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The Man Who Showed The Way

March 2023
1min read

In April 1961 Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, a Soviet air force major, became the first man to travel in space. That July, the Soviet cosmonaut made a triumphant visit to Cuba and landed at José Martí Airport, outside Havana.

The day before, I had left Miami International Airport en route to Mexico City; I worked for Eastern Air Lines and was to do a routine audit of aircraft parts at our Mexican facility. Half-way to Tampa the aircraft did a 180-degree turn: a disgruntled Miami Beach waiter, a Hispanic, had the pilot at pistol point and made us head south, to Cuba. There were thirty-seven of us aboard including crew and passengers.

After we landed at José Martí Airport, the airport-security personnel boarded the plane and made the captain shut down all four engines. Once that was done there was no way to restart without a ground starting unit, which was not available there. The runway had to be cleared for the Soviet Aeroflot aircraft carrying Major Gagarin, and since our aircraft, a Prop Jet Lockhead Electra, was in the center of the main landing strip, the Cubans deftly wrapped a large chain around the nose wheel strut and hauled the plane off with a bulldozer.

(Later Eastern sent a crew with a ground starter and a fix for the nose strut and ferried it back to Miami). We were on the ground at José Martí Airport for twenty-six hours under guard. The important people were in Havana planning the reception, and the underlings left at the airport had no idea what to do with us. They did, however, treat us quite cordially—even giving us frozen daiquiris with our meals.

The next day we were allowed into the dining room on the second floor of the terminal to view the arrival of Major Gagarin. By midmorning a tropical rainstorm developed and persisted for quite a while. Finally the Castro entourage arrived, and the premier and all his look-alike followers stood in formation on the ramp. The Aeroflot plane landed and taxied up to the apron abreast the terminal. The Cubans stood at attention with the rain sifting through their beards and down their long-since-drenched combat fatigues while their guest waited in the door of the aircraft in a spotless, dry, white cosmonaut suit for almost an hour until the storm let up.

Finally Major Gagarin stepped to the ground, where children handed him bouquets of flowers, Castro kissed him, and everybody left for Havana in jeeps, recon vehicles, and motorcycles.

Later that afternoon, a Pan American Airlines DC-6B landed and we were ushered aboard for our return to Miami International Airport, all of us very impressed at having seen the world’s first cosmonaut.

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