When terror took wing, I


   FULGENCIO BATISTA seemed relaxed, even carefree, as he posed in his son's sports car for the August 1957 photograph that appears in the previous entry here.
   But the watchful presence of his bodyguards – you can see their sunglasses glinting from the cars arrayed behind the Batista Corvette – tells a different story.
Batista knew that threats could come from any direction, at any time. Across Cuba and across the political spectrum were opponents dedicated to his removal – some by any means.
   Just five months before, the dictator had barely escaped a student-led attack on the presidential palace in Havana. Gunfire echoed in the streets for two hours, and when it ended 42 people were dead.
   In the Sierra Maestra Mountains to the east, Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement was gaining power by the day.
   And looming behind Batista in that photograph was an aircraft that would become an instrument of his enemies and open a new and sorry era in aviation.

Photo by Brian Stainer via the Peter Upton collection, courtesy of vickersviscount.net

   CU-T603, shown above in another photo taken during its short life, was the first of three Vickers Viscount Series 70 models bought by Cubana de Aviación in 1956. The British-built passenger planes replaced Douglas DC-4s on Cubana routes between Havana, Miami and Nassau.
   The Viscount was a landmark airliner. Developed after the Second World War by Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd., it pioneered the use of gas-turbine propeller engines for passenger service. The Rolls Royce turboprops were much quieter and smoother than the piston engines of competing planes, winning sales for the Viscount to airlines around the world.
   A comfortable, pressurized cabin with large windows was another attribute, as was the lower operating cost that would help keep the Viscount in service for half a century even as smoother, faster jetliners emerged.

*

   Late in the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1958, CU-T603 left Miami for the Varadero beach resort and Havana. It was a quiet day for Flight 495, with fewer than one-third of its 53 seats filled as stewardess Ana Reina, a classic Cuban beauty, walked down the aisle handing out customs declaration forms.
   But as the plane neared the island, four or five men stood and produced guns. According to some accounts they drew pistols concealed in their clothing; others said they armed themselves with machine guns from a floor compartment from which they also drew helmets, uniforms and boots.
Reina, photo source unknown.
   What is clear is that the hijackers identified themselves as members of the 26th of July Movement – and they intended their actions that day to resound both within and without Cuba.
   A general election was scheduled for Nov. 3, just two days after the flight,  following months of delays. Batista wasn't running for president – he claimed he was retiring – but his hand-picked successor, Andrés Rivero Agüero, was expected to win. Batista's opponents called the vote a sham, and Castro's rebels were seizing every chance to disrupt it.
  "This will be in all the newspapers of the world, for no one ever has tried to kidnap an aircraft of such size and importance," a gunman reportedly declared.
   The men pushed into the cabin and ordered Capt. Ruskin Medrano and co-pilot José Combarro to change course for the east. One attacker may have taken the controls, though Medrano, a gun to his head, would later be in the captain's seat.
   The hijackers wanted to put down at a dirt airstrip in the Sierra Cristal, where Raul Castro was operating a second front. But after circling the strip the hijackers conceded that it was inadequate for an aircraft weighing more than 20 tons and ordered Medrano to instead land at the paved runway at the Preston sugar mill east of Holguín.
Medrano, photo source unknown.
   Medrano protested that this strip was also too small, and not equipped for night landings. But with the Viscount running out of fuel, the pilot had no choice but to set up an approach. Two miles short of the unlit runway. the big airplane dropped into the dark waters of Bahia de Nipe, a vast and shallow bay that had sheltered Christopher Columbus's ships in 1492.
   CU-T603 was one of three Cubana aircraft commandeered by rebels in the days surrounding the election. The others were DC-3s on Cuban domestic flights, and both those hijackings ended with no loss of life.
But the Viscount episode would indeed make the world's newspapers. The accounts of the following days said 17 people had died – among them the hijackers, all four aircrew, three children and a pregnant woman. Villagers who rushed out on the bay in boats could find just three survivors.
   The election took place. Agüero won handily but would never take office,  instead fleeing Cuba with Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, as the rebel victory seemed certain.
   Castro denied ordering the hijacking of CU-T603, and later would have no scruples about travelling in one of its sister ships. "A Cubana Airlines Viscount plane was readied early today to fly to Santiago and bring Mr. Castro and provisional president Manuel Urritia to this capital," the Associated Press reported from Havana on Jan. 3.
  Today, the events of Nov. 1, 1958, are remembered as the first ever international hijacking to originate on U.S. soil.
   But they were much more than that.


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