The Country Where Nobody Flies
Did Cuba abandon its private pilots or did they abandon Cuba?
- By Rafael Lima
- Air & Space magazine, August 2007
From the collection of Jorge L. Rodriguez
(Page 3 of 4)
But in January 1959, everything began to change. Within weeks of Castro taking over, a new guerrilla war broke out in the mountains of central Cuba, pitting “counter-revolutionaries” against the new government. Sensing danger, some Cuban and American pilots began flying their aircraft off the island. The first to leave were the professionals. “It was the upper and middle class that could afford the private planes that left Cuba right away: doctors, lawyers, bankers,” says Jorge Rodriguez, editor and publisher of On Cuban Wings, a history of Cuban aviation.
But where some saw turmoil, others saw opportunity. Cuban expatriate pilots began flying their airplanes in from Miami to drop anti-Castro leaflets all over the island or bring guns and ammunition to the counter-revolutionaries, just as Castro’s forces had flown private airplanes against Batista’s regime. Several anti-Castro exiles even flew impromptu sabotage missions, dropping homemade bombs from their Cessnas and Pipers. Though the missions had little effect, the flights angered the Cuban government, which promptly began grounding civilian airplanes. The Day of the Aviator parade was canceled. Orders were given to shoot down any unauthorized airplane in the skies over Cuba, and Castro—fearing an invasion was imminent—drew closer to the Soviet Union.
Throughout 1959 and 1960, Castro began nationalizing everything on the island, from banks and oil refineries to Cuba’s airline, Cubana de Aviacion. As the split with the United States grew, the exodus of private aviation accelerated. Like flocks of migrating birds, airplanes quietly lifted off from grass fields and small airports all over the island. Cuban and American businessmen and tourists piloted Beechcrafts, Luscombes, Cessnas, and Pipers back to the States. Mobsters fled aboard Lodestars and DC-3s.
“Pilots were escaping with anything that flew,” says Rodriguez. “Castro tried limiting the amount of fuel for private planes to try to keep them from having enough range to reach the U.S., but pilots still found gas and opportunities [to escape].”
Finally, in early 1961, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Castro’s government. Commercial flights between the two countries—including airmail—ceased. Airplanes, private and commercial, were being hijacked at gunpoint all over Cuba by pilots or passengers desperate to leave. At least 19 aircraft were hijacked from early 1959 to the spring of 1961, according to Rodriguez. Those who made it to the United States were officially welcomed and given asylum. “Anyone escaping Castro’s Cuba was considered a political refugee,” says Palacios, who flew away in his Cessna 310 that summer from Rancho Boyeros airfield near Havana.
I remember my own flight from Havana as a seven-year-old in early 1960. A friend of the family and an airline captain helped my mother and me get visas under assumed names. Like all departing Cubans, we were searched, and whatever personal items we carried were confiscated. As we waited in line to board the Aerolíneas Cubanas DC-3, our pilot friend put his arm around my mother’s trembling shoulders, stuffed a forged ticket in her purse, and whispered: “Los turistas no lloran”—Tourists aren’t supposed to cry.
Wearing green uniforms and carrying rifles, rebels with beards and shoulder-length hair watched the line of passengers, looking for counter-revolutionaries. If the people were just turistas, the thinking went, they would not cry. If they cried, they were escaping. If they were escaping, they would be caught and jailed. After we were seated, my mother’s arm tightened around my shoulder as the bearded men boarded the airplane and, after a few moments, pulled a middle-aged man in a starched white guayaberra from his seat. There was a nervous pleading in the man’s eyes as he walked down the aisle, between the rebels. My mother could not stop trembling. A little less than an hour into the flight, the pilot came back to get me. He brought me forward to sit in the cockpit for the landing in Florida. As the DC-3 descended through a thunderstorm, past the blur of windshield wipers, I saw the coastline of Key West. My mother, alone in the back of the plane, could finally cry without the fear of being seen either by the rebels or by me.
My father, Rafael Sr., and uncle, Luis Rojas, would join us later in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. As pilots in Batista’s air force, they were jailed as enemies of the state after Castro came to power. My father would spend a few weeks in prison before escaping with the help of a rebel soldier and the Brazilian Embassy. My uncle didn’t fare as well; he spent 23 years in political prisons before making it to Miami, and is mentioned in Armando Valladeres’ book Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag. (My hopes of revisiting Cuba for this story were dashed when I learned earlier this year that a videotape of my documentary on Cuba’s 1960s political prisoners had been smuggled into the country and viewed by a group of independent journalists at a clandestine meeting in Havana. The Cuban government rejected my repeated attempts to obtain a visa.)