Published: Thursday, June 27, 1996
JUAN O. TAMAYO Herald Staff Writer
When the three pilots from Brothers to the Rescue took off from Opa-locka airport Feb. 24, little did they know that nine U.S. and Cuban radars would monitor their doomed flight over the Florida Straits.
The U.S. State Department's Office of Cuba Affairs had notified the Federal Aviation Administration the previous afternoon that the pilots might violate Cuban airspace, and that Havana officials were "in a rough mood."
The pilots changed their flight plans without giving notice -- and knowingly flew into an area that Havana had declared, in a Feb. 19 warning, as the site of dangerous sea and air military maneuvers Feb. 21-28.
But while one pilot did briefly penetrate Cuban airspace, there is evidence the three planes were indeed on a mission to search for Cuban rafters at sea, as claimed by the sole surviving pilot, Brothers President Jose Basulto.
And although a Cuban air force radar controller guided a MiG pilot in shooting down the two planes 24 to 25 miles north of Havana, he inexplicably directed search-and-rescue craft to an area 5.7 miles off the coast.
Those details are contained in the report by four investigators for the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal, expected to be officially released today but obtained by The Herald last week.
The report most significantly concluded that a Cuban MiG-29 jet shot down two of the Brothers' Cessna 337 aircraft in international airspace and not over Cuban waters, as Havana claims.
But the 94-page document summing up a three-month investigation also contains a slew of previously unreported details on an incident that one U.S. official called as decisive to U.S-Cuban relations as the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana's harbor in 1898.
Pamphlets blew over Havana
Cuban officials were already furious with Brothers to the Rescue.
The commander of the Cuban air force and air defenses told ICAO's four-man investigative team that an overflight of Havana in mid-1995 by two Brothers planes had been "humiliating to Cuba, its people and air force."
Cuba also charged that Basulto flew within 10 miles of its coast on Jan. 9 and 13, dropped thousands of anti-Castro leaflets and let the winds carry them to Havana. Basulto told ICAO he was outside Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit when he dropped the leaflets.
A few days after that drop, the air force commander said, "he was instructed that violations . . . should no longer be tolerated and that he was authorized, if such a situation arose again, to decide personally on military interception and shooting down, if so required."
Cubans in 'rough mood'
The State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs worried as Feb. 24 approached.
The dissident group Concilio Cubano had called a meeting in Havana for that day, and the office feared that the Brothers' exile pilots would do something to show their solidarity.
On the afternoon of Feb. 23, the office notified the FAA Office of International Aviation that Brothers intended to fly the next day. The notification added that "information suggests the Cubans are in a 'rough mood,' " the ICAO report said.
The FAA in turn alerted several agencies that receive data
from three radar sites in South Florida -- from U.S. Customs to the NORAD folks who watch for incoming nuclear missiles. FAA officials in Miami also asked that a B-94 radar balloon kept at Cudjoe Key to monitor suspected drug flights be sent up for this special occasion, ICAO reported.
When the pilots began taking off at 1:11 p.m., civilian air traffic controllers in Miami sent a routine message to their counterparts in Havana. They, in turn, notified Cuba's military air defense, which put its five radar sites around Havana to work, ICAO added. The Havana civilian air traffic control also had its radar working.
The U.S. military appears to have been spying on the area. Giving few details, ICAO reported that "U.S. military intelligence" had first reported the plane downings to the FAA -- 11 minutes before Basulto radioed the emergency to Key West.
Flight plan nearly reversed
The Brothers pilots altered their flight plan without giving notice, the ICAO report said. Without saying the pilots were right or wrong, the report said regulations require pilots to report "significant" changes as soon as possible but do not define "significant."
The three initially reported plans to fly a triangular "balsero search mission" -- south from Opa-locka airport to a point in international airspace off Varadero -- on the Cuban coast 90 miles east of Havana -- then west skirting Cuba's 12- mile limit to a point northwest of Havana and then home.
Instead, they flew almost a reverse route, ICAO reported: roughly southwest to a point just north of Havana, with Basulto saying they intended to then search east to Varadero and then fly north to home. The MiG downed two of the planes at the end of the first leg.
ICAO also noted the three planes flew through an area north of Cuban airspace and outside Cuban territorial limits but declared by Cuba as a "military danger zone," because of Cuban air force and navy maneuvers scheduled there Feb. 21-28.
Cuba's warning does not ban flights into the area, but might have scared off most pilots.
"As a chicken pilot, I'd steer clear of military activity even if not required," said Warren Morningstar, media director for the Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Basulto said the pilots were aware of the warning but chose to disregard it because the Cubans have been misusing such warnings for years, declaring "exercises" whenever Brothers announced search flights in a clear attempt to scare off the exile pilots.
"They've been doing this since 1991 just to intimidate us, to scare us off," Basulto said in an interview. "And almost never do they really fly in those areas. It's just a bluff, and years ago we decided to disregard it."
Pilots notified Havana
While the route change and penetration of the warning zone might cast a shadow on the pilots' actions, the report also contained evidence that they were, indeed, on the kind of search mission for rafters they had flown many times before and that Basulto said they were flying on Feb. 24.
The three aircraft reported to Havana civilian air traffic control, as required, when they crossed the 24th parallel into Cuba's air control space, ICAO said. Basulto again radioed Havana when the group neared its search start-point.
"Not the kind of sneaking around of someone planning to violate Cuban space, is it?" Basulto said in an interview.
ICAO's investigators said Basulto told them the plan was to search three abreast, from Havana east to Varadero, with pilot Mario de la Peņa and spotter Armando Alejandre in the middle and generally straddling latitude 23.30 north.
Pilot Carlos Costa and spotter Pablo Morales would fly a parallel route five miles to
the north and Basulto and his three spotters would fly five miles to the south -- a mere
from Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit.
The ICAO report said de la Peņa radioed the other two planes that he had arrived at his assigned search lane -- he gave his position as 23.28 north, about two miles too far south -- and asked, "Do you want me to wait for you here?"
U.S. radar data in the ICAO report show Costa also overshot his assigned lane by five miles and that Basulto flew 7.5 miles past his lane and penetrated 1.7 miles into Cuban airspace. At his cruising speed of 150 mph, it takes about 41 seconds to fly 1.7 miles.
Basulto insisted to ICAO that he had not violated Cuban territory on that flight and that he specifically remembered turning east when he reached latitude 23.23 north, well outside Cuban airspace. Cuban radar data provided to ICAO puts all three planes only four to five miles off the Cuban coast.
Basulto's onboard communications recorder showed he first reported a MiG in the area at 3:21 p.m., the ICAO report said, at a time when U.S. radars show all three Brothers planes were heading either north or east, lining up for their search.
Cuban version differs
But the MiG pilot, a lieutenant colonel and veteran of 74 foreign combat missions, and Cuban radar tracks given to ICAO claimed that both Brothers planes were heading south, toward Havana, when they were shot down.
The pilot also gave ICAO investigators a detailed account of how he made warning passes at the two Cessnas before firing his air-to-air rockets -- coming up behind them from the left and then making "a combat turn" in front and to the right.
ICAO's report said neither of the downed Cessnas reported seeing such a maneuver, "and it was reasonable to expect that such an encounter would have been reported to the other Cessnas."
Neither the U.S. nor Cuban radar tracks were detailed enough to show if the pilot made such passes, the ICAO report said. In any case, it added, such maneuvers are not part of internationally accepted interception procedures because of the danger of accidents.
In one of its most damaging conclusions, the ICAO report said that neither the MiG pilot, his air defense controller or Havana civilian air traffic controllers had made any effort to radio the Cessnas -- the simplest of all methods of warning off intruders.
Problems with evidence
The ICAO report describes at length the kinds of evidence provided by U.S. and Cuban officials -- once hinting strongly that the Cubans doctored some of the materials and at two other points cocking a skeptical eyebrow at Cuban claims.
U.S. officials gave the ICAO electronic recordings of U.S. radar data on the incident, but only let them listen to a U.S. tape recording of radio calls between the MiG pilot and his ground controller, apparently to hide U.S. intelligence- gathering capabilities. They did give ICAO a transcript of the Spanish original and an English translation, the report noted.
Cuba handed over copies of hand-plotted radar tracks,
because the four air defense radars around Havana were not equipped with data-recording systems, and reported two significant problems with other evidence:
* The Cubans could not provide information from the MiG's onboard flight recorder, which could have pinpointed the location of the downings. The machine used to "read" the recorder "was out of service," the ICAO report quoted the Cubans as saying, and the critical information was erased -- recorded over -- as the plane flew again in the days after the incident.
* The Cubans also claimed that the recording system at the Havana civilian air traffic control radar was broken that day, the report added.
Havana did hand over what it claimed to be its original tape recording of the radio chatter between the MiG pilot and his air defense controller. But, when compared against the U.S. recording, the Cuban tape contained seven gaps totaling about one minute.
All the gaps involved chatter about the presence of two private U.S.-based ships in the area of the shoot-downs. The ships were 20 to 25 miles north of the Cuban coast and provided crucial evidence that the Brothers planes were downed over international waters.
The ICAO report offered no explanation for the gaps.
"The original tape was checked and no physical damage was found," ICAO reported.
But the fact the investigators devoted nine pages to the issue, providing in exact detail the words missing and the seconds left blank, underscores the significance of the issue: Did Cuba knowingly lie to the ICAO?
Ships' positions crucial
The ICAO report said the radar data provided by Cuban and U.S. officials differed so vastly that they could not be reconciled.
Instead, ICAO used the known positions of the U.S. cruise liner Majesty of the Seas and fishing boat Tri-Liner, whose crews witnessed the attacks, to locate the incidents at 10.3 to 11.5 miles outside Cuba's 12-mile limit.
That is two to three miles from where the U.S. radar tracks
put them, and roughly 16 to 17 miles from where the Cubans said the planes went down.
Havana also claimed to ICAO that its radars had spotted at least three other suspicious aircraft just north of Havana from 10:16 to 10:50 a.m. and again around 3:30 p.m. -- long before and after the two Cessnas were shot down.
Cuba claimed it sent up MiGs to intercept the aircraft and even radioed Miami air traffic control in the morning for information on the intruders. But Miami replied it knew nothing. The U.S. radar tracks show no civilian airplanes or MiGs aloft in the area in the morning and only MiGs in the afternoon. ICAO's report does not explain the discrepancy, but one U.S. official briefed on U.S. intelligence monitoring of the Cuban military believes Havana's 25- to 30-year-old Soviet-made radars are simply unreliable.
"We've seen their MiGs chasing after clouds many times before," he said.
The vast difference in U.S. and Cuban radar data on the downing of the Cessnas has caused some U.S. officials to wonder if there was some error with the Cuban radar or its operator. The radars must be recalibrated for distance each time they are turned on.
But the U.S. tape recordings show the Cuban air defense controller guiding the MiG right to the spot where U.S. radar data and independent witnesses say the planes were downed -- 24 to 25 miles off the coast.
"Look for (one Brothers plane) . . . about 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Baracoa," the controller radios the MiG pilot at one point. "The objective is north of Santa Fe, distance 25 kilometers (15 miles)," he advised later.
Inexplicably, however, the Cuban tape of the radio talk indicates that after the downings, the controller ordered a search helicopter to a spot three to four miles off the coast and three gunboats to an area five to eight miles north of the coast, the ICAO report noted.
That was far from the area where the MiG was flying, and far from the area of the downings. But it was near the spots where Cuban radar tracks now claim the Cessnas were shot down.
Cuba allowed the ICAO investigators, during a visit to Havana, to interview an air defense observer near Havana who testified that he had watched, on his powerful air defense binoculars, a MiG shoot down one airplane six to seven miles north of the coast.
The ICAO report wondered why the man had not seen both planes go down since the downings took place, according to Cuban claims, one mile and seven minutes apart.
The ICAO report lists Cuban allegations of nine previous Brothers violations of Cuban airspace dating to April 4, 1995, and includes copies of a string of diplomatic notes between Havana and Washington on the topic.
But in its conclusions, it merely sums up the complaints and notes that all governments must enforce flight regulations -- without offering an opinion on whether the United States should have moved more strongly to stop the violations.
The report also makes no mention of Cuban claims that the U.S. military used armed Cessna 337s during the Vietnam War -- a claim apparently designed to justify regarding them as more threatening than civilian aircraft.
In an intriguing aside, ICAO noted the previously unreported presence of a U.S. Navy plane, a P-3 Orion, usually used for submarine-chasing duty, in an area north of Havana on Feb. 24, though far to the north of Cuban airspace.
Pro-Havana sources in the United States have said a "U.S. spy plane" was somehow involved in a plot to use the Brothers pilots to embarrass Cuba.
Without saying whether the Orion was involved in the incident, the ICAO report includes a statement from the unidentified Orion pilot, who said the crew was performing routine tests with an air-dropped acoustic receiver -- a sonar buoy that listens for subs in the area.