Mario Manuel de la Peña
Mario Manuel de la Peña was born in the township of Weehawken, New Jersey, on December 28, 1971. The desire to fly was in his heart from a very early age. He once wrote,“Since the age of ten I have longed to fly commercial-type aircraft. And since the age of fifteen, I have actively pursued that dream.” At 21, Mario had received his degree of Associate in Science in Professional Piloting Technology from Miami-Dade Community College and was certified as an Airframe Mechanic, Basic Ground Instructor, Airplane Single Engine Flight Instructor and as a Commercial Pilot for Single & Multiengine airplanes.
In 1996, while completing his senior year at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Mario obtained a much sought-after and competitive internship at American Airlines. Following the shoot down on February 1996, Embry Riddle conferred upon Mario the degree of Bachelor of Aeronautics honoris causa.
As a volunteer pilot for Brothers to the Rescue, Mario flew search-and-rescue missions to spot Cuban rafters stranded at sea. Seeing the reality of people who risked their lives crossing the Florida Straits in makeshift rafts and inner tubes made him realize that there is a suffering that goes beyond economic hardship -- the lack of freedom. “I can‘t conceive of life without freedom of expression; I‘ve always thought of it as something natural, and now I realize how important and fundamental it is in life and how terrible it is to live without it,” Mario told a reporter in 1995.
By the end of his short life, Mario had flown close to 100 search-and-rescue missions as a volunteer pilot. His flight log recorded each and every time he spotted a person stranded at sea. The Cuban government chose to violate his right to life but his legacy and spirit lives on.