Daredevil flier won't be jailed
U.S. law doesn't address Cuba flyover
BY JAY WEAVER
The daredevil pilot who dropped anti-communist leaflets over Havana
accepted the toughest punishment the U.S. government can impose: He gave up
his pilot's license.
Ly Tong, the 51-year-old former South Vietnamese air force pilot,
also might have
to pay a fine for flying over Cuba's air space on New Year's Day, but he won't be
going to jail.
The United States has no criminal laws that affect a pilot who
enters a foreign
country's territory without properly notifying its officials.
Indeed, Tong probably escaped his worst possible fate when a Cuban
took no action against his small rented Cessna. Under its aviation regulations,
which follow international rules, the Castro government could have ordered Tong to
land his plane after he crossed Cuba's 12-mile territorial boundary. And it could
have imposed whatever restrictions it wanted against him -- including
But Cuba merely tailed Tong.
Like Tong, any pilot who flies over the island and returns without
incident will find
little turbulence with criminal authorities back home.
A U.S. State Department official said Tong's raining of leaflets
over Havana may
be pollution, but it's not a violation of the Neutrality Act. That law forbids any U.S.
citizen from taking a hostile action against a foreign country not at war with this
For its part, the Federal Aviation Administration is continuing
its investigation into
Tong's risky flight over Cuba -- but it's strictly a civil matter.
``If pilots don't follow the regulations, they are subject to
FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said, declining to comment on the agency's
probe of Tong.
Tong voluntarily surrendered his license to authorities after
Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport. Bergen said that even if the FAA permanently
revokes Tong's aviation license, he could apply for a new one after a year.
But Bergen and other federal officials strongly discouraged similar
the 1996 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes showed what the
Cubans might do.
In this case, the Cuban government said it does not plan to lodge
with the U.S. government or with the International Civil Aviation Organization, a
U.N. agency based in Montreal that establishes worldwide flight standards.
``There is a fundamental principle that each country is sovereign
of its own air
space,'' said Chagnon Denis, an ICAO spokesman. ``But if Cuba does not
complain, I suppose there would be no case.''
In the weekly newspaper Trabajadores -- Workers -- Cuban officials
U.S. government's handling of the Tong case:
``They'll detain him for a few hours. They won't even send him
to a psychiatrist
and will free him. Otherwise, they would have to apply the same punishment to
[Brothers to the Rescue leader Jose] Basulto and his gang, which is
The unsigned article pointedly referred to Basulto because his
group flies over the
Florida Straits looking for Cuban rafters fleeing the island nation.
The FAA revoked Basulto's pilot's license after he was accused
Cuba's air space on Feb. 24, 1996 -- the infamous day two Cuban MiGs shot
down the Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing four volunteers.
That summer, a National Transportation Safety Board administrative
ruled that Basulto's license should be suspended for 150 days instead. The ruling
applied not only to the Feb. 24 incident, but also to Basulto's flight on July 13,
1995, when he dropped leaflets over Havana.
The FAA appealed the suspension, and Basulto ended up losing his
the exile leader was granted another license a year later.
``Basulto did not ask the Cuban government for permission to go
territorial air space,'' said Miami attorney Sofia Powell-Cosio, who represented
him. ``That was simply his only violation.
``That's a rule everybody has to follow on a regular basis, but
it's violated all the
time,'' she added. ``There are a lot of small private planes that fly over Cuba on a
regular basis, and a lot of them don't ask for permission.''
The shoot-down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes sparked an
Cuban exiles and the Clinton administration, leading to a probe by the
International Civil Aviation Organization. It was only the fifth investigation in the
ICAO's 55 years of existence.
Other inquests included the U.S. Navy downing of an Iranian jetliner
in 1988, the
Soviet downing of a Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983 and the Israeli downing of a
Libyan commercial plane in 1978.
In June 1996, the United Nations agency backed the U.S. claim
that the Brothers
to the Rescue shoot-down occurred over international waters, not in Cuban
territory. Its report struck a blow to Castro government's argument that it acted in
defense of Cuba's air space -- leading to the Clinton administration's suspension
of certain travel privileges to the island nation.