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US Pilot Crash Lands in Cuba - 2001-08-01

A man taking flying lessons in the Florida Keys has flown off to Cuba on what is thought to have been his first solo flight. The man's motivations are unclear.

John Reese is described as a non-hispanic U.S. citizen in his early 50s employed by the Pizza Hut restaurant chain. For two weeks, he took flying lessons at Paradise Aviation school in Marathon Key southwest of Miami.

Tuesday, Mr. Reese boarded one of the school's four-seater Cessna aircraft for his first solo flight - a trip that was supposed to last just a few minutes, according to instructor Brian Hanson. "He was going on his first solo flight today," explained Mr. Hanson, "which was supposed to be once around the [airport] and then land. He came around once, got within [30 meters] of landing, added power and turned on a southerly heading and kept on going."

Mr. Reese reportedly radioed that he was afraid to land before heading out over the Florida Straits. He did not respond to calls from the control tower or a U.S. Navy plane that followed the aircraft until it reached Cuban airspace, approximately one hour after leaving Marathon Key.

Reports from Havana say the Cessna crash-landed just east of the city. Mr. Reese emerged from the plane in a dazed state and was promptly arrested by Cuban authorities.

State Department officials say they are pursuing the matter through the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Paradise Aviation officials say the Cessna plane is worth about $60,000 and that they have no idea what led Mr. Reese to fly to Cuba.