Luis Palacios, 67, who soloed in a Piper J-3 Cub when he was 19, remembers the heart-stopping landings the pilots had to make. “You had to land the plane directly on the street,” he says. “Sometimes it was tricky with the crosswinds coming off the water. The planes were mostly tail-draggers. Then all the planes would taxi the length of the Malecon with people hanging onto the wings, helping guide the plane through the crowds. It was spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.”
Such bravado was typical for the pilots. In those days, private pilots in Cuba flew unencumbered by airspace regulations or control towers, says Palacios, who flew for Eastern Airlines after coming to the United States in 1961. “You could take off from one town, fly along the coast, and see a beach and land on it. Many pilots used to land on hard-packed sand beaches, have lunch or a swim, and get back in the plane and take off. Of course, if you do that today [in the United States], you have the FAA and the NTSB and everybody else on top of you in minutes.
“Some pilots never bothered with actually getting a license,” Palacios says. “Somebody taught them the basics of flying and they just flew. There were no sectionals [charts], no radios, and no electrical systems. The planes were hand-propped, and it was basic stick-and-rudder flying. But many of those pilots without licenses were a bit reckless. There were times unlicensed pilots would fly under bridges or do barrel rolls over houses. I think there might have been an element of machismo at work there because it wasn’t very safe.”
Palacios’ most vivid memories from that time were simply of the romance of flying in Cuba. “There was a fragrance,” he says. “Not just a smell. It was a fragrance that would waft in through the open windows of those small planes. If you were flying into coffee fields or sugar cane fields and especially tobacco fields—it was wonderful.” While some Cuban pilots flew for the sheer enjoyment, many others were training to become airline or cargo pilots. They wanted the glamorous position of airline captain, and they had several flight schools in Cuba to choose from—one in Havana, one in Santiago de Cuba, and the third, a floatplane school, on the Rio Almendares, Havana’s main river.
Several factors Spurred the growth of general aviation on the island, chief among them Cuba’s proximity to the United States. “In those days, Americans and Cubans traveled back and forth from Cuba and Miami the way we do now between Miami and Fort Lauderdale,” Palacios says. “Cuba was only an hour or so away from the States by plane. There were all the flight schools in Miami. There was the Pan Am base in Miami. Many pilots trained in flight schools in Miami, bought planes there, and flew them back to the island.”
During the 1940s and ’50s, more and more American pilots made the crossing to Havana; airports and grass fields all over Cuba were crowded with private airplanes. One travel brochure of the time had a drawing of a leather-helmeted pilot flying a small airplane from Florida. The headline read: “Just a ‘plane’ hop and you’re in Cuba.” Another, which read “For Private Pilots Only,” had a goggled pilot playing the maracas with a comely senorita, her skirt billowing as she dances. The brochures offered an image of an exotic paradise of casinos, nightclubs, and dance halls, where rum flowed like water and women were always available. One flight school airplane sported an advertisement on the underside of its wings: “Drink Bacardi Rum.”
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].”