Two brushes with disaster

Detail of one of the damaged tires on the landing gear of the Miami Air Lease, Inc. Convair 440 aircraft that was forced to make an emergency landing in December 2005.

Miami Air Lease, Inc. Chief Mechanic Carlos Alvarez inspects one of the engines of the company's cargo-carrying Convair 440 aircraft that was forced to make an emergency landing at Vero Beach Municipal Airport when the pilots lost control and power.

MIAMI -- Twice, the pilot and copilot navigated the skies over Florida when their relic cargo planes began vibrating. Twice, they steered the hulking aircrafts to safe landing, avoiding high-rise condos the first time, landing without cockpit lights the second.

Miami Air Lease's two emergency landings are a telling chapter in the hazards of an industry where troubled planes take to the air in a rush to deliver goods.

After the first crash, U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, R-Florida, urged the Federal Aviation Administration to process the company's request to get one of its aged planes back in the air -- only to have that plane make a fiery landing four months later.

When the 23-ton cargo plane's left engine began vibrating the first time -- Dec. 4, 2004 -- pilot Alejandro Bristol knew something was amiss.

The Convair 340, built in 1955, had just departed Opalocka Airport en route to the Bahamas, its belly full of computer supplies, PlayStations and holiday toys.

"I said, 'the airplane is coming down and we have to find a place to put it,' '' Bristol said, recounting how he turned to copilot Dennys Villavicencio.

"I told him, 'I hope we can make it,' '' Bristol said. "I immediately thought, 'If I try to make it to Opa-locka, I'm going to hit homes.' . . . I could have crashed into a high-rise, into a house."

They searched for somewhere to bring the plane down even as it "started shaking more and more," Villavicencio said. "I never got scared, because I saw the lake."

Their target: Maule Lake in North Miami Beach, not far from the Aventura Mall and the dense condo canyon pocket of northeast Miami-Dade County.

Just before 9 a.m. that Saturday, the pilot and his partner passed over power lines and clipped trees, then brought the plane down, belly first, into the lake.

They know the outcome could have been grave.

"That's a big airplane. And it carries a lot of fuel," Bristol said. "All of that runs through your mind."

| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |