AVON PARK — In a hangar at Avon Park Executive Airport, there’s a plane that has not only flown around the world, but witnessed history.
It has served six countries and seen five continents: U.S., India, France, Canada. While in British service, Sister Ann was the personal plane of Lord Admiral Louis Mountbatten.
Lastly, Sister Ann was a taxi plane in Cuba. That’s when, in 2003, she was hijacked to Key West, auctioned for $12,500, and purchased by her final owner.
Sister Ann, a DC-3 manufactured in 1942 in California, is owned by Don Soldini, and all he ever wanted was to give it back to the people of Cuba.
Soldini, who once called himself Highlands County’s largest landowner, is still listed as president of Avon Park Estates, Leisure Lakes and Placid Lakes.
“I started selling in Highlands County in 1970,” Soldini emailed. “That was many thousands of lots ago, and still have a couple of thousand left for sale.” Semi-retired in Guatemala, he’s also developed land in California, Arizona, Texas and North Carolina.
Google Donald Soldini, and he’s all over the World Wide Web. He founded International Preferred Enterprises, a real estate marketing corporation in 21 countries. IPE develops property in diverse areas like Central America and the Philippines.
CIPonline.com says Soldini “previously headed up the International Marketing division for one of Florida’s largest developers from 1966-1971 and was the CARE coordinator for Mexico from 1964-1966, where he administered a $75 million child feeding program with the Alliance for Progress.”
Go back far enough, and there’s a newspaper story on the Internet about a half-Italian Brooklyn boy who got the romantic notion to help Castro free Cuba from the dictator Batista. Along with hundreds of other Americans, he joined the 26th of July Movement and fought alongside Fidel, Raul and Che Guevara in 1957.
His revolutionary roles ranged from propagandist to guerilla fighter and eventually first lieutenant in the rebel army. After Castro triumphed, though, Soldini was incarcerated for outspoken views.
Although Soldini reconciled with Fidel, then left Cuba to attend college, Soldini said in a 2008 interview with Highlands Today, “I have big philosophical differences with Fidel. He knows that.”
“I knew all those guys,” he said six years ago while leaning on his Rolls Royce. “I’m a capitalist today.”
After buying the old warplane at auction, Soldini disassembled Sister Ann in Key West and trucked her to Avon Park. However, after 10 years in storage, the 65-foot-long silver bird with a 95-foot wingspan is deteriorating, so she needs a better home.
“I will take care of the plane until relations between the two counties get better,” Soldini emailed on Wednesday, but because of American embargos, flying the twin-engine prop across the Florida Straights will be impossible, he’s now concluded. “No way that it will get back to Cuba until relations will be restored, perhaps years from now.
“So donate the plane. The sooner,” he wrote, “the better.”
How does a millionaire find a museum that will take a 72-year-old aircraft? He made a one-hour documentary.
He hopes to place “The Odyssey of Sister Ann” in international film festivals. A two-minute movie trailer can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=BXMTxFrfCbI
“We are negotiating with many aviation museums from Singapore to Great Britain and USA, to donate the plane,” Soldini wrote. “The documentary would assist several international film festivals this year.”
The film follows the birth of 16,000 DC-3s in Long Beach and Santa Monica. During World War II, 10,000 military aircraft like Sister Ann were designated as C-47s and C-53 Skytroopers. The C stood for cargo, and C-47 Skytrains carried Jeeps and weapons and even mounted hooks underneath to pick up gliders.
The Sister Ann, the documentary filmmakers determined through airplane logs, went to a Long Beach Army base, where soldiers used the warbirds – designated Dakotas – for training. Then it flew to Morrison Field, now Palm Beach International Airport.
Acquired by the Royal Air Force and called a Dakota, Sister Ann went to Brazil next, then Africa, the Middle East, and finally to Burma, where she became Lord Mountbatten’s personal plane. And that’s who named Sister Ann for the nurse who helped Britain’s First Sea Lord deal with malaria.
Borrowed after the war by Sir Victor Goddard, Sister Ann crashed on Sado Island. “Impossible to salvage,” the RAF air marshal telegraphed. Mountbatten sent a repair crew, who persuaded the Japanese men and women to help, and Sister Ann was resurrected.
Returning to England in 1947, Sister Ann flew food and medical supplies to Germans trapped behind the Iron Curtain in the Berlin Airlift, documentary filmmakers were able to prove.
By 1956 though, she was scrapped, rebuilt and transferred to the French Air Force. Now a spy plane, she transferred plutonium to a Israeli nuclear reactor.
Sold again, by 1971, Sister Ann was a workhorse in the Canadian James Bay hydroelectric project.
At some point, Sister Ann was purchased by Cuba and bore the markings “Aerotaxi,” where she ferried passengers between Havana and the Isle of Youth, Cuba’s second-largest island. That’s when the five-member crew and 31 passengers were hijacked on March 19, 2003.
Sister Ann should have been returned, said Soldini, whose sympathies still lie with the Cuban people. Instead, the U.S. government sold the aged airliner at auction to satisfy part of a $27 million judgment against the Castro administration.
“It will be accepted by a museum,” Soldini said. “After all, there is no plane on earth that has a history like Sister Ann. Again, this would be the most famous plane in the world, and this is not a one-trick pony (like) Spirit of Saint Louis, Memphis Belle or Enola Gay.”