Key West stunt pilot Fred Cabanas, who has entertained hundreds of thousands of people around the world with his dare-devil aerobatics at air shows, died Tuesday in an aviation accident near Cozumel, Mexico, according to a report from a Spanish website El Comercio.com.
He was 60.
Passenger Jorge Lopez Vives, host of an extreme sports program, also died in the crash that occurred at a private airfield on the southern island of Cozumel in the state of Quintana Roo, a major international tourist destination.
“They were filming a documentary to promote an air show but unfortunately had an accident,” Erosa Rudy, director of Civil Protection of Cozumel, told El Comercio.com. “Emergency crews rescued the bodies.
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Cabanas, a fourth-generation Key West native, fell in love with flying as a boy and by 16 he as a “hangar bum” at Key West International Airport, where he traded washing planes for flying lessons.
An instructor showed him how to do a snap roll and Cabanas said that he was instantly hooked on aerobatics. Cabanas recalled that first snap roll in 2010 before the Southernmost Air Spectacular at Naval Air Station Key West. “You pull back on the stick and kick the rudder in the direction you want to go. Then you go around real, real fast … 360 degrees in one second.”
Cabanas was a Key West aviation legend who also was known around the world, flying in vintage biplanes. In 2010, he cut the ribbon to open the Navy’s air show in pure Cabanas style — with the propeller of his bright yellow Pitts Special S-2C.
He accelerated to 150 mph, flipped the plane 180 degrees with the left wing just missing the ground by five feet and then slicing the ribbon between two poles while flying upside down.
“Why fly straight when you can do the fun stuff like this,” Cabanas said before the crowd-thrilling stunt. “It is the most dangerous part of the show, but I love to make people smile.”
Cabanas had been making people smile with his aerobatics for nearly three decades. At air shows he was called the “Marlboro Man” for leaving trails of smoke, shaped like hearts and figure eights, in his wake. In 2010, he said he had spent almost 25,000 hours in the pilot’s seat.
He has won numerous awards at air shows and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, featured in several movies, TV programs and commercials.
In 1991, he was teaching a student to fly when he spotted a MiG 23 ground attack plane flying over the island city with a defecting Cuban military general at the controls.
Cabanas said he alerted authorities. The Key West mayor proclaimed him general of the fictitious Conch Republic Air Force.
He owned Cabanas Aeronautics Unlimited, which offers aerial tours of the Keys and for those who dare, thrill rides.
Air show aerobatics pilot Gary Ward has called Cabanas “a good stick,” which means a pilot who can fly almost any kind of plane well.
In the deadly accident, Cabanas was not flying one of his own planes.
Cabanas said in 2010 he respected the risks of flying, and just months earlier had a close call during an air show in Mexico when it took him three turns to recover from a maneuver called the knife’s edge spin at 1,200 feet. “Normally, I can get out of a spin in one turn, maximum 2 ½. … The ground was coming at you fast.”
Cabanas has passed on his love of flying to both his children: daughter Lt. Kelly Gander, a Navy pilot, and son Raymond Cabanas, who helped his dad fly two planes to Haiti to deliver supplies for orphans after the earthquake.
Cabanas also is survived by his longtime wife, Susan.