General Rafael del Pino is a former fighter pilot who served at the highest levels in the Cuban Air Force during the Cold War. Born on 22 September 1938, in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Del Pino joined Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary Movement in 1956 and fought with Castro’s guerrillas until revolutionary victory on 1 January 1959. Del Pino then joined the Cuban Air Force, and in April 1961 received a baptism by fire in three days of aerial combat during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Within 72 hours, he flew 10 combat missions in a T-33 aircraft, shooting down two B-26 light bombers and sinking several ships. After the air campaign, Fidel Castro publicly proclaimed him Hero of “Playa Girón” (the Bay of Pigs). During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Del Pino served as the Air Force assistant to Fidel Castro in the Cuban Central Command Post, then went on to command an Air Force Base at Holguin. Del Pino traveled to the Soviet Union for advanced flight training, where he had the opportunity to fly numerous Soviet combat aircraft. He also graduated from the Soviet Air Force’s Yuri Gagarin War College in 1965. In 1966 Del Pino was appointed General Director of “Cubana Aviación” after the military took control of the national airline, spending two years in a civilian capacity flying commercial aircraft such as the Ilyushin Il-14. Upon his return to active service with the Cuban Air Force, he served two tours during the Vietnam War. In 1968 he was an advisor to North Vietnamese fighter pilots, and in 1975 he experienced the fall of Saigon while serving in South Vietnam. In November of 1975, Del Pino served as the Air Force Commander of the Cuban Expeditionary Force in Angola during Cuba’s first major military intervention inside Africa, with covert Soviet support. In 1977, Del Pino commanded Operation Pico, an Air Force show of force against the Dominican Republic. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1983 and became the Deputy Chief of the Cuban Air Force and Air Defenses, a title that he held until his defection in 1987. Toward the end of his military career, General Del Pino gradually became upset with the failure of the communist system and Castro’s refusal to apply political reforms in Cuba. In May 1987 he defected to the United States piloting a light aircraft with his wife and two children. He has written books in both Spanish and English outlining his foreign aviation experiences and his role as an Air Force general under a dictatorial regime. He has flown over 9,000 hours in commercial aircraft and military fighters, and defines himself as a man who loves aviation at all costs. His passion, dedication and perseverance in his flying career played a very important role in the development of the Cuban Air Force under complex Cold War circumstances. He and his wife currently divide their time between Florida and Europe.
Years Honored: 2015
On 18 February 1976, Colonel Del Pino organized and led a mission, despite resistance from senior Cuban leaders, in support of desperate Cuban and Angolan soldiers. Flying a MiG-21MF, loaded with 32 rockets and an air to ground cannon, Del Pino destroyed an enemy mortar battery to enable the surrounded soldiers to escape, before making an emergency landing due to his low fuel state.