look out the left window two wingspans away at the ocean, scan across the windscreen, and end up at the right window. Scan back from right to left. Repeat. Turn, fly four wingspans over, and repeat, until the fuel is nearly exhausted. “We would do this for endless hours,” Greco says over the intercom. “After a few hours every whitecap is a raft. See that green buoy? The inner tubes were as large as that.”
Greco has spotted Cuba from the air, but that’s as close as she’s gotten since she was 2 years old. “When we came to Florida we were poor like everybody else,” she says. “Father would take us to watch the airplanes land.” Mayte began taking lessons secretly at age 16. “Young Latin women weren’t allowed to do that,” she explains. “All the money I made, I took flying lessons—until I got busted by my father. I stopped, but I kept going back.”
In 1991, after a 15-year-old Cuban died of dehydration on a raft, José Basulto, labeled a terrorist by the Castro government, formed Brothers to the Rescue. “He asked me if I wanted to come, and I thought it sounded really cool,” Greco says.
With a couple of donated single-engine Cessnas, she and the Brothers began combing the Florida Straits. On a good day, refugees might make the 90-mile trip in 24 hours; more likely, “After the first few hours they would grow weak and lose their supplies, lose their oars,” she says. When the Brothers sighted someone in distress, they circled the raft and dropped them water and food and radioed the U.S. Coast Guard, and kept circling until the USCG arrived. But the Cuban navy picked up on the process and cruised to the circling airplane, then rammed the raft.
The Brothers adapted: When they spotted a gunboat, they flew 20 miles away, and circled over the open ocean. “We found three empty rafts for every one that made it,” Greco says. “It was hard to come back when you didn’t find anybody, and you knew they were out there.” Why did the rafters continue trying? “They thought, ‘You know what? I’m already dead here.’ No freedom of speech. When you don’t have that, you’d rather die.”
In 1996 Cuban MiGs shot down two of the Brothers’ Cessna Skymasters. “I was supposed to be on one of the airplanes that got shot down,” she says. “We lost most of our crews after that, so only a handful of pilots continued flying.” And with thousands of Cuban refugees furiously attempting to enter the states, the U.S. government adopted its “wet-foot/dry-foot policy,” where the refugee must step on U.S. land or be returned to Cuba. “Our meetings now are more about bringing awareness to the world of the cruel and criminal acts of the communist regime and hopefully bring justice to our fallen heroes,” Greco says.