Fliers downed by MiGs violated Cuban airspace, colonel says
Testimony at odds with other reports
The retired officer gave his view of the 1996 shoot-down in the Cuban spy trial.
BY GAIL EPSTEIN NIEVES
Echoing the Cuban government, a defense expert testified Wednesday that two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft were shot down in 1996 because -- according to his review -- they had invaded Cuban airspace and appeared to be on a military, not a civilian, mission.
The conclusions of retired Air Force Col. George E. Buchner put him at odds with earlier analyses conducted by the United States, the United Nations and prosecution experts -- all of whom agreed that Cuban MiGs attacked the unarmed planes in international airspace over the Florida Straits.
The disagreement goes to the very heart of the most serious offense charged in the Cuban spy trial: murder conspiracy. Defense lawyer Paul McKenna has argued that his client, Gerardo Hernández, cannot be punished for killings in another country's territorial waters.
Outside the courtroom, Cuba's liability formed the basis for $93 million in civil damages awarded to relatives of three of the four men who died in the shoot-down. Cuba's actions, criticized by the international community, also triggered a chill in Cuban-U.S. diplomatic relations.
But Buchner reached a different conclusion, based in part on two trips to Havana, where he said he flew planes, witnessed work at Havana's air traffic control center, and learned about Cuban radar and radio communication systems.
Buchner is a decorated Vietnam War fighter pilot and former commander of a region of NORAD, North American Air Defense Command, the military network charged with protecting the United States from nuclear missile attacks. He retired 20 years ago.
Buchner testified that he reviewed transcripts of MiG cockpit-to-ground communications and radar data hand-plotted by the Cubans on the shoot-down day, Feb. 24, 1996. He concluded that the two Brothers planes were blasted from the sky about six miles and 5.5 miles, respectively, off the Cuban coast. Cuba's territorial limit is 12 miles.
Buchner's findings are similar to what Cuba has claimed all along: that both Brothers aircraft, along with a third flown by Brothers founder and pilot José Basulto, were only four to five miles off the Cuban coast.
But the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal -- which sets internationally recognized aviation standards -- came to the opposite conclusion.
In a June 1996 report, the U.N. organization found that the Cessna carrying Brothers fliers Carlos Costa and Pablo Morales was at least 10 miles north of Cuban territory, and the one carrying fliers Mario de la Peña and Armando Alejandre Jr. was at least 11 miles outside Cuban airspace, when they were shot down about seven minutes apart.
The U.N. agency's report said the radar data provided by Cuban and U.S. officials differed so vastly that they could not be reconciled.
Instead, the U.N. agency 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.
As for the third plane in the air that day, flown by Basulto, Buchner said the MiG that shot Costa was actually gunning for Basulto but its pilot mistakenly "transferred planes'' as he came out of a turn, firing on Costa's aircraft instead.
All investigators have agreed that Basulto did penetrate Cuban airspace that day. U.S. radar data put him 1.7 miles into Cuban territory, although Basulto denies that.
The fact that Basulto lived to talk about the shoot-down proves that the Cubans weren't trigger-happy at any cost, Buchner said.
"Obviously, they were interested in shooting down [plane No.] 2506, Mr. Basulto, and they showed restraint when Mr. Basulto got into international airspace'' from Cuban airspace, Buchner testified.
Basulto has a different view of his escape. He says that when he saw the MiG attacks commencing, he turned off his transponder on which the MiGs had homed their radar and then he took off into cloud cover.
Buchner said the Cessnas had given up their civilian status because they still carried the markings of the U.S. Air Force and had been used to drop leaflets condemning the Cuban government.