Episode 27 - Layover In Havana


Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, flying was seen as a luxurious experience compared to flying now. Yes, it took you a lot longer to reach your destination and was much more expensive than it is now, but it was also much more fancy. People would get dressed up in nice clothes to board an airplane. There were framed pictures hanging on the walls, aisles were wider, seats reclined back further, and there was way more legroom. There was a lot of free drinks poured and cigarette smoke filled the cabin. As for food, there was lobster and steak served on china instead of a bag of peanuts.

It was also a lot easier to board a plane than it is now. Back then, you could get out of your car, walk through the airport and board your plane without having to go through a metal detector, or x-ray machine, or getting a pat down. You could go right up to the plane while it was sitting on the tarmac and board without showing a ticket or identification. There were even airlines that would allow for passengers to pay for their fare after the plane had already taken off.

On May 1, 1961, a man named Ramirez Ortiz entered the cockpit of a National Airlines Convair 440 flight that was headed to Key West Florida. Ortiz had a steak knife and held it to the pilot’s throat and said “If I don’t see Havana in thirty minutes we all die.” The flight crew complied, and the plane changed course for Havana, Cuba. When the plane first came into Cuba airspace, they were threatened with antiaircraft fire, but when the plane crew explained what was happening, Cuban air traffic controllers let them land at a military base just south of Havana. Ramirez Ortiz de-boarded the plane with his 85 pounds of checked luggage but was then immediately dragged away by Cuban soldiers. The rest of the passengers were given a chicken lunch and then they took off from Cuba and made their way to Key West like originally planned. Their arrival in Key West ended up being only delayed by three hours.

This was the first hijacking of an American aircraft, so there were technically no laws specifically against hijacking a plane. The FBI figured that Ortiz was crazy and that this hijacking was a once in a blue moon incident and nobody got hurt, so they just kind of let it go. On July 24, 1961 a Tampa-bound flight was hijacked and flown to Havana. Fidel Castro decided that he would keep this plane in Cuba until one of Cuba’s naval vessels was returned. This convinced several Americans that Castro was behind these hijackings, when in reality, he was just trying to take advantage of this insane situation. The American plane was eventually traded for the Cuban ship. Eight days after that hijacking, a man named Bruce Britt tried to hijack a plane that was flying from Chico, California to Smackover, Arkansas so that he could impress his estranged wife. Britt ended up shooting a ticket agent and the plane’s captain before the plane even took off and he was subdued by other passengers. The pilot survived, but was blind for the rest of his life.

Less than 48 hours after Britt’s hijacking attempt, 41 year old Leon Bearden and his 16 year old son, Cody, boarded a Boeing 707 flying to El Paso with a couple of loaded pistols. Once in the air, they held a couple of stewardesses at gunpoint while they made their demands. Their plan was that the pilot would continue the flight to El Paso, and then after refueling and letting all but 4 of the passengers get off the plane, the pilot would then fly them to Havana. The Bearden’s figured that Castro would give them Cuban citizenship after they offered the plane worth $5.4 million to him as a gift. One of the passengers asked Leon why he wanted to even go to Cuba and he said “I’m just fed up. I don’t want to be an American anymore.”

By the time that the plane had gotten to El Paso to refuel, President John F. Kennedy had been briefed on the latest hijacking. Things were very tense with Cuba and they had already had two flights be hijacked to Havana, which was embarrassing. But this was the first time that it was white men and not latino men that were doing the hijacking. JFK knew that Castro would love to use these men as an example that American citizens were trying to escape the evils of capitalism. JFK gave the FBI the go ahead to do whatever they deemed necessary to stop this hijacking.

In El Paso, the ground crew were told by the FBI to do whatever they could to stall the plane from leaving after the passengers had been released. They pretended that there was several hours of maintenance needed if the plane was going to make the 1,500 mile flight to Havana. After what seemed like forever, Leon was getting antsy to get going and told the pilot to take off. He then shot a bullet between the co-pilot’s feet. The pilot agreed and started to take off, but the plane only made it 50 yards down the runway when a dozen federal agents started shooting at the plane’s landing gear and engines with submachine guns. With the plane now grounded, Leon and his son Cody agreed to speak with an FBI negotiator. A negotiator boarded the plane, but Leon started to get nervous and started waving his gun around and yelling that he’d rather kill himself than go to prison. That’s when Leon heard a noise in the main cabin and turned around to see a stewardess sneaking out of one the plane’s exits. One of the passengers still on board took that opportunity to punch Leon in the ear and knock him to the ground. The FBI negotiator then tackled Cody. Both men were taken into custody.

The next day, on August 4, the Senate Aviation Subcommittee held an emergency meeting to address all of these hijackings. Remember, at this time, there is technically no law against hijacking an aircraft, so the Beardens could only be charged with kidnapping. Federal legislators were now determined to change that fact. Senator Yarborough of Texas wanted to make air piracy a capital crime and other legislation was brought forward that would require cockpit doors to lock, pilots to receive firearm training, and the Justice Department would give out a $10,000 reward for information that led to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in the actual, attempted or planned hijacking of aircraft.

While Congress was still discussing the issue of air piracy, a man named Albert Cadon from New York City, hijacked a plane that was headed for Guatemala City and had the flight re-directed to Havana, Cuba. After Albert Cadon arrived in Cuba, the Senate unanimously passed an air piracy bill and JFK signed it into law on September 5, 1961. On September 17, it was reported that Cuba executed two attempted airline hijackers by firing squad. After that, it seemed that the air piracy bill was doing it’s job of dissuading possible skyjackers and there were no hijackings of American aircraft for the rest of the year. In fact, there were no hijackings in 1962, 1963, or 1964 either.

On August 31st, 1965, Harry Fergerstorm, a fourteen year old, hijacked a plane in Honolulu that he said he was doing to protest Hawaii becoming a U.S. state. Harry peacefully surrendered to authorities, but six weeks later, two Navy sailors hijacked another Hawaii flight with hunting knives and demanded to be taken to their respective hometowns: White Earth, Minnesota and Watonga, Oklahoma. They were also not successful in their hijackings. However, a new wave of hijackings was just beginning. There was Luis Perez, a Cuban exile, who tried hijacking a Florida flight to go to Havana so that he could personally meet with Castro and beg for his family’s freedom. Three weeks after that, a sixteen year old named Thomas Robinson hijacked a plane departing from New Orleans with plans to go to Cuba so that he could organize a jailbreak of Cuba’s political prisoners. He fired several shots into the fuselage, but was then tackled by passengers of the flight.

Despite these failed skyjackings, many more began to take place and many succeeded in making it to Havana. Several of these Americans believed that they would have a great life once they arrived in Cuba and would be seen as heroes in Castro’s revolution. One hijacker said about seeing the Jose Marti International Airport runway lights “In a few hours, it would be dawn in a new world – I was about to enter Paradise. Cuba was creating a true democracy, a place where everyone was equal, where violence against blacks, injustice, and racism were things of the past. I had come to Cuba to feel freedom at least once.”

These skyjackers were right that Castro was happy to welcome the hijacked flights into Cuba. Every time an American plane landed in Havana, it caused not only embarrassment to the Americans but Castro also charged the airlines $7,500 to get their plane back. Castro did not care for the skyjackers themselves though. Usually once a hijacker got off the plane, they were taken by Cuba’s secret police the G2, to be interrogated. They would usually be interrogated about working for the CIA for weeks. If the G2 was satisfied with their answers, they were sent to live at the Casa de Transitos or the Hijackers House. Each American hijackers got sixteen square feet of living space in the two-story building and received a monthly stipend of 40 pesos.

If the G2 was not happy with the answers that the hijackers gave them during interrogation, the hijacker was sent to a sugar-harvesting camp that is described best as a tropical gulag. They were hit with machetes, those that tried to cause an uprising were publicly executed, and if you tried to escape, you were dragged across stalks of sugarcane that had been sharpened to be like razors until your flesh was in pieces. One American hijacker was beaten so badly by his guards that he lost an eye and another hijacker committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell.

Word of these camps made their way back to America, but it didn’t do anything to quell the hijackings. Hijackers were always optimistic that Castro would like them and it would be different with them. All of the hijackers had a different reason for going to Cuba and they were usually all equally dumb ideas. A sociology student from Kalamazoo, Michigan hijacked a Piper PA-24 to Havana so he could study Communism firsthand, a New Mexico real estate heir hijacked a Delta Airlines flight while dressed as a cowboy for some reason, and one Cuban exile hijacked a flight to Havana because he missed his mother’s frijoles.

By July of 1968, the Senate decided to hold another hearing on the hijackings. During the hearing, the FAA’s representative said “It’s an impossible problem short of searching every passenger. If you’ve got a man aboard that wants to go to Havana, and he has got a gun, that’s all he needs.”

Senator George Smathers of Florida suggested that airports use metal detectors or x-ray machines that several maximum-security prisons and military facilities were currently using so that they could screen passengers before they boarded. However, airline lobbyists of screening would “have a bad psychological effect on passengers. It would scare the pants off people. Plus people would complain about invasion of privacy.” The airlines estimated that each hijacking cost them about $20,000 which included Castro’s fee plus cancelling flights and giving kidnapped flight crews extra vacation time, but they figured that that would actually cost them less than if people stopped flying because it would be an invasion of privacy and a bigger pain in the butt. So the suggestion of using the screening devices was dropped.

Instead, the State department proposed that they would offer free one-way flights to Cuba. All a person would have to do was promise that they would never come back to the United States. Fidel Castro refused to accept these flights though. So the airlines decided that they would just focus on avoiding as much violence as possible (passenger fatalities were bad press) and each airline came up with their own policies that would direct a crew on how to handle a hijacking, mostly how to be completely compliant with all of a hijacker’s demands. Cockpits all had charts of the Caribbean Sea, no matter where the plane’s flight destination was. Pilots were given briefs on landing procedures at Jose Marti International Airport and were also given cards that had phrases so they could communicate with Spanish-speaking hijackers like “I must open my flight bag for maps” or “Aircraft has mechanical problems-can’t make Cuba.” Air traffic controllers had a dedicated phone line for reaching Cuban air traffic controllers so they could let them know when there was an incoming flight and the Switzerland embassy in Havana had a form letter that airlines could use whenever they needed to ask for their stolen plane back.

In 1968, after the 22nd hijacking that year, Time published a travel guide titled “What to Do When the Hijacker Comes” that included tips like “Don’t panic. Hijackers, although unwelcome, can be congenial. One of the three men who took over Pan American’s San Juan-bound Flight 281 in November, identified only as Jose, passed out .32 cal bullets as souvenirs and chatted amicably with passengers.” Time also recommended not pushing the call button if your plane had been hijacked because the “sudden ping in the cockpit might startle felon and provoke him to fire his pistol.” However, once you got to Havana, things were pretty nice. The Cuban government usually put the kidnapped passengers up in the Habana Libre and were treated to nightclubs and daiquiris. The travel guide went on to explain that the shopping in downtown Havana was nice. You could buy cigars, rum, East German cameras, and beautifully embroidered Czech peasant blouses while waiting to be taken back to the U.S.

Hijackings kept becoming more and more frequent. By the second week of February in 1969, there had already been 11 air hijackings that year in the United States. The FAA decided that just going with the flow wasn’t working and created an antihijacking task force that would come up with solutions to all of these hijackings. Almost as soon as the task force was formed, citizens from all across the country sent letters with their ideas on how to lessen the hijackings. Some of the ideas were installing trapdoors just outside of the cockpit, giving stewardesses tranquilizer darts they could stab a hijacker with, make passengers wear boxing gloves during the flight, playing the Cuban national anthem right before takeoff and then arresting anybody who sang along, and building a mock version of Jose Marti International Airport in Southern Florida. The FAA task force actually really liked that last idea, but it ended up being deemed too expensive. Instead, they just settled on an advertising campaign that reminded people tat skyjacking was punishable by death and in the fall of 1969, skyjackings started to slow down. When asked if the advertising was working, the head of the FAA’s Miami office said “It’s possible that the fad has just died out.” Plane hijackings were now just two or three a month.

However, after an Italian-American marine hijacked a plane and re-directed it to Rome in November of 1969, the FAA decided to implement a new system. One of the task force members named John Dailey analyzed the characteristics of every single American hijacker since the first one in 1961, (there had been more than 70 by now) and found that there was no personality trait or underlying reason for hijacking that they all shared, but many did act out their hijackings similarly. So Daily created a checklist for airlines to use to determine if a passenger was a potential hijacker or not. The checklist included paying for a ticket in an unconventional way, or failing to maintain eye contact, or not give a straight answer about what was in their luggage. If a passenger met any of these criteria, they were asked to go into a private area where a federal marshal would use a metal detector wand on them and their luggage.

Almost immediately after the screening process began, hijackings started to decline in number. There was only one hijacking in January of 1970 and only one in February of 1970. Janitors at airports started to find guns and knives hidden in potted plants from hijackers that chickened out after seeing screening notices. That was until a man named Arthur Gates Barkley hijacked a plane with a .22 caliber pistol, a straight razor, and a can full of gasoline. When he had arrived at the airport, the airline’s metal detector wasn’t working and the airport was extremely busy, so Barkley was able to board his plane without any kind of trouble. Instead of going to Havana though, Barkley wanted $100 million from the Supreme Court. The pilots tried to talk him into going to Cuba instead, but he wanted his money. So FBI agents lined a runway with a hundred mail sacks that allegedly each contained a million dollars (they were actually just filled with newspapers). When the plane landed, the landing gear was shot out by a policeman and the FBI stormed the plane and arrested Barkley. Though he was unsuccessful, Barkley started a new wave of skyjackings in America. Then, the terrorist group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four planes at the same time and three of those planes were American. Three of the hijackings were successful. One of the planes was flown to Cairo after the hostages were released and was blown up with hand grenades. The other two planes were flown to Zarqua, Jordan where the passengers were still being held hostage and were paraded past reporters by masked guards. 86 of the hostages were Americans. Five days after the hostages were shown to the reporters, the planes were destroyed by dynamite in front of Western film crews. Two weeks after the hijackings, the hostages were recovered and sent back to the United States in return for PFLP prisoners.

President Nixon unveiled his anti-hijacking plan after this incident which included methods of detecting weapons and a sky marshall program. However, this did nothing to deter hijackers and planes just kept getting hijacked. There was an insurance company that started offered hijacking insurance. You would pay $75 per flight and if you were hijacked, you could receive $500 a day while in captivity plus $2,500 in medical coverage and $5,000 in the event of death and dismemberment.

By the summer of 1971, there was a hijacking almost every single week and the demands of the skyjackers kept getting more ridiculous. They weren’t just asking to go to Cuba anymore, they were asking to travel to the other side of the world or large sums of cash or both. On June 11, 1971, the first hostage in a skyjacking incident was killed.

And on November 24, 1971, Dan “D.B.” Cooper infamously hijacked a Boeing 727 somewhere in between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. Cooper told a stewardess that he had a bomb in his briefcase and he $200,000 in cash and four parachutes or he would blow the plane to pieces. Once they landed in Seattle, Cooper got his cash and parachutes and allowed for the passengers to be released. He then demanded that the plane head to Mexico City with a refuel stop in Reno, Nevada. But before the plane even reached the Oregon border, Cooper jumped out of the plane with the cash. He was never seen again. But hijackings just kept happening.

In October of 1972 three men hijacked a commuter airplane with 26 passengers and demanded $10 million, ten bulletproof vests, ten parachutes, and a certified letter from the white house that designated the cash as a government grant. The crew tried to negotiate, but the hijackers refused to come down in price. While in the air, the hijackers drank 40 of the little liquor bottles. They then threatened to fly the plane into the atomic reactor at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. The airline was able to scrounge together $2 million in cash and left it at the Chattanooga airport. The hijackers were so awed by how much cash they had gotten, they didn’t even realize that they were short $8 million. They started handing out cash to everyone in the plane. The captain and co-pilot even got $300,000. They then demanded to be flown to Havana. Fidel Castro was told that another hijacked plane was coming to Cuba and he personally went to the Jose Marti International Airport to make sure that these lunatics never got into Cuba. So once the plane landed, they were told that no one was allowed to get off the plane and they had to turn around and go right back to the U.S. When the plane landed in Orlando to refuel, the FBI fired at the plane trying to take out the landing gear. The hijackers made the pilot take off immediately and even though the plane was full of holes, it was able to get back into the air. The hijackers then demanded to be taken back to Cuba, so that’s where they went. When they landed in Havana, the three hijackers took off running through a nearby field but were quickly tackled by Cuban soldiers. Castro vowed to the hijacked plane’s captain that these men would spend the rest of their lives in four-by-four foot boxes.

Americans were finally aware that hijackings weren’t just fun jaunts to Cuba, that planes could be used as weapons of mass destruction. On December 5th, 1972, the Nixon administration declared that starting in 1973, airlines would be required to screen every single passenger with a metal detector along with inspecting the contents of carry-on bags. All commercial airports would also have a local police officer or sheriff’s deputy at each boarding gate. There were still those that believed that this was a violation of Fourth Amendment rights, but the majority of Americans were tired of being hijacked and were okay with the screenings. Skyjackings significantly decreased after that.

To sum it up, between 1961 and 1972, 159 commercial flights were hijacked in the United States, with 130 of those happening between 1968 and 1972. In those five years, there was often at least one if not more hijackings a week and there were even several days when two planes were hijacked on the same day at the same time.


“The Golden Age of Plane Travel: What Flying Was Like In the 1950’s and 1960’s Compared To Now” by Marc Llewellyn

“The Skies Belong To Us: Love and Terror In The Golden Age of Hijacking” by Brendan I. Koerner

“How Hijackers Commandeered Over 130 American Planes – In 5 Years” by Brandon I. Koerner

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