Sometime in 1962 or 1963 Dr. Benito H. Prats boarded a flight from Havana to Camaguey that was hijacked to the U.S. It never got there. The exact date is no longer known, but the story and its surprise ending is now family lore.
|Passengers Boarding a DC-3 |
Through A Real Gate in the Fence
Hijackers were treated harshly when they landed — as they should. Even if there were no casualties the ordeal terrorized passengers and crew and endangered lives on board and on the ground. However, U.S. hijackers that successfully reached Cuba were treated as heroes and given asylum and plenty of press there, and, surprisingly, Cuban hijackers that reached the U.S. were likewise given asylum here and released without charge. This was a perfectly normal aspect of the cruel tit-for-tat dance that was the Cold War.
|Cuban Exit Permit|
All airworthy private aircraft and seaworthy watercraft had been appropriated without compensation by the government and carefully accounted for, and the coastline and air space was heavily patrolled. To escape the prison that Cuba had become, the only choice left was to find a leaky boat, or lash together a raft, and set off at night to evade the Coast Guard and brave the dangerous and wide Straits of Florida. Many did and many died.
There was one other choice. Hijack a domestic flight and order the pilot to fly to the U.S.
|Cubana DC-3 At Havana Airport|
It was another gorgeous Caribbean day: beautiful blue skies with fluffy white clouds — perfect for flying. The flight was probably Cubana de Aviación’s flight 482, the 342-mile two-hour nonstop flight to Camaguey that departed Havana at half past noon. (Today this flight is just an hour by jet.)
Cubana had used 28 passenger American-built Douglas DC-3 twin-engine aircraft for their domestic flights since the 1950s. Seat configuration was two seats on each side of the aisle. There was plenty of leg room and recline pitch compared to today’s coach seats. But the U.S. embargo had made spare parts difficult to procure, so late in 1961 Cubana added two Soviet-built Ilyushin-14 twin engine airplanes to their domestic fleet. They had capacity, speed and range similar to the DC-3. Benito’s flight could have used one or the other. So for this story, because I cannot find a good photo of an Ilyushin-14 in Cubana livery, lets put him in a DC-3.
Benito said that the flight was half-full: maybe 12 to 15 passengers. Like they did back then all over the world, everyone was dressed for travel. Suits and ties and fedora hats on the men, smart dresses and pinned hats on the ladies. The overhead rack on airplanes of that era was just a narrow open rack designed to hold men’s hats and not much more. It made the cabin look just a tad less cramped. The ladies kept their hats on.
|Model of a DC-3 in Cubana Livery|
Later in the flight she passes out box lunches — a waxed pasteboard box with perhaps a couple of pieces of cold fried chicken, cheese and crackers, a small piece of fruit of some sort, and perhaps a slice of guava paste on a cracker. For some reason, the passenger across the aisle from Benito did not touch his drink and refused lunch.
|“Miss, here’s your Coca-Cola”|
“This plane is going to Cayo Hueso!” he shouted, waving the grenade with one hand and the pin with the other. Cayo Hueso is the Spanish name for Key West.
The door to the cockpit was open — they usually were to improve circulation — and the crew of three — the captain, copilot and navigator — heard the commotion. The navigator steps out.
“Young man! Young man! What are you carrying on about?”
“I’m commandeering this airplane and you are taking me to Key West!”
“We can’t!” says the navigator.
“Why not? Are you the pilot?” asks the hijacker.
“I’m the navigator. The captain is flying the plane.”
|World War II Hand Grenade|
Pin with pull-ring secures safety
lever. To use: hold lever against
grenade, pull pin, throw as far
as you can, and take cover.
By then the copilot is in the narrow aisle of the cabin behind the navigator. Benito’s eyes, and all the other eyes in the cabin, are riveted to the hijacker’s left hand and more particularly the fingers that hold the grenade’s safety lever tightly against the grenade. He’s got a tight grip, but his arm is spastic, waving the grenade every which way. In his right hand is the pin he pulled, the only path to salvation.
If he lets go of the spring-loaded lever, even if just for a second, the grenade is going to blow. You can’t squeeze it back closed to stop the explosion. The delay element lights when the lever is released and when the burn reaches the detonator the explosion will occur. If he lets go, no heroic quick action is going to save the day because there is no quick way to throw it out of the aircraft.
“We can’t fly to Key West, “ says the copilot. “We only have enough fuel to get to Camaguey.”
“¡Mentira!” — “you lie!” spits the hijacker. “It’s 90 miles to Key West and 300 miles to Camaguey!”
“We’re almost halfway to Camaguey and we have been flying further away from Key West. We spent a lot of fuel taking off and reaching this altitude. We can’t get to Key West with the fuel we have.”
|DC-3 Banking into a Turn|
The hijacker noticed the change in the sunlight entering through the windows and screamed, “Where are you going now! We’re changing course! I need to get to the U.S. or die. I’m going to release this lever!”
“No! no! Don’t worry! We’re returning to Havana so we can refuel and get you to Key West. Stay calm!”
The hijacker is anything but calm. He started hyperventilating.
Benito went everywhere with his doctor’s bag, a small black hard-leather satchel with his initials BHP in gold leaf above the latch. He rummaged around inside and came up with small white glass bottle with a yellow label: a sample bottle of meprobamate. He unscrewed the lid, shook out a tablet, and offered it to the hijacker.
|A Doctor’s Bag|
“That’s going to knock me out! I’m not taking it!” cried the hijacker.
So Benito popped the pill in his own mouth and swallowed it with an audible gulp.
|The Valium of its Day|
There is another thing to note about airplanes of that era. If they were not moving there was no air circulating in the cabin. The hijacker refused to allow the door to be opened and the temperature inside the aircraft was becoming unbearable.The hijacker had been holding the grenade for more than an hour now, gripping it with all his might. His hands were sweaty. It was evident he would not be able to keep hold of it for much longer. And the airplane was surrounded by soldiers.
The hijacker was slumped in his seat, sobbing, as the crew opened the door and soldiers entered and roughly took the man away.
|Fidel Shaking Hands at the Airport|
No, that's not Benito
What a story he got to tell Mariana when he finally got home! He checked radio and TV newscasts that evening and the newspaper the next day for news on the hijacking.
Not a word! And no words of congratulations from Communist Party and government functionaries were forthcoming. After all, who in the world would be so desperate to leave the sun-drenched egalitarian utopia that the second revolution had brought to Cuba.
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Want to read a first-hand account of how daily life was for Cubans in those years? Check out a Belgian priest’s wry account of what he saw and experienced in Camaguey in the 1960s: A Priest in Red Cuba