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 4 of 4)
After the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, in which a CIA-backed force of about 1,500 armed Cuban exiles tried unsuccessfully to invade a beach in south-central Cuba, Castro aligned his government firmly with the Soviet Union and confiscated all remaining private airplanes. “With the Russians coming in right after the Bay of Pigs, everything
became Soviet,” says Rodriguez. Cuba’s air force got new MiGs, while its domestic airline got old Antonov An-2s and Ilyushin Il-14s. Almost at once, U.S.-built airplanes on the island were endangered: Spare parts were almost impossible to get, and without spare parts an aircraft is practically useless. “The Cuban government sold some to Latin countries,” says Rodriguez. “What planes had not been flown from the island were cannibalized and finally sold as scrap aluminum.”
Perhaps the last private airplane out of Cuba was a single-seat Air Tractor that flew from Havana early in the morning of October 26, 1961, according to Rodriguez. A pilot and mechanic escaped in the airplane, which was fitted with cropdusting gear on the wing’s trailing edge. As the pilot checked the ailerons, tires, and oil level, the mechanic found a comfortable position to lie on top of the wing. The pilot took a rope and looped it around the mechanic’s wrists and waist, strapping him to the wing. The cropduster lifted off the grass field and into a rosy dawn. Some three hours and 40 minutes later, the aircraft and its hog-tied mechanic touched down to safety in Key West.
At the height of general aviation in Cuba, there might have been as many as a thousand private and student pilots on the island, Rodriguez says, and “probably hundreds of private planes, if not a thousand.” But since many logbooks and flight records stayed on the island, it is difficult to get an accurate number. In the end, any airplane that was not hijacked, used in anti-insurgency operations, or shot down was grounded—in most cases permanently—and seized as the property of the Cuban government.
“I would say it only took one, maybe two years to completely end general aviation in Cuba,” says Palacios. “The counter-insurgency, then the mass exodus of Cuban pilots, the Bay of Pigs, and finally the Soviet involvement. Not to mention that there was no more private property. You couldn’t own a private car, much less a private plane.” Adds Rodriguez: “Cuba is still a centralized Soviet style system where the state owns and runs everything. There is no private anything.”
When I last saw it in 1999, the grass field near Havana where Diaz and La Estrella Errante took flight was a weed-strewn open lot, and the fate of that homebuilt airplane was unknown. Some say it was shipped to a military airfield in Cuba. “We heard it was there in mothballs,” Alba Diaz told me later. “But we don’t know for sure. Someone else said the plane had been left outside on a tie-down and simply rotted.” Covered with house paint, its primitive construction “would not have stood up very long outside,” her father agreed.
All around the island, the airports and flight schools that once sparkled with the glint of painted canvas were gone. The 10,000-acre sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations that were the unofficial homes for private airplanes were portioned into small, peasant-farmed agricultural collectives. At Jose Marti airport in Havana, I saw no private airplanes, save the occasional European corporate jet hissing to a gate, carrying a diplomat. The few American pilots were mostly with charters, although it is legal—with permission from both the U.S. and Cuban governments—to land private American aircraft in Cuba.
Flight in Cuba today is military aviation. The Cuban military makes no secret that it owns Gaviota, the Cuban tourism agency, which in turn owns the hotels and night clubs on the island. Gaviota also owns the domestic airline, whose Antonovs and Ilyushins are flown by military pilots, the only type of pilots still trained in Cuba. “When you step aboard a Cuban airline,” Rodriguez says, “the air crew will be MiG pilots.”
Across the island, American cars from the 1950s—wire-tied and cannibalized—still sputtered along the roads. Left behind by their owners, the cars had become the property of the state, on loan to those the government favored. But in the skies over Cuba, there were only jumbo commercial airliners, the old Antonov and Ilyushin transports, and the contrails of MiG-29s.