There is a wonderful essay recounting the glory years of Cuban aviation in Airspace Magazine. Do you remember the annual celebration in Havana called The Day of the Aviator?
The festival, which had begun in 1953, was held every May to commemorate the Florida-to-Cuba flights of Domingo Rosillo and Agustin Parla. As part of the festivities, private aircraft landed on public streets, then taxied parade-like down the capital’s coastal boulevard, the Malecon. Hundreds of people lined the sea wall, and pilots would wave at the admiring crowds like princesses on May Day floats“It was wonderful, like a dream,” recalls Diaz’s daughter Alba. “The airplanes and the sea wall, the crowds of people. I remember someone lifting me up and into the little plane to sit on my father’s lap. We taxied around the Malecon in the parade.”
Luis Palacios, 67, who soloed in a Piper J-3 Cub when he was 19, remembers the heart-stopping landings the pilots had to make. “You had to land the plane directly on the street,” he says. “Sometimes it was tricky with the crosswinds coming off the water. The planes were mostly tail-draggers. Then all the planes would taxi the length of the Malecon with people hanging onto the wings, helping guide the plane through the crowds. It was spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.”
Private aviation flourished in those prosperous years before castro:
On a barren landing strip in Agramonte, in central Cuba, a swayback horse nosed for scraps in the weeds. Off to one side, the decaying hulk of a Russian tractor—its wheels long gone—stood rooted in place by rust. In the distance, rows of green sugar cane waved in the breeze. On a 10-day journalist visa in 1999, I traveled to what had once been busy grass airfields and paved landing strips all around Cuba. In Agramonte, some 435 miles from Havana, I walked the length of the old runway, kicking at the grass and looking for tie-downs, landing lights—any hint that aircraft had ever landed here at all.
Almost 50 years before, on a warm fall day, I had stood on the edge of the same strip, holding my mother’s hand as we watched a DC-3 float down for a landing on what was a lush, manicured grass field beside a central, or sugar mill. The cargo airplane gleamed in the heat waves as it settled. I was just four, but the image of that day was burned into my memory—the shiny silver fuselage, the wisp-wisp of the propellers slicing the air, and my mother’s perfume mixing with the smell of the freshly mowed grass as she leaned down to tell me, “That’s your uncle and father in that plane.”
Of course, all that came to an end after castro seized power. This heartfelt recounting of that piece of Cuban history is both a wonderful walk down memory lane, and a sad reminder of the destructive force of hurricane castro. Read The Land Where Nobody Flies here.