Author: Aaron O'Sullivan

10000 feet and Smoking – a Flight on Cubana Airways – Cuba

I have a highly advanced fear of flying, which leaves me compelled to listen to other people stories about flights on third world airlines in horror. I know people with phobias are supposed to confront their fears in an effort to overcome them, but I confront mine to confirm just how rational they are.

People love telling me their horror flight stories because I am so easily shocked. “You flew Air India? You’d never get me on there!” “The pilot and the co-pilot were unconscious, whatever happened next?”

But for all these tales, I have done one better. I have stared in-flight terror in the face and walked away. I have taken a flight more dangerous than they will ever know. This is not my opinion, this is documented fact. Backed up by cold, hard statistics. For I have flown Cubana Airways.

My girlfriend Jackie chose Cuba for our holiday, a decision I fully supported. I fully supported this decision as I always do by leaving everything to her. So it came as bit of a surprise four weeks before we left to find out that we were not flying on one of the major airlines. Nor were we flying on one of the minor airlines either. We were flying with Cuba’s very own national airline – Cubana Airways. I didn’t know thing dot about Cubana Airways, but every bone in my body told me that this was not an airline to fly with. Now the holiday had my attention. Over the next four weeks, this is what I found out about Cubana Airways:

It has THE WORST SAFETY RECORD of any airline in the world. This is not exaggeration or hyperbole. This is fact. I saw the league table. Why it was printed in a Sunday paper weeks before I was due to fly I will never know, but there it was, a league table of safety records of all commercial airlines. And there in last place, in very, very last place – not near the end, or the bottom half – but in very last place was Cubana Airways. Fantastic.

During the four weeks before we left, a Cubana Airways flight crashed on take-off from Argentina, killing almost everyone on board. This then gave the newspaper an excuse to write at great length about how bad Cubana Airways was. For 28 years I had never read a single word on Cubana Airways, now I couldn’t open a newspaper without reading about them. Which leads to the third fact I found out.

When you want to compile a list of all the worst airlines accidents, with the highest possible death counts, you will always want to include several Cubana Airways flights in your list.

And we were flying with them. A couple of years later I found a web site that predicts how likely you are to crash on any particular flight. You type in your start and finish destination, and the airline you are flying with, and it will give you your chance of dying. Very morbid, I know. If you type in a typical journey like flying from London to Sydney on British Airways, your chances of dying are infinitesimally small, something like 1 in 450,000,000 – a reassuringly large, impossible-to-imagine number. Type in London to Havana with Cubana Airways, and it comes back with closer to 1 in 60,000. This is a large number, but it is a conceivable number. If someone told me I had a 1 in 60,000 chance of winning the lottery, I could imagine myself winning the lottery before I die. If someone tells me I have a 1 in 60,000 chance of dying on a particular flight, you can guess the rest.

The day arrived and we got on that flight to Havana, the capital of Cuba. I immediately started scanning the plane for signs of what we were in for the next eight hours, and I admit I was reassured by what I saw.

Cuba is a beautiful country but it is not a rich country. What America does to it is despicable. America is its closest neighbour and the richest country in the world. You would think that being on their doorstep would be a boon. But because Cuba is communist, and because it nationalised a lot of American businesses in Cuba in the early 1960’s, America has a total blockade on the country. No trade is allowed and American citizens are not even allowed to visit the country without restrictions.

Instead, Cuba turned to the USSR, thousands of miles away for trade and commerce. The USSR was for a long time Cuba’s major trading partner. But with the break-up of the Soviet Union that market started to disintegrate with predictable consequences for Cuba. And now while America will freely trade with the former USSR, and gives China most favoured nation status, America will not trade a single bean with one of its nearest neighbours – Cuba. The result is an almost bankrupt country. Most every other country in the world recognises and trades with Cuba, but when your closet, richest neighbour won’t lend you a cup of sugar, things are never going to be good.

So as I said, Cuba is not a rich country, and running a national airline into and out of Europe is not something they can really afford. Instead, we were on a French-run charter airline flying on behalf of Cubana Airways. This was a French plane, with French pilots, maintained and serviced in France. Even the safety instructions were in French. I was never so happy to have my safety exits explained to me in a language I couldn’t understand.

I had checked all this out in the first few minutes of getting on the plane, and I visibly relaxed. It was so obvious that even Jackie leaned over and said, “I have a secret to tell you,”

“What’s that?” I asked, settling in to enjoying the flight.
“I didn’t want to tell you before, but we’ve got two internal flights in Cuba when we get there.”

I almost got off the plane. You always hear about people that have a hunch about a boat or plane journey that they are supposed to be on, but don’t take it, and it always ends up at the bottom of the ocean. And I had a big, big hunch. You see, it is a fact that Cubana Airways has the worst safety record of any commercial airline in the world, and this is for their international airline. Only God above (and perhaps Fidel Castro) knows exactly just how bad their domestic airline is.

When you fly in and out of foreign countries you pretty much have to come clean about your safety record (it is very hard to pretend that the plane that was supposed to arrive in Heathrow hasn’t really crashed, but that the pilot wanted to stay home and watch television). For internal flights it’s a whole different story. I’m no expert on Communist countries, but I suspect that ‘worst airline in the world’ is not the type of propaganda they go for. If their international airline achieves that accolade, you just know they aren’t going to tell you anything about their domestic flights. And we were booked on not one, but two domestic flights.

Anyway, we made it to Havana safely and loved it. We stayed at the Ernest Hemingway
Marina Hotel which sounds all very romantic, and for some reason had a mural of Che Guevara on the front of the building. Havana is an amazing city, if for all the wrong reasons. It’s as if any form of development or renovation stopped one afternoon in 1960 and never re-started. The buildings are ancient and magnificent, with that air of grand decay. Something like 10,000 buildings fall down in Havana on their own each year, and around 100,000 are uninhabitable. The cars are all 1960 American classics with huge tail fins and chrome everywhere. All amazing to look at and totally atmospheric. You can walk the streets all day and be simply amazed at the architecture and the feel of the city. Hoever, you can’t help but feel that the city looks and feels like this not because they want to, but because they don’t have the money to buy a new car or a lick of paint.

After three days in Havana it was time to fly to the beach resort at Varadero. We got to Havana Domestic Airport maybe 20 minutes before our flight, and maybe four hours before our flight, because there was no way to know. The arrival and departure boards didn’t work and there didn’t seem to be any staff around. So we sat in the bar and waited. Apart from the two of us, there were three or four other English couples who were also flying that day.

Even though we were on an escorted tour of Cuba, you couldn’t help notice that the tour guide wasn’t flying with us. It’s always a good sign when the guide won’t get on the plane. Our tickets didn’t tell us when we were going, and curiously they didn’t have any seat numbers either. When I fly I like efficiency, I like rules, I like someone in charge, and I like to have a seat number. A ghost-town of an airport, no indicators working, and clutching a ticket without a seat number is never gong to work (if the BBC ever did a fly-on-the-wall documentary in the Havana airport it would be just of an empty building with a couple of people sitting around staring at their tickets).

After several hours, people started moving towards one of the doors and somehow we knew that this was our flight. We walked out onto the tarmac and it was then that we got our first glimpse of the plane. It was then that the terror set in.

In front of us was an ancient propeller aircraft, of obvious Russian make. This was not a functioning plane, it was a museum piece from ‘Remember the Cold War’. Cuba is not a rich country. It buys its planes second hand from Russia. Russia is not a rich country and it does not have a glorious record of aviation safety itself. As John West would say “These are planes that Aeroflot reject”. It’s terribly politically incorrect I know, but as I walked towards that plane, all I could think was “Cuba can’t afford to buy spare parts for their planes. That’s okay, Russia cannot afford to make spare parts for their planes. We’re dead.” Even if there are spare parts anywhere in the world floating around for these planes you can bet the Russians are keeping them for themselves.

When we got inside the plane, we realised there were no seat numbers on our tickets because it was a free-for-all. I’ve been on dilapidated buses in the middle of Africa where they gave me a seat number, but not here. Being the last to realise that it was pick-your-own seating we ended up in the last two seats of the plane near the exit. In front of us sat another English couple laughing nervously to themselves.

The interior of the plane was like stepping back into a time capsule. The décor had not been updated since the day the plane was built, some time in the 1960’s. The button you would press (if it worked) to get the attention of the stewardess had a silhouette of a women in an ankle-length balloon skirt, like Ritchie’s girlfriend in Happy Days would wear (a Russian version of Happy Days, of course). The overhead lockers were not lockers at all, but racks like you would find on any Greyhound bus. A Greyhound bus that was soon going to attempt to fly 20,000 feet above the ground with me in it. Directly opposite us a girl was attempting to jam her guitar into the overhead rack but gave up with it half in, half out. I felt like getting up and writing my name on the side of it, just to make sure it knew who it should slam into when we took off.

By this time I was seriously scared, and we hadn’t even started moving. Deep down, to the bone scared. If you’re scared of flying, the way you feel just before take-off is how you’ll feel the entire flight. If you’re calm, and preferably drunk, you’ll be okay. If you’re nervous and afraid, that’s you for the flight. And I was petrified.

In a funk we taxied to the runway, but I can’t remember taking off. The next thing I remember was the first bump of turbulence. I grabbed the armrest and leaned back into the seat. My seat then proceeded to tip over backwards. The back of the seat had stopped being attached in any meaningful way to the bottom of the seat many decades ago, and I was in free-fall backwards. Only the fact that there was a huge box jammed behind the seat stopped me from ending up totally horizontal and screaming. I know British Airways have spent millions of pounds putting fully reclining seats into First Class, and Cubana Airways had beaten them to it, but a reclining chair was the last thing I wanted right now. I wanted a solid, rigid, painfully upright chair to cower in. Instead I had the Sleepmaster 5000.

Then, as we started to pass through the clouds at 10,000 feet, smoke started pouring out from the overhead lockers. Not a whiff, or a curl of smoke, but thick, pounding smoke the length and breadth of the cabin. We were dead. I was beside myself. This is how it ended, just like I knew it would. If I’d had one of those poison pills that secret agents carry I would have popped it right then. Which would have been a pity, because as Jackie pointed out, no one else on the plane seemed to mind the fact that smoke was quickly filling the cabin. What we were witnessing was the air conditioning kicking in. Once the plane reached a certain altitude, the air belting out of the system became visible, like dry ice does. But let me assure you, at 10,000 feet, on the oldest operational plane in the world, it looks exactly like smoke.

So what happened for the rest of the flight? I can’t really tell you. I was in a total state of shock. I have no idea how far it is to Havana to Varadero. I had no concept of time. Faced with the certainty that we would not make it, and totally unable to do anything about it, my brain simply shut down for the winter. I do remember looking out the window at our minuscule plane suspended thousands of feet above the distant earth and laughing like someone insane. I do remember spending the entire flight gripping the webbing on the underside of my seat with a vice-like grip. With the armrest and the back of the seat offering no support, the bottom was all I had.

Jackie assured me that reading would take my mind off the flight so I had a magazine that was less than useless. Turning a page meant letting go of the bottom of the seat and that was something that was simply not going to happen. If I asked Jackie to turn the page, my talking would distract the pilot which would lead to a crash, so that was out of the question. I tried turning the pages with my teeth but just ending up tearing out the pages. It didn’t help, but it didn’t hurt either.

Finally, we started our descent to the ground. Nervous fliers can tell as soon as a plane starts descending. We know before the co-pilot knows (we can also tell when the fuel tanks are dangerously low, when a wing is about to fall off, and when the landing gear won’t retract, but that is a different story). I can’t remember the descent, and I can’t remember landing. All I remember thinking was that this pain was about to be over, one way or another.

But we landed, and I can only assume that we landed safely. The journey was over and we had survived. As we were taxiing to a standstill the English couple in front of us turned around and said something light-hearted like “That was a bit bumpy wasn’t it?” I replied by busting into tears right in front of them. Saying “that was bumpy” to a 28 year old man and having him break down in tears is officially classified as an ‘awkward moment’ and they quickly turned around and left me to myself.

So don’t tell me about Air India. I’ve flown Cubana domestic.

Postscript: One we got off the plane and I had calmed down, I made Jackie promise that we would hire a car back to Havana. She said that there was no way in the world she would let me back on that plane. Even the most confident flier can have their will broken by sitting next to a crybaby.

However, the resort was just too fantastic. Right on the beach, perfect weather every day, windsurfing, sailing, volleyball, swimming, scuba diving, everything and anything, and all food and drink included. Going back by car would mean leaving two days earlier out of a 7-day holiday. By the fifth day I told Jackie that I would be okay to fly back but she didn’t believe me. I told her that I had a secret plan that would make it okay. And I did. Our flight left at 11:00 am and from the moment I got up that morning, I started drinking Cuba Libra’s (rum and coke, but it sounds a lot classier in Spanish).

By the time I boarded that plane I was so rip roaring drunk I didn’t give a damn. When, at 20,000 feet and bouncing around like there was no tomorrow, I announced that I needed to go to the toilet, I strolled up the aisle like I was walking down the High Street. If Cubana Airways was the question, alcohol was the answer.