On a barren landing strip in Agramonte, in central Cuba, a swayback horse nosed for scraps in the weeds. Off to one side, the decaying hulk of a Russian tractor—its wheels long gone—stood rooted in place by rust. In the distance, rows of green sugar cane waved in the breeze. On a 10-day journalist visa in 1999, I traveled to what had once been busy grass airfields and paved landing strips all around Cuba. In Agramonte, some 435 miles from Havana, I walked the length of the old runway, kicking at the grass and looking for tie-downs, landing lights—any hint that aircraft had ever landed here at all.
Almost 50 years before, on a warm fall day, I had stood on the edge of the same strip, holding my mother’s hand as we watched a DC-3 float down for a landing on what was a lush, manicured grass field beside a central, or sugar mill. The cargo airplane gleamed in the heat waves as it settled. I was just four, but the image of that day was burned into my memory—the shiny silver fuselage, the wisp-wisp of the propellers slicing the air, and my mother’s perfume mixing with the smell of the freshly mowed grass as she leaned down to tell me, “That’s your uncle and father in that plane.”
Ours is a family of pilots. All four of my mother’s brothers were aviators. Two died in airplane crashes. The others were Cuban military pilots, as was my father. Born at a military hospital at Campo Columbia airfield near Havana, I still remember the lines painted on taxiways, the roar of the Allison engines in my father’s P-38 Lightning, and the forest-green airstrips at places like Agramonte.
What none of us could have known on that day in September 1957 was how dramatically our lives—and aviation in Cuba—would soon change. For even as my father and uncle brought that DC-3 down for a landing, a powerful force was taking shape in the slate-blue mountains surrounding the field. There, guerrillas loyal to Fidel Castro were fighting to overthrow the regime of Fulgencio Batista, whose three decades in power had spanned the golden age of aviation in Cuba. Castro’s forces would take control on New Year’s Day 1959, and with their arrival began the chaotic, downward spiral of aviation that, in less than three years, would result in the grounding of virtually all private airplanes in Cuba.
Of course, other authoritarian regimes around the world—in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia—have either tightly restricted private flying or banned it altogether. But Cuba is unique in that, for more than 40 years, it had a vibrant flying community. Three schools taught hundreds of Cubans how to fly. Numerous airstrips were laid down all over the island, usually near large sugar plantations. And because of Cuba’s close relationship with the United States, a steady supply of private aircraft flew in, out, and around the island.
Cubans had embraced aviation with a passion from the beginning, when in May 1910 a French aviator, Andre Bellot, astonished Havana residents by flying his 60-horsepower Voisin biplane over a grassy plain in the city. Three years later, two Cuban pilots—Domingo Rosillo (with a naval escort) and then Agustin Parla (with only a compass)—made the 90-mile flight from Key West, Florida, to Cuba and were hailed as heroes. In 1919, the Compania Aerea Cubana set up the first flying school in Cuba, using Farman F-40s. The following year brought the first Cuban airline service and the first airmail flight. Charles Lindbergh stopped by on his goodwill tour of the Caribbean, landing the Spirit of St. Louis in Havana on February 8, 1928.
In the 1940s, Benigno Diaz—now 96 and living in Miami—set an aviation record of a different sort: He put together Cuba’s first homebuilt, assembled from plans in Popular Mechanics, with the help of a childhood friend, Roberto Gude. In 1938, Diaz and Gude used wood from fish crates and poplin from a fabric store to begin constructing the island’s first experimental aircraft. “It took us years,” Gude says. “We had to beg for every nut and bolt and piece of fabric and wood. Everything on that plane was improvised.”
The landing gear was crafted from automobile exhaust pipes. One friend, a pilot, donated a 65-hp Continental engine and the tires off a Piper J-3 Cub. After seven years, the airplane dubbed La Estrella Errante (Wandering Star) was finished. Diaz’s father was there for the 1945 maiden flight. He approached his son, put his arm around him, and said, “Benigno, are you sure you tightened all the bolts on that thing?” Diaz nodded. He climbed into the cockpit, turned the aircraft onto the grass field, and gave it power. Gaining speed, the little airplane bounced and lifted off. “It flew very well,” says Diaz, who still has a small model of his handiwork. “It was the first flight of the first homemade plane on the island.”
La Estrella Errante joined many other airplanes to take part in an annual celebration in Havana called The Day of the Aviator. The festival, which had begun in 1953, was held every May to commemorate the Florida-to-Cuba flights of Domingo Rosillo and Agustin Parla. As part of the festivities, private aircraft landed on public streets, then taxied parade-like down the capital’s coastal boulevard, the Malecon. Hundreds of people lined the sea wall, and pilots would wave at the admiring crowds like princesses on May Day floats.
“It was wonderful, like a dream,” recalls Diaz’s daughter Alba. “The airplanes and the sea wall, the crowds of people. I remember someone lifting me up and into the little plane to sit on my father’s lap. We taxied around the Malecon in the parade.”