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.)
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.