The Miami Herald
Mar. 20, 2003

Cuban plane flown to U.S.; six arrested in hijacking


  KEY WEST - Authorities here arrested six Cuban men Wednesday night after they allegedly hijacked a Cuban domestic flight at knife point. The plane, carrying 37 people including the alleged hijackers, landed safely in Key West under the escort of U.S. fighter jets.

  The scheduled flight, a normally brief Cuban Aerotaxi route from Cuba's Isle of Youth to Havana, had been diverted north toward Florida when it was spotted at 7:42 p.m. by air-traffic controllers in Miami, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

  Six men in their 20s from the Isle of Youth produced four kitchen knives and said they wanted to go to Key West.

  Fighter jets from Homestead Air Reserve Base escorted the plane to a runway at Key West International Airport at 8:06 p.m. It was met on the runway by officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement.

  ''There's been a peaceful resolution,'' said FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela.

  The alleged hijackers were not immediately identified, nor was their motive.

  Also aboard were a pilot, copilot, four other crew members and 25 other passengers -- 12 men, eight women and five children. None were harmed.

  The incident follows a series of dramatic crossings from Cuba in recent months, one on a stolen government cargo plane and another on a Cuban border guard patrol boat.


  Robert Gray, a pilot for Cape Air, landed at Key West minutes before the hijacked DC-3. He heard the DC-3 pilot radio the tower to report what kind of plane he had. He wanted to know if the runway was large enough. ''It seemed cordial,'' he said.

  Kathleen Bergen, a spokesperson for the FAA, said the plane was first spotted on the radar of the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center that handles ''high-altitude, long-range flights.'' The control center is located northwest of Miami International Airport and is separate from the airport's control tower.

  Before it landed, two Air Force F-15 fighter jets from Homestead scrambled to intercept the DC-3. ''The two jets shadowed the plane until it landed in Key West,'' said Lt. Col. Barry Venable, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

  Planes such as DC-3s are supposed to be quickly detected by the Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, an area of airspace around the U.S. monitored closely by radar.

  On the day the U.S. launched a war, and with the country on ''Orange Alert,'' Venable said the incident marked ''just another day'' for NORAD.

  ''This reflects the state of normalcy we are now under,'' Venable said. Since Sept. 11, 2001, NORAD has detected 1,040 air space security incidents. ''None are routine,'' Venable said.

  Buried deep in Cheyenne Mountain west of Colorado Springs, NORAD monitors air space over North America and air activity around the world.


  Some of the passengers looked upset, others relaxed.

  Authorities frisked passengers and used dogs to check for explosives. An airport employee said the plane was carrying a large amount of luggage. The plane was moved from the tarmac at about 9:30 p.m., nearly 90 minutes after it landed. The passengers were being interviewed by federal authorities late Wednesday night.

  The pilot and most of the passengers had already declared they wanted to return to Cuba, according to a source at the airport.

  It was not immediately known if the alleged hijackers' goal was to defect to the United States. Though Cubans who reach U.S. soil are usually allowed to stay, Orihuela said the six people arrested Wednesday night will be prosecuted on federal hijacking charges -- meaning they could face prison sentences.


  On Nov. 11, eight Cuban migrants seeking to defect took a cargo plane, a Russian-built Antonov-2, from an airfield in Cuba and landed it in Key West. Two F-15s from Homestead escorted that plane. The defectors -- a pilot and his extended family -- were released to relatives in Miami.

  Last month, four armed defectors from Cuba's border guard left their patrol outside Havana and hours later turned up with their boat in Key West. They also were

  Aerotaxi is one of four state-owned Cuban airlines. The others are Cubana de Aviación, Aerogaviota and Aerocaribbean. Aerotaxi has 4 DC-3s, 41 AN-2s and five MI-8 helicopters. It covers domestic routes.

  Herald staff writers Charles Rabin, Tere Figueras and Renato Pérez contributed to this report.