KEY WEST, Florida (AP) — At face value, they are three old planes not worth much more than their parts and scrap metal. Stolen from the Cuban government during a six-month period ending in April 2003 — two by hijackers, one by its pilot — all three landed at Key West International Airport, a 116-mile (186-kilometer) flight from struggling Havana to the gleaming shores of the U.S.
Fidel Castro repeatedly demanded the planes be returned. Instead, they were seized by U.S. courts to satisfy part of a $27 million judgment won by a Cuban-American woman who had unwittingly married a Cuban spy in Miami.
The story of what happened to the planes in the ensuing years reads like another chapter in the history of stymied, contentious U.S.-Cuba relations, the new owners unable to get the planes anywhere.
The first of the three planes to land in Key West was a yellow, Soviet-built, crop-duster that pilot Nemencio Carlos Alonso Guerra used to fly seven passengers, many of them relatives, to the U.S. in November 2002.
Cuba wanted the biplane back, but a Florida judge agreed with Ana Margarita Martinez that the plane should be seized and sold to partially pay the judgment she was awarded under an anti-terrorism law. In 1996, her husband, Juan Pablo Roque, had fled back to Cuba after infiltrating the Miami-based, anti-Castro group, Brothers to the Rescue. The next day, Cuban fighter jets shot down two of the group's Cessnas over international waters, killing four pilots.
The aging Antonov AN-2 Colt was auctioned at the Key West airport in 2003 and Martinez placed the highest bid, $7,000.
"We had a victory — we got to keep this property of the Cuban government," Martinez said after the auction.
She hoped to sell it for a profit later, but instead gave it to Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada, who painted half of it with a colorful mural as part of an exhibit commemorating Cuba's independence.
After the exhibit, Cortada eventually donated the plane to Florida International University, which planned to display it, but couldn't find a building to house it. Today, it deteriorates under tarps on a far corner of FIU's campus.
Even if it could be flown, there would be another hurdle: The plane would have to be deregistered in Cuba, or given special authorization to fly by the Federal Aviation Administration. That, however, requires maintenance documents and certificates proving the plane is safe — all of them in Cuba.
Don Soldini, who purchased a hijacked DC-3, is one of the few who stood a chance of getting Cuban plane records.
"I would've flown it back," he said last week.
Soldini, who went to Cuba as a teen to fight in the revolution, remains on good terms with the island's leaders.
He was barely 18 when he hitchhiked from Staten Island to Key West in the late 1950s, intent on joining the Cuban revolution. He flew to the island on a passenger DC-3, an elegant, bulbous-shaped plane now synonymous with World War II and 1940s to '60s-era commercial airline service. Once in Cuba, Soldini joined the underground and eventually fought in the rebel army, marching alongside Raul Castro and his troops.
After the revolutionaries' 1959 victory, Soldini remained in Cuba, but felt uneasy there as an American. He left and eventually started a real estate development company in Florida with offices in 21 countries. Starting in the 1970s, he began visiting Cuba about twice a year.
In March 2003, a Cuban DC-3 similar to the one Soldini had first flown in was hijacked by six knife-wielding men and diverted to Key West. Thirteen days later, another Cuban airliner was hijacked to Key West by Adermis Wilson Gonzalez.
"My goal was always to come to this nation and work to give my family a better future," Wilson Gonzales said in a letter to The Associated Press last week from a federal prison in Pennsylvania. He is serving a 20-year sentence for air piracy.
Like the biplane before, both planes were auctioned.
Two aspiring pilots from Colorado came to the sale and, to their surprise, won. Wayne Van Heusden bought the DC-3 for $12,500 and Matthew Overton purchased the Antonov AN-24 for $6,500.
"My grand idea, initially, was to give it to the Cuban authorities, because it's their plane," Van Heusden said.
He imagined filling the plane with medical supplies and flying to the island, but he couldn't find financial support. And he and Overton ran into the same hurdle: They were unable to fly the planes without the maintenance documents. The fees for keeping the planes in Key West quickly accumulated and both decided to sell.
Overton put his plane on eBay, but the winning bid didn't go through. Key West International Airport took the plane and today it is used for emergency drills.
Soldini heard about the DC-3 and felt nostalgia for the day he flew to join the revolution.
He bought the plane from Van Heusden and reached out to the Castros.
But after the long, impassioned speeches Fidel Castro gave demanding the U.S. return the planes, Soldini said the aging Cuban leader didn't want it.
"He's more interested in the political impact rather than the practical," Soldini said. "I couldn't do anything."
Soldini returned to Key West, disassembled the plane and put it on a truck. He parked the plane at a central Florida hangar, where it remains. He made an extensive documentary tracing the plane's history, from its California manufacture to its days in Cuba.
He hopes that one day it will be in a museum, since it will never fly again.
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