Monday, March 24, 2014

Hijacked Cuban planes still caught in limbo

Posted on Monday, 03.24.14

Hijacked Cuban planes still caught in limbo

KEY WEST, Fla. -- At face value, they are three old planes not worth
much more than their parts and scrap metal. Stolen from the Cuban
government during a six-month period ending in April 2003 — two by
hijackers, one by its pilot — all three landed at Key West International
Airport, a 116-mile flight from struggling Havana to the gleaming shores
of the U.S.

Fidel Castro repeatedly demanded the planes be returned. Instead, they
were seized by U.S. courts to satisfy part of a $27 million judgment won
by a Cuban-American woman who had unwittingly married a Cuban spy in Miami.

The story of what happened to the planes in the ensuing years reads like
another chapter in the history of stymied, contentious U.S.-Cuba
relations, with the new owners unable to get the planes anywhere.

The first of the three planes to land in Key West was a yellow,
Soviet-built crop-duster that pilot Nemencio Carlos Alonso Guerra used
to fly seven passengers, many of them relatives, to the U.S. in November

Cuba wanted the biplane back, but a Florida judge agreed with Ana
Margarita Martinez that it should be seized and sold to partially pay
the judgment she was awarded under an anti-terrorism law. In 1996, her
husband, Juan Pablo Roque, had fled back to Cuba after infiltrating the
Miami-based anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue. The next day,
Cuban fighter jets shot down two of the group's Cessnas over
international waters, killing four pilots.

The aging Antonov AN-2 Colt was auctioned at the Key West airport in
2003 and Martinez placed the highest bid, $7,000.

"We had a victory — we got to keep this property of the Cuban
government," Martinez said after the auction.

She hoped to sell it for a profit later but instead gave it to
Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada, who painted half of it with a
colorful mural as part of an exhibit commemorating Cuba's independence.

After the exhibit, Cortada eventually donated the plane to Florida
International University, which planned to display it but couldn't find
a building to house it. Today, it deteriorates under tarps on a far
corner of FIU's campus.

Even if it could be flown, there would be another hurdle: The plane
would have to be deregistered in Cuba or given special authorization to
fly by the Federal Aviation Administration. That, however, requires
maintenance documents and certificates proving the plane is safe — all
of them in Cuba.

Don Soldini, who purchased a hijacked DC-3, is one of the few who stood
a chance of getting Cuban plane records.

"I would've flown it back," he said last week.

Soldini, who went to Cuba as a teen to fight in the revolution, remains
on good terms with the island's leaders.

He was barely 18 when he hitchhiked from Staten Island to Key West in
the late 1950s, intent on joining the Cuban revolution. He flew to the
island on a passenger DC-3, an elegant, bulbous-shaped plane now
synonymous with World War II and the 1940s to '60s-era commercial
airline service. Once in Cuba, Soldini joined the underground and
eventually fought in the rebel army, marching alongside Raul Castro and
his troops.

After the revolutionaries' 1959 victory, Soldini remained in Cuba but
felt uneasy there as an American. He left and eventually started a real
estate development company in Florida with offices in 21 countries.
Starting in the 1970s, he began visiting Cuba about twice a year.

In March 2003, a Cuban DC-3 similar to the one Soldini had first flown
in was hijacked by six knife-wielding men and diverted to Key West.
Thirteen days later, another Cuban airliner was hijacked to Key West by
Adermis Wilson Gonzalez.

"My goal was always to come to this nation and work to give my family a
better future," Wilson Gonzales said in a letter to The Associated Press
last week from a federal prison in Pennsylvania. He is serving a 20-year
sentence for air piracy.

Like the biplane before, both planes were auctioned.

Two aspiring pilots from Colorado came to the sale and, to their
surprise, won. Wayne Van Heusden bought the DC-3 for $12,500 and Matthew
Overton purchased the Antonov AN-24 for $6,500.

"My grand idea, initially, was to give it to the Cuban authorities,
because it's their plane," Van Heusden said.

He imagined filling the plane with medical supplies and flying to the
island, but he couldn't find financial support. He and Overton ran into
the same hurdle: They were unable to fly the planes without the
maintenance documents. The fees for keeping the planes in Key West
quickly accumulated, and both decided to sell.

Overton put his plane on eBay, but the winning bid didn't go through.
Key West International Airport took the plane, and today it is used for
emergency drills.

Soldini heard about the DC-3 and felt nostalgia for the day he flew to
join the revolution.

He bought the plane from Van Heusden and reached out to the Castros.

But after the long, impassioned speeches Fidel Castro gave demanding the
U.S. return the planes, Soldini said the aging Cuban leader didn't want it.

"He's more interested in the political impact rather than the
practical," Soldini said. "I couldn't do anything."

Soldini returned to Key West, disassembled the plane and put it on a
truck. He parked the plane at a central Florida hangar, where it
remains. He made an extensive documentary tracing the plane's history,
from its California manufacture to its days in Cuba.

He hopes that one day it will be in a museum, since it will never fly again.



Documentary of the DC-3 by Don Soldini:

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Source: KEY WEST, Fla.: Hijacked Cuban planes still caught in limbo -
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