A Cuban airliner flying from the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba to Havana crashed Thursday evening after declaring an emergency, killing all 68 people aboard, including 28 foreigners. Government investigators were at the scene of the tragedy, and are attempting to determine a cause. Our sympathies go out to the families of the victims, and to the Cuban people.
A few years back, I wrote about flying on airlines inside Cuba, and this is the piece as published in the Chicago Tribune.
The Englishman, the Italians, and the Sky Marshal
There is little doubt that at least some future plane trips will include an additional crew member; the armed sky marshal.. Sky marshals (or air marshals), first got on board selected flights in 1970, after hijackings worldwide had increased from 38 in 1968 to 82 attempts in 1969. “Take this plane to Cuba”, became the five words American pilots feared most. As well as sky marshals, passengers soon found metal detectors and x-ray machines standing between them and the aircraft they were about to board. In addition, the US and Cuba, put aside their differences long enough to sign a treaty which required each country to extradite or punish hijackers. It all worked, and by1973 hijacking attempts had dropped to 22 world wide, with only 2 in the US.
Decades of relatively terrorist free flights went by in America, and the skymarshal program was cut back, until September 11, 2001 But for our hijack treaty partners, the Cubans, airline security never went out of style, a fact I was reminded of while taking a flight inside Cuba.
I’m at at a very small airport outside of Havana, waiting for a plane to take me to the colonial town of Trinidad. I wasn’t certain what to expect, since this would be my first trip on Cubana Airlines. On the runway sat our plane, which, for a twin engine turbo-prop looked normal enough to me. Of course, I know absolutely nothing about airplanes.
Everything you had with you would be x-rayed, then hand searched. And everybody would go through a metal detector. Most of my fellow travelers were Italian tourists, many who seemed annoyed with the pace of security. One of the women attempted to go directly to a small concession stand, but something in her purse set off the metal detector. As the very polite counter people tried to tell her she would have to wait with her husband until both of their tickets and baggage were checked, she began an argument whose main point seemed to be that she wanted a cup off coffee, and was going to get it now. From a back room emerged a man who could have played power forward in the NBA, standing at least 6’8″, and as wide as a door. He wore a sport coat which bulged under the armpit, but just his size and sour demeanor were enough to get everyone’s immediate attention. Her husband read the unspoken message, and told his wife something in Italian which finally caused her to get back in line. When my turn came to check in, my U.S. documentation was given a thorough perusal, and I was made to remove the glasses I was wearing, since I didn’t have them on in my passport photo. The small tripod I had with me would not be allowed on board, but had to be checked.
There were only a few Cubans on the flight, but they received the most intense screening of all. Their tickets and documents were gone over several times, and the questioning as to where they were going and why, went on for several minutes.
My next surprise came when we were allowed to board. Rather than a stairway into the cabin, we walked up a ramp in the rear, built for trucks and tanks. The prop wash was strong enough to almost knock you over, but at the top of the ramp stood a smiling Cubana flight attendant, oblivious to the roaring engines. Once inside there were about twenty rows of seats, loosely bolted to the frame, and few other signs of the transformation this plane had undergone. Initially, it was impossible to hear anything, and, it didn’t get much better when the ramp went up. One of the areas where they’d saved money was on sound proofing; there was none. I took my seat, and nodded to a smiling Englishman who would be sitting next to me. His name was Steve Day, an engineer with a wicked sense of humor, who worked in the oil business. His job was to go to a location somewhere in the world, and set up an oil rig. He proved to be an invaluable source of information, since he had flown throughout the third world, and knew this aircraft.
Steve’s first bit of reassuring information came when he explained why there was white smoke pouring into the cabin. It seemed to be coming from somewhere underneath, and rose about a foot. I wasn’t sure whether to run for the now closed ramp, or head up front toward an exit. Discouraging the later was the big guy from the terminal, who appeared again, walking slowly from the rear to the front of the plane. He turned around and gave everyone one more glowering stare, before folding down a jump seat right next to the locked cockpit door. Here, the whole airline hijacking scenario that I’d been raised with, was turned on its head. “Take this plane to Miami” would be the demand, and it would be up to the big Cuban to say no.
“He’s the security guard”, said Steve. “And you can be assured that he has a gun”. He needed no gun to subdue any two of the passengers on this flight, and I remembered back so long ago when revolutionaries in the U.S. were hijacking airliners and demanding to be taken to Cuba. That, of course, led to the whole airport security industry which now is an annoying, but necessary part of every trip by plane. Now the tables had turned, with those who wanted to get to the United States demanding to be taken there, and guys like this guard ready to punch or shoot it out to make sure that this plane would follow its flight plan. If this guy had anything to say about it (and there was no one arguing with him), we were not going to Miami. Fine by me, but what about the smoke. “It’s from the air conditioning,” Steve told me. “Nothing to worry about,” he reassured.
So I didn’t worry (OK, maybe just a little), and as we took off the smoke cleared and we were on our way. It was still very noisy, but Steve’s explanation of the airplane’s history soothed my nerves. We were flying a Russian Antonov A-26 freight model adapted (sort of) for passengers. It was originally built for paratroops or up to 10 tons of cargo and capable of using unpaved airstrips. This baby probably served in combat in Angola ferrying around some of the 200,000 troops the Cubans sent to help in that now forgotten war. And although loud, it had enough power in just one of its engines to make several trips around the country with 40 tourists. So, for the relatively short flight to Trinidad, we had capable, if not comfortable wings.
The Trinidad airport terminal is a one building compound, with very few overlapping flights, so ours was the only aircraft. Although we were only a few miles from town, we still needed a taxi to get there, but there were none to be seen. Suddenly a wagon train of horse drawn carriages arrived, and we were told to get on board. It struck me that our Cuban hosts had gone a bit too far in attempting to recreate the flavor of this colonial Spanish town for the tourists, and I felt a bit silly climbing in and riding into the town center. But as we rode I realized that this was provincial Cuba, and that even though it was the 21st century this was how these people actually got around. We passed other horse drawn taxis filled with Cubans on there way to work or school, and they smiled and waved and we smiled and took their pictures. Far from being treated as tourists, we were experiencing the same form of transportation as the average Trinidadian. But as we came into town, and passed other carriages, Steve pointed out one concession to modern times. “Look,” he laughed. “The horses are wearing nappys”. Now most of my language problems in Cuba involved Spanish slang, but here was a bit of the Queens English that lost me. However I soon learned that “nappy” was slang for diaper, and yes the horses on these taxis, in order to keep the streets as free as possible from manure, had a very ingenious cloth trap hanging right below the tail. It worked well, and the tourists looking for cheap rum and t-shirts had only to worry about tripping over a loose brick on the cobblestone streets, and not about stepping in something organically Cuban.
Trinidad is a magnificent example of colonial Spanish architecture, but when our tour group kept getting steered into shops selling rum, cigars and t-shirts, I bailed and went exploring the back streets myself. This made for a much more enjoyable trip, and I was invited into several homes for coffee and guava filled pastries, and purchased a couple of bananas fresh from their tree. I later joined up with Steve, and we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of grilled fish, before heading back to our tour group. We went by bus to a nearby sugar mill where the importance of sugar in Cuban history was explained, but the women workers also gave us a lesson in socialist work ethic. One of the Italians had not gotten enough t-shirts at the other stores, and was trying to buy one here. The shop was obviously open, but there was no one in it. The same held true for the in the small snack bar. Our guide then explained that this was the International Day of the Woman, and that although the women were at work, they would not work today, because of the holiday. I followed some music coming from out back, and found the ten female employees, dancing and drinking rum. Because of their impromptu work stoppage they would not sell me a beer, but they were happy to give me several glasses of rum provided I dance with them and take some video. I tried to leave a tip, but they refused it, and only after I insisted the money was for my dance lessons did they laughingly accept.
Back at the airport we found the same flight attendants, pilots, and my big friend the security guard, who looked only a bit less intimidating after a rum drenched afternoon. He resumed his place in the jump seat, and we headed back. Throughout our short trip he did not fall asleep, or flirt with the flight attendant, and his eyes constantly patrolled the plane. His only concession to comfort was to unbutton his jacket, and you could see the leather straps of his shoulder holster and the butt of his gun sticking out. Was it a Glock or something Czechoslovakian? I couldn’t tell for sure. But I was sure that he would use it if he had to. This plane was staying in Cuba.
Jim Ryerson is a documentary film producer specializing on Cuba, which he’s visited more than 30 times. He formerly worked as a television news reporter in Los Angeles, and has won numerous national and international awards for his work His documentary on the U.S. embargo, Looking for Cuba has been on the film festival circuit, and he has 3 other documentary projects regarding Cuban music, art and culture. You can read his blog and see clips from their films at http://www.cubaconnections.org.
Plane crashes in central Cuba
Plane crashes en route to Havana, killing all 68 aboard