Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Curious Cuban Cub Conundrum

Nothing to do, this post that is, with Cuban baseball players in Chicago, or Cuban bears for that matter. There were no bears, whether fully grown or at the cub stage in Cuba, in any case. No, for this story, thanks are owed to the friend who inspired it, a former colleague now blissfully retired, a native Miamian who now happens to live down the block - well, a few blocks - from the author. And to think we lived just a few blocks apart in Miami for years and did not even know it; more scary is the fact we wound up having so much in common, that becoming evident as our friendship progressed.

And one thing we share in common is an interest in things that fly, as well as the history and stories related to flight. So my good friend Steve, a subscriber to the Smithsonian Institution's Air & Space magazine just knew his blogger buddy would have a keen interest in the August 2007 issue of aforesaid publication, and it was indeed a pleasant surprise to find the gift in the mailbox one day. Inside the magazine was a postcard with a greeting, and these words: "Check out the article on Cuba's private pilots." On the cover of the publication this tantalizing article title jumped at the reader:

"The Country Where Nobody Flies"

And, gannet-like, the blogger dived right into the story of Cuban civil aviation, carefully fixing sights on every word, illustration, and photograph on a subject about which he - and no doubt many other aviation enthusiasts - knew so little. By the time the reading and re-reading was over, author Rafael Lima had brought this most interesting subject to life, indeed, had given it wings.

One paragraph, discussing the carefree days of Cuban flight in the 40s and 50s, described something the wannabe pilot-blogger found striking - what drew his attention is highlighted since that will lead us to the subject, to the conundrum being explored...and solved perhaps??

About one interview with Luis Palacios, now 67, who flew Piper Cubs - the connection to the conundrum you will see later - author Lima writes: "In those days (the 40s-early 50s) private pilots in Cuba flew unencumbered by airspace regulations or control towers, says Palacios, who flew for Eastern Airlines after coming to the United States in 1961. You could take off from one town, fly along the coast, and see a beach and land on it. Many pilots used to land on hard-packed sand beaches, have lunch or a swim, and get back in the plane and take off."

When this closet Wrong-Way Corrigan...you, the reader have the option to look up Wrong-Way...or not...read the last two sentences in that paragraph, a certain image flew out of his mind's hangar. An image which itself had been flown out of Cuba in a mail bag or packet in the early 60s, and validated Mr. Palacios' wonderful story.

And if you have been plodding through this blog, you would have spotted the colorful slide photograph not long ago.

I had seen this several times before, and the image resided in memory. You see, I have this thing for planes - always have; in the past, had asked mother and father, both standing to the right in the photograph, if they knew why this Piper J-3 Cub had come to land on Boca Ciega beach, due East of Havana, that fine day. Father would always say "he was not sure, but I think there was something wrong with the plane's propeller." Excessive vibration, perhaps? So the intrepid pilot had, if that was the case, to find a suitable place to land and pronto. It is clear from the graphic he succeeded in making a nice landing, his aircraft undamaged.

The intrepid Cuban aviator came down to earth somewhere along this coastline.

Location - approximate, am NO navigator...thank God for GPS...23° 10’23.23” N, 82° 9’ 42.71” W - these are in fact the correct coordinates; if you, my unfortunate reader saw this post prior to November 21, 2007 the coordinates initially given were 23° 09’16.01” N, 81° 52’ 19.31” W. Wrong! Wrong! Dead reckoning wrong! This was pointed out by observant cousin Fernando, who during a lengthy telephone conversation, reminiscing about our mutually-shared past, casually mentioned, chuckling, that "he'd just read the latest entry to the Havana blog and, have to tell you...the Google Earth image of Boca Ciega is incorrect - you're too far east! By the way, I was there that day, I remember the plane very well" Indeed you were an eyewitness - your father took the colorful photograph. Thank you, cousin. Perhaps you should change your name to Ferdinand Magellan - your island navigation skills are far superior to the blogger-pilot's. For shame, considering all the time spent happily carousing around Boca Ciega; shoulda found the Itabo river first. Good navigators know their landmarks and learn to recognize them, from air. land, and sea.

Leave navigating and flying to the professionals. And please, do NOT use this blog as a navigational aid - it is more of a navigational hazard!

Now, here is a mystery within a mystery, encased in an enigma. How do we know the name of the intrepid aviator? Well, no one did - certainly not my parents, nor yours truly who was a little over a year away from making his own landing on planet earth at the time the slide photograph was snapped by my uncle Prego Sr. Here is how a small piece of this puzzle was found. After my generous buddy gave me the August Air & Space issue, thought the editors might be pleased to see graphic evidence that, indeed, Cuban private pilots sometimes made beach touchdowns. A copy of the colorful graphic was quickly on its way in digital flight via email, together with this text:

"Dear Editor:

Thank you for the wonderful article by Rafael Lima on a subject I had regretfully little time to get acquainted with, as unfortunately my family and I had to leave Cuba in 1960. I was only 10-and-a-half then. I learned a few things I did not know - or had forgotten; the Day of The Aviator Parade was one of them - wish I'd gotten to see it at least once.

Mr. Lima writes about carefree flying days when Cuban pilots could choose to land on one of the many beautiful beaches. This may explain the slide my father has in his collection, one which made it into exile. It may answer the question why an unknown Cuban aviator landed his J3 Cub on Boca Ciega beach, east of Havana, circa 1948. The photograph was taken by an uncle by marriage, Fernando Prego Sr. - my parents are to the right, Mr. Prego's wife, my maternal aunt Josefina, to the left. The pilot may have decided to take a sightseeing break, although to this day my dad believes 'there was something wrong with the plane's propeller.' Perhaps the flier of J3 Cub CU N-124 is still around and will explain if he - or she? - ever sees this?

Once again, thank you for this excellent, evocative reminiscence. In no time, Castro clipped the wings of Cuban freedom, well symbolized by the untimely end of Cuban private aviation. May free Cuban wings once again grace the skies over the beautiful island. May it be soon.

Albert Quiroga"

A very nice reply was received from the magazine's Letters Editor.

"Dear Mr. Quiroga:

Thanks so much for the great letter and photograph. May we run both in our Letters section? It’s a beautiful little piece of aviation history and we’d be honored to share it with our readers.

Best wishes,
Perry Turner
Letters Editor"

Well, yours truly was flabbergasted, as there was no expectation anyone in the Air & Space staff would have the slightest interest in publishing the photo; the intent was merely to share a little Cuban aviation history to complement the great article, with a group of obviously very dedicated aviation-loving people. Without hesitation, and with the blessings of mother and father Quiroga, permission to publish was cheerfully given - really, the Air & Space staff did not have to ask, but of course they must follow protocol.

Unexpectedly, another email came from Mr. Turner...this made my eyeballs want to pop out of their sockets.

"Dear Mr. Quiroga:

Good news: One of the curators at the National Air and Space Museum was able to identify the aircraft in your photograph. He says: 'It was a Piper J3C-65 Cub and was registered in Cuba as CU-N124 to Cesar Leonard Santamaria between 1947 and March 1950, so apparently he was able to repair the prop.'

The curator was:

Dan Hagedorn
Archives Research Team Leader and Adjunct Curator,
Latin American Aviation
National Air and Space Museum

Best wishes,
Perry Turner
Letters Editor"

An exhilarated flights-of-fantasy blogger-type returned a congratulatory email, thanking Mr. Hagedorn for his good aerial archaeology sleuthing, and Mr. Turner for sharing the findings.

Inspired by all these doings and happenings, this post came to be - ably supplemented, as always, by the reminiscences, recollections, and anecdotes of my father, with a little help from mother, who sometimes comes up with things even he has forgotten. All said, his mind is still as sharply tuned and powerful as those Rolls Royce Merlin engines which powered Spitfires and P-51s...I told you I had a "thing" about planes; forgive my aerial-related imagery.

One little piece of the puzzle which was added to the picture - literally in fact, as it was stamped on the back of the black and white photo taken the same day, was the exact date this incident happened. Originally, "we," meaning mother, father, and I, had thought this had taken place sometime in 1948. However, when studying the B&W image, the photo developer's stamp on the reverse side clinched it: "March 24, 1949."

Well - let's qualify that. March 24, 1949 is when the developer printed the image from the negative - remember, this was in pre-digital camera days, right? However, it can be said with a high degree of certainty, that sometime between March 1 and March 23, 1949 a Cuban private pilot named Cesar Leonardo Santamaria landed J3 Piper Cub registration number CU N-124 on the sands of Boca Ciega beach, Cuba.

Boca Ciega...literally, "Blind Mouth." The Itabo river, usually only a small trickling stream until it fills and flows during rainy season, empties into the Caribbean Sea through its light tan sandy beach. Boca Ciega was one of my family's favorite places in Cuba, a site for many a gathering of Quirogas, Granjas, and their friends, and friends' relatives. The sun, the sand, swimming and boating at the mouth of the Itabo, where it met the sea - those are just some of the memories of that special place.

From the dunes lining the banks of the Itabo, a then little guy who had no idea someday he would be writing about such things, and certainly would never have conceived the idea of "blogging," fondly recalls jumping into the Itabo's mangrove-dyed flow. Somehow he still remembers how at first, the high dunes were intimidating, making him feel he was pushing off Everest's summit - as if the four year-old could know what "Everest" was; but the feeling of trepidation remains still.

Come to think of it, the dunes still look intimidating, 53 years after my first jump attempt! Sadly, they are no more. As Boca Ciega's development accelerated in the 1950s, the dunes provided building and land-fill material for the growing beach community.

But, life is good...more so when your dad wheels you to the beach on a beautiful day, so you can nap contentedly, sometime in the summer of 1950. You know, that was a fine day for flying your J3 Piper Cub, or whatever other aircraft was available for some fortunate Cuban aviator to pilot over Boca Ciega. No such opportunities to soar freely over beautiful beaches, under sunny blue skies in today's Cuba, sadly.

It was nice to share beach moments with mother and cousin Fernando - "Fernandito." His father took the great color photograph of Mr. Santamaria's Cub after its sandy landing.

Boca Ciega, September 1952 - somehow, the inflatable pool seems redundant...maybe mother had her reasons.

Cousin, assuming the old brain isn't going into a stall and fooling the blog-pilot, once proudly owned a J3 gas-powered control line model; the one time I was keenly anticipating seeing it in flight however, he had much trouble coaxing the Cox .049 motor into running reliably, so that his little Cub too, was grounded. He was not a happy camper. On the bright side, he was much closer to the ground and did not have to scout for a suitable landing spot. And said spot, if memory does not fail, would have been in Varadero beach.

Life is good, too, when your mom holds you on her lap as you take a much needed break after an arduous day of driving...this was the small house mom and dad owned in Boca Ciega for a few years - father refers to it as the "Casa Club" because in fact it had been a community club house until they purchased it and modified it; small but cozy, we spent some pleasant, memorable times there, entertaining and being entertained.

Some of the entertainment, besides that provided by unannounced aircraft landings on the beach, involved sports, played heartily and passionately by friends and family, as Cubans are wont to do.

Who says beach volleyball wasn't popular, sixty years ago? At least this proves it was popular in Boca Ciega, Cuba. The photo dates to around 1949; father is the gent with the striped shirt to the left of the pole; his brother Manuel is in the middle, white shorts, ball over his head; their brother Dario is on the far right. Pay attention, because the latter characters will play a part in this story. After all, you should know how this Quiroga - or shall we say, the Quiroga men - developed an interest in flying craft, evidently passed on to some of their offspring. So, fly along with us. Hopefully it will not be a boring ride. If it is, you can safely bail out.

Let's deviate from our flight plan a bit, expand our horizons...make sure the horizon is level as you fly, by the way - feels better, keeps your stomach in place. Unless of course you are one of those daredevils who likes to perform aerobatics to the delight of people like me.

Dad always had some interest in aviation, although less evident, at least on the surface, than his firstborn's. Sometime in 1955-56, he purchased a little Cox model racing plane; it was red, equipped with an .049 engine; we were living in an apartment and there were no good open spaces to fly it nearby. That did not keep him from cranking it up inside the place one day; the high-pitched buzzing/whining sound of the little engine excited his kid - "when can we fly it, Dad?!! When?!! When?!!" His mother's reaction, still remembered with a chuckle, after the noise died off: "Me han dejado frita con ese ruido!" Semi-literal translation: "You've fried my nerves with the noise from that contraption!" Mother, ahem, has never been as interested in aircraft...except perhaps for the one that whisked us out of Cuba in 1960.

This vintage Cox "Cosmic Wind" racer was very much like "my" first flying model - except I distinctly recall the cockpit was not glazed, but red like the fuselage; image from www.bargaininbobs.com

Dad and I talked about the subject of our mutual interest, after he read the Rafael Lima article in Air & Space, and he shared his reminiscences about civil aviation in Cuba, as he recalled it. Being a far better story teller than his wannabe-flyer boy, the controls are turned over to him, as he skillfully takes over command of this blog flight-of-fancy.

"Sometime in the 1930s - definitely before World War II - I recall gliders were popular; once there was an event in which seven or eight aircraft-towed gliders flew into Havana. The flight originated in Florida. The gliders came in on a southerly approach, gliding towards the National Capitol; they landed successfully at the Paseo del Prado (Prado Promenade) in front of the National Capitol; the Paseo runs on a North-South axis. This was quite a show and all gliders landed without incident."

Prado Promenade, late 20s-early 30s postcard - from Hilda's Cuban Postcard Museum - www.cubalabella.net

Father's narration of incredible recollections continues. "In the 1930s too, after my older brothers Dario and Manuel - "Manolo" (did you remember the volleyball players?) bought a small, used 'jalopy,' the three of us started attending the amateur flying events featured at Campo Columbia, Columbia Military Airfield. By the way, at that time the airfield was known as "Campo Curtiss" - "Curtiss Field" - in honor of the famous American aviator, Glen Curtiss.

Cuban pilots in small aircraft - I remember these were mostly biplanes - would take off, do aerobatics, land, take off, land again, on and on during the day. I believe, if my memory is accurate, there was one flier - Solorzano, that was his surname, but better known by his nickname, 'Potaje' or 'Stew,' who also flew commercial or passenger planes and also raced automobiles."

Allow me to briefly take the controls, Dad. Speaking of aerobatics, ever heard of the Cuban Eight maneuver? The blog-pilots will encourage you to fly maneuvers to this coordinate and you can train to do the Cuban Eight there, if so inclined - http://www.scaahof.org/HoF%20Pages/Povey%20Len.htm - just copy and paste to your Open Location file on your browser and you'll make a fine landing at the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame site. You will quickly find the Cuba connection. Len Povey is the daring airman you are seeking.

OK - turning over the control column of this blogcraft to the expert pilot again.

"Have to tell you about my brothers' jalopy, the one which made it possible - when it ran - for us to attend this exciting event. It was a small Citroen, an open car, which would hold only three, the driver and two passengers. The rear end was boat or wedge shaped; this led neighborhood kids to nickname it 'Culo de Pollo,' 'Chicken Butt.' As Dario or Manolo drove it through the neighborhood, youngsters would run after it, yelling 'Hey, Chicken Butt!,' or 'There goes Chicken Butt!'

The car had constant magneto trouble - back then, the magneto was the equivalent of the later generator, or today's auto alternator. So, off they would go to a junkyard in the Luyano neighborhood in Havana, one owned by a mulatto nicknamed 'Pescado Azul,' or 'Bluefish.' Manuel and Dario would then scout and hunt through the derelicts until they found a suitable, working magneto for the suffering Citroen.

They owned 'Chicken Butt' in the days of the Machado dictatorship, in the early 30s. At that time in Havana, because of the prevailing unrest, police and army patrols would frequently stop motorists and search their vehicles. 'Chicken Butt' had storage compartments built into the body, on each side, for tools and small items. Dario and Manolo, being natural pranksters, decided to smear the insides of these compartments, as well as the tools in them, with heavy automotive grease; as they put it 'If somebody wants to bother us with one of these searches, they're gonna have greasy hands and sleeves for their trouble.' I don't recall 'Chicken Butt' was ever searched, though."

Back in control again - and thank you, Dad, for sharing these bits of aviation lore and family folklore with us! Makes the blog-flight-of-fancy more interesting, no? By the way, regarding the possibility 'Chicken Butt' could have been searched by the authorities, maybe it was just as well said threat never materialized; I don't know how humorous it would have been to face a grease-stained, angry uniformed type carrying a Springfield rifle with fixed bayonet...

Have we deviated from course too much? Well, take it as a sightseeing trip. The fun is in not following a straight line between two points. Hopefully, you get the point. Here is one reconmmendation: If you wish to explore the subject of Cuban civil aviation further, see some interesting photographs and learn some interesting facts about that aspect of Cuban history, a history which must not be forgotten, strongly recommend you find the August 2007 issue of the Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine. Better yet, order it from Air & Space headquarters - you'll be supporting a wonderful museum and its great staff. Cyber-fly yourself here-
  • Air & Space

  • Then, just for fun, and if you are so inclined, pick up the November issue...and turn to page 6. And speaking of fun, whether or not Cuban aviation history interests you, if you visit Washington DC, assuming of course you are "into" flying craft and the history of flight, do not fail to visit the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

    If you do, as this virtual-reality flier did in October 2004, you'll see deadly, yet beautiful machines such as this P-40...always a favorite. Perhaps you've seen John Wayne in The Flying Tigers?

    Well, sometimes one has a chance to emulate John Wayne in The Flying Tigers, from the safety of a comfortable chair, in front of a computer monitor; no worry a Zero is sneaking up behind you, so that you only find out when the windscreen is shattering, the instrument panel is exploding in your face, and the unmistakable clouds of ethylene glycol coolant fill your cockpit...

    (Screen shot from Strategic Simulations' Pacific Fighters WWII air combat simulator)

    It is time to get back on course, lest we run out of gas and fail to find a suitable landing place for our blogcraft; no nice hard-packed sand beaches at hand. Even if a good spot to touch down were to be found, the landing would not be as skillful as Mr. Santamaria's in his Cuban Cub. Now we come to the conundrum, almost 60 years later. Much of the inspiration leading to this post was the hope that, with the incredible exposure the Web provides to the average shade-tree journalist, perhaps someone out there - relative, friend, acquaintance, fellow flier, anybody who might know, could finish this story. What became of Mr. Santamaria? What compelled him to land his pretty plane on the beach at Boca Ciega sometime in March 1949? Did he continue to enjoy many more years of cloud dodging, or was his passion cut short by castro and cohorts, as was the case with so many in the ranks of Cuba's private pilots? And what about J3 Piper Cub registration number CU N-124? Was the little ship lovingly piloted for many years afterwards? Or, as one sadly learns in reading Rafael Lima's article in Air & Space, did it wind up a derelict on some forlorn field somewhere in Cuba, a victim of both castroite lunacy and merciless entrophy, eventually scrapped? Or dare we hope perhaps this little Cuban Cub somehow found its way out of that sad fate, so that today, a carefully and lovingly restored little ship cruises in the clouds under Lady Liberty's blue skies?

    And here is another mystery: Will Cuban men and women someday revive the tradition and joy of Cuban civil aviation, so that other Cesar Santamarias and Luis Palacios will once again unhindered take to the air in the free skies of a free Cuba, in their Cubs or whatever other flying craft they choose, privileged to make skillful three-point landings on the beautiful beaches of the Pearl Of The Antilles? It is not in question they WILL, the only question is WHEN...


    At 1:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Al, I came across that the story a while back and really enjoyed reading it, but you my friend, have personalized it and brought it to life. Wonderful, wonderful walk down memory lane, as are all your posts. Glad to see you back at the helm, or I guess in honor of this heart-warming post I should say back in the cockpit!

    At 9:01 AM, Blogger QNetX said...

    Great story and history lesson Albert!!

    Now I'm starting to think that some of life's frivolities are possibly genetic; aviation and beach volleyball. The latter after seeing the photo of my father (Dario) and uncles playing beach volleyball.

    As a kid, I built many a model airplane, later graduating to model rockets. Now as an adult, my favorite sport to watch, play, and photograph is beach volleyball. I play almost every day.

    George Quiroga

    At 5:10 PM, Blogger Andrew Rodriguez said...

    Great Blog, I'm a new fan! Add the Cuban and Aviation aspect, and it can't be beat! My Dad was a crew chief on B-26's but left Cuba before Bay of Pigs, Dad retired a couple of years ago from NASA at KSC. I sure hope we can all fly Piper Cubs back to Cuba one day, I think opening up an FBO thee would be a good idea!

    At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Hi Albert,

    I am Cesar LEONARD Santamaria's granddaughter. I just hang with my 80 year old father, his son, Cesar Leonard Jr, to whom I emailed your blog. Thanks for giving my father a THRILL!!! Me too.

    My Dad was 20 and also a pilot at the time of your story. Apparently is was a stalled motor that forced the landing. Although. they both (father and son) had private pilot's licenses, they both when on to be Captains for Cubana de Aviacion. Apparently seven members of the family were pilots. Father, grandfather, uncles, cousins etc were. The family business.... Also, my grandfather's oldest brother, Ramiro, still alive and 98 years old, founded the first private aviation school in Cuba.

    So, like most cubans of that generation, my grandfather fled Cuba in 1960, lived out the rest of his life in Miami and passed away in 1996 at 88.

    As you can imagine, I've heard stories all my life. Feel free to write if you wish. But again, thanks for sharing your story--one I never knew!
    Mercedes Leonard

    At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Jeff Lopez said...

    A nice retrospection on the history of Cuban aviation. I felt nostalgic reading the blog! But I must say the stuff I liked the most from Cuba were the Habanos.


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