The Cuban Hijackings: Their Significance and Impact Sixty Years On

The Cuban Hijackings: Their Significance and Impact Sixty Years On

While aircraft hijackings are now fairly rare occurrences, this wasn’t always the case. The seizure of aircraft by rebels, militant groups and individuals seeking asylum was a common practice that, for years, was not even recognised as a punishable crime. 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the first of the Cuban hijackings, so Nicoletta Mazzoleni and Massimo Catusi present a timely reflection on the spate of hijackings from and to Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s and discuss the impact that they had on modern-day legislation and security measures.

If you are reading this article, it probably means that you, just like the authors, are either working in the aviation security field or you are passionate about the subject. Most of us consult regulations, standards and best practices on a daily basis, but have you ever thought about when and where everything started? Have you ever considered which events and circumstances led to the very early development of an aviation security legal framework? Have you ever reflected on how the consequences of these incidents influenced the drafting of the first edition of the legislation relating to aviation security? After all, the first documented hijacking occurred more than 40 years before the first edition of Annex 17.

The 60th anniversary of the Cuban hijackings is a good opportunity to reflect on these questions and to consider not only the events themselves but also the range of consequences, both political and diplomatic, that they had on the aviation industry and regulatory bodies.

From an international point of view, until the late 1950s, the seizure of an aircraft represented a rare event in aviation. After the first documented commandeering of an aircraft in 1931 in Arequipa, Peru, very few events occurred until 1948 – the year that saw the first attempt to hijack a commercial flight, the Cathay Pacific Miss Macao flight en route from Macao to Hong Kong (which was to end in tragedy with the loss of all souls on board bar one of the hijackers). Indeed, from the Arequipa incident until 1957, less than twenty hijackings were recorded worldwide. These were mainly in Eastern Europe and perpetrated by individuals fleeing communist regimes and during the years when the terms ‘security’ and ‘terrorism’ were not interlinked, and anyone could walk onto an aircraft without being subjected to any type of security control.

During these years, Cuban air transportation reached its first decade of operation, In the 1940s the Cuban skies were witnessing the birth of its national airline, Compañia Cubana de Aviación, which obtained its first DC-3 in 1945 and was destined to expand its routes internationally.

However, in the late 1950s the Cuban Revolution against Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar’s regime, led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, was also reaching its climax. In June 1958, the presidential elections were due to take place at a time when the Cuban economy was harshly affected by spreading unrest, a continuous decrease in tourism to the country and by the embargo imposed by the United States. In July 1958, Batista staged a military intervention against Castro’s forces, resulting in Castro embarking on a course to destabilise the dictator’s regime using, amongst others, a novel technique for that time ¬– the hijacking of commercial flights. In fact, in the first three weeks of November 1958, Castro’s rebels hijacked almost a quarter of Cubana de Aviacion’s fleet, thus reducing communication within the island.

“…Raul Castro is considered by some as ‘the father’ of the modern crime of skyjacking…”

The mastermind behind the development of this new technique was Raul Castro, considered by some as ‘the father’ of the modern crime of skyjacking (Bartholomew Elias, 2002, Jin-Tai Choi, Robert B. Munson, 1994). Raul Castro recognised that attacks on aviation were a formidable tool with which he could focus the world’s attention on the rebels’ plan of an international revolution – not to mention as a powerful political bargaining chip.

Castro’s initiation of the tactic was to trigger a series of hijackings between Cuba and the United States, which culminated in a closer and unexpected interaction between the two countries and the resultant Memorandum of Understanding on Hijacking of Aircraft and Vessels and Other Offences signed by both countries in 1973. But that was only at the end of a turbulent period for air transport in the skies over the Caribbean nation and the south eastern United States.

The very first event against Cuban civil aviation took place on 9 April 1958 when a Cubana de Aviación Vickers Viscount was hijacked to Mèrida, Mexico, while en route from Havana to Santa Clara. But it was on 22 October 1958, almost two weeks before the presidential elections (postponed from June to November due to a general strike), that Raul Castro led a group of rebels in the hijacking of Cubana de Aviación domestic flight CU266 from Cayo Mambi to Moa Bay. The group forced the captain to land on a camouflaged airstrip controlled by the rebels in order to gain publicity for their cause and disrupt the internal communications of President Batista.

“…159 aircraft were hijacked, of which 85 were diverted to Cuba…”

Ten days after the hijacking, the Cuban rebels went a step further and on 1 November 1958, they hijacked Cubana de Aviación flight CU495 from Miami to Varadero, Cuba. After take-off, Castro’s hijackers broke into the cockpit and ordered the captain to fly the plane to a small airstrip near the Sierra Cristal, which was too short for an aircraft of its weight and speed. While approaching a nearby airstrip and out of fuel, the aircraft crashed into Nipe Bay killing all but five passengers and one of the hijackers.

The passengers and crew members of Cubana flight CU495 became the first victims of an act of terrorism (the earlier Miss Macao incident having been an act of aerial piracy for financial gain) against civil aviation. Hijacking as a revolutionary tactic had, however, been planted in the minds of activists for multiple causes around the globe – a seed that would be nurtured and eventually sprout in the late 1960s with increasingly violent actions. Yet the events of the autumn of 1958 were predominantly perpetrated by individuals desperately seeking to flee from the Cuban political situation.

The years after Castro took power in January 1959 witnessed an increase in hijackings of flights from Cuba to the United States; they were mainly perpetrated by the supporters of the deposed Fulgencio Batista. These individuals were trying to reach the United States to escape Castro’s regime and were openly welcomed in America as political refugees trying to flee from a country it perceived as being too close to the Soviet Union’s ideology.

As a response, Castro decided to implement strict security measures on Cuban civil aviation, including deploying armed security officers on board flights, which aimed at limiting and deterring any further hijackings. This was driven in part by the United States refusing to return seized aircraft to Cuba and holding them pending legal proceedings.

Hijackings were at their peak between 1961 and 1973 – through three different US administrations (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon). Throughout this period, 159 aircraft were hijacked, of which 85 were diverted to Cuba. The first of these hijackings occurred on 1 May 1961 from Miami (representing the first ever hijacking of a US aircraft), but the climax was between 19 June and 1 July 1968 during which time four aircraft were hijacked.

The World Stage

An interesting and important aspect of the hijackings of the 1960s is the media coverage they received. These events were widely reported on, both by television broadcasters and newspapers, and the hijacking of commercial aircraft had, for the first time, exceeded national boundaries and reached international audiences. The Cubans trying to flee Castro’s regime were caught and used in one of the biggest battles of the Cold War: the affiliation of Cuba with the Soviet Union and the consequent rise of communism on one side, and on the other, the United States, which had always portrayed itself as a warrior of freedom and democracy against communist and dictatorial regimes.

Furthermore, the unprecedented number of hijackings between Cuba and the United States, compelled the US government to re-evaluate its political and diplomatic relationship with Cuba in order to commit to a joint effort in fighting the scourge of hijacking, setting aside their own political agendas. From this perspective, the hijacking of aircraft, which in the late 1960s was not even considered a crime, actually led to an improvement in the diplomatic relations between two countries that was otherwise divided from political, cultural and ideological points of view.

It was in 1961, in a complete legislative vacuum, after the hijacking of an Eastern Airlines aircraft and two years before the ICAO Tokyo Convention, that the United States government took the first steps in developing legislation aimed at protecting civil aviation.

On 24 July 1961, Cuban Wilfredo Roman Oquendo, hijacked an Eastern Airlines aircraft to Cuba whilst it was en route from Miami to Tampa Bay. Castro proposed to return the US-owned aircraft in exchange for 24 Cuban aircraft being held in the United States, but the United States refused. President Kennedy then officially suggested a possible plan to deploy inflight security officers on board US aircraft and, in September 1961, he signed Public Law 87-197, which condemned the act of ‘aircraft piracy’, which became punishable by law with imprisonment for up to 20 years.

TWA flight 406 was hijacked to Havana
TWA flight 406 was hijacked to Havana
Cubana Airlines Vickers Viscount hijacked as Flight 495 (Credit: Peter Upton Collection Vickers Viscount Network)
Cubana Airlines Vickers Viscount hijacked as Flight 495 (Credit: Peter Upton Collection Vickers Viscount Network)
Cody Bearden, aged 16, tried to hijack a flight to Cuba alongside his father Leon in August 1961
Cody Bearden, aged 16, tried to hijack a flight to Cuba alongside his father Leon in August 1961
It was the hijacking of flights to and from Cuba that spawned the introduction of the walk-through metal detector at airports
It was the hijacking of flights to and from Cuba that spawned the introduction of the walk-through metal detector at airports
...and searches of carry-on baggage
…and searches of carry-on baggage

In the years following the 1961 hijacking, the United States and Cuba, mediated by the Swiss Embassy in Havana, carried on their negotiations with regards to a potential solution for the hijacking phenomena and the return of aircraft to their respective countries. Several meetings and dialogues took place between the two countries with international mediators and associations like IATA, resulting in the promulgation of laws aimed at combating hijacking. This included, on 31 October 1970, the Cuban government’s recognition of hijacking as a crime and, in January 1973, the US’s commitment to more stringent security measures at US airports, including the deployment of walk-through metal detectors and the introduction of law enforcement officers at all passenger checkpoints.

However, the most important achievement was accomplished under the Nixon administration on 15 February 1973; the Memorandum of Understanding on Hijacking of Aircraft and Vessels and Other Offences was signed by Cuba and the United States. The document, although overshadowed by the Watergate scandal’s media coverage, represents one of the most important diplomatic tools used to fight the hijacking phenomena between the United States and Cuba. The document included an agreed language to refer to hijackings of aircraft and maritime vessels, called for the extradition or punishment of any person who ‘seizes, removes, appropriates or diverts from its normal route or activities an aircraft or vessel’ and lists a set of provisions for asylum seekers.

The events related to the hijacking of aircraft from Cuba to the United States, and vice versa, affected not only the diplomatic relations of the two countries, but also the future of aviation security.

From a political dimension and after the Cuban Revolution, the hijackings swiftly moved to the financial sphere and became not only a bargaining tool, but also a lucrative source of income for the Cuban government as the airline operators were charged for the return of their hijacked aircraft.

The most important outcome of these events is the fact that the threats to civil aviation positively influenced the political agendas of both Cuba and the United States at a time characterised not only by the Cold War, but also by other destabilising scenarios such as the US involvement in the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal under Nixon’s administration.

The Cuban hijackings and their consequences are echoed throughout the introduction to the Chicago Convention (which, in 1944, pre-dated the Cuban hijackings themselves), which states that the abuse of international civil aviation “can become a threat to the general security” and that “it is desirable to avoid friction and to promote that co-operation between nations and peoples upon which the peace of the world depends”. The United States and Cuba showed the world that is it is possible to put aside national political agendas in order to foster collaboration to achieve a greater and common goal.


Nicoletta Mazzoleni
Nicoletta Mazzoleni

Nicoletta Mazzoleni deals with quality assurance in aviation security and her main field of expertise is the regulatory compliance of airport and aircraft operations and documentation with national and international regulations. Nicoletta has almost 20 years of experience in aviation security. She started as airport security screener and developed successfully in different aviation security fields: airports, airlines, cargo companies and regulatory bodies. She is a certified ECAC/ICAO Security Manager and Security Cargo Manager. She also successfully completed the EASTI and IATA Advanced Courses for Aviation Security Management (SeMS) and the course for Terrorism Studies (St. Andrews University & Handa Center). In 2013 Nicoletta moved to the Gulf region where she is now based in the fascinating State of Qatar.


Massimo Catusi
Massimo Catusi

Massimo Catusi works for the second largest airline in Italy as a Ground Operations Officer at Milan’s Malpensa Airport. With more than 10 years of experience, Massimo started his career in Milan with Eurofly Airlines. He also had the opportunity to join the ground operations “go-team”; he opened many domestic and international stations and supported the existing ones in maintaining the company standards. Massimo recently worked as Head of Operative Cargo for a well-known Italian based airline. He is a volunteer for “Fondazione 8 Ottobre 2001”, the foundation born after the Linate disaster. In 2017 Massimo started studying for his pilot’s licence at Aeroclub Bergamo.