It was 3:16 p.m. Feb. 24 when U.S. Customs Agency specialist Jeffrey Houlihan saw two unidentified dots on his radar screen moving quickly toward three Brothers to the Rescue planes off the coast of Cuba. He knew right away what they were.
"They were Cuban MiGs, he said Tuesday in an interview. "I could tell because of where they came from, the speed they were travelling and the fact they did not issue transponder signals". Most civilian aircraft issue electric signals identifying themselves. The MiGs didn't.
Houliham is testifying at a Federal Aviation Administration hearing in Miami at which Brothers President Jose Basulto is appealing the revocation of his pilot's license because of the events of that day - four brothers fliers were killed when they were shot down by the MiGs.
From his base in Riverside Calif., Houlihan saw on radar the MiGs fly over the three Brothers planes at an altitude that he couldn't determine. He then called the Air Force South East Air Defense Sector headquarters at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida which works from the same radar image he does. It has the responsibility for defending U.S. airspace off Florida. That was at 3:16 and 59 seconds.
"I made the equivalent of a 911 call," he said. I asked them "Do you see Brothers to the Rescue?" and they said they did. I asked "Do you know what 's going on with them and high speed primary targets?" he said using the jargon for the MiGs.
"They said they did and they would take care of it".
Houlihan hung up and said he then expected to see U.S. military planes put in the air from somewhere in South Florida.
"I made what turned out to be a poor assumption," he said. "I expected them to launch interceptor aircraft to go after the MiGs They didn't make any move".
Approximately four minutes later, the MiGs shot down one of the Brothers aircraft and seven minutes after that they shot down the second plane. Basulto's aircraft, which according to Houlihan's radar was the only one that actually crossed into Cuban airspace-two to three miles-turned around and managed to make it back to Opalocka airport.
Houlihan, who spent five years working as a radar specialist for the U.S. military North American Air Defense Comand (NORAD) before joining Customs, said he was still surprised at the lack of response.
"I thought the MiGs were a threat, not just to those aircraft, but due to the fact that from where they were they could have been to the Keys in a matter of minutes, " he said.
At the time of the incident, U.S. military officials said they did not put planes in the air because the MiGs did not cross the 24th parallel where U.S. air traffic control responsibilities beguin and posed no threat to the United States. A Pentagon spokesman also said it was not the military's job to escort civilian aircraft. Besides, he said, even if they did scrambled they could not have arrived in time to save the planes.
But Basulto and his lawyers this week made public transcripts of Cuban MiG pilot's communications made available to them by U.S. authorities. According to those transcripts, Basulto said, a third MiG followed Basulto's plane for more than 20 minutes after the two other planes were shot down.
However, a recent report by the International Civil Aviation Organization indicated that the MiGs may have been following a different aircraft. The report said U.S. radar showed that Basulto's plane was 40 nautical miles north of the Cuban MiG.- far beyond its sight.
The hearing continues today.
Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald