Cuban Military Aviation History
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Cuba

Air Force History

 

Military aviation started in Cuba with the creation of the Cuerpo de Aviación del Ejército de Cuba (CAEC) on the 5 July 1913 with one Curtiss Model FS. In April 1917 Cuba declared war on Germany during World War One. On the 14 September 1917 a escuadrilla de aviación "Le Escuadrilla Cubaine" was formed for operation in France. During September 1918 Cuban pilots and mechanics started to train in the United States at Kelly Airflied in San Antonio. But World War One ended before the escuadrilla was operational and in April 1919 the Cubans returned home, without going to war.

On the 18 May 1919 the 1.Escuadrón of the CAEC with 9 Curtiss JN-4D was formed. A second squadron was planned for activation but this never materialized. During the next years Cuba bought only small quantities of aircraft and most of these planes were destroyed during a desastrous cyclon in October 1926. During the 1930s the CAEC received about two dozen aircraft as replacement. A uprising in 1931 against President Machado led to the first bombardment of a civilian town by combat aircraft. On the 18 August 1932 aircraft of the CAEC bombarded the town of Gibara, which was subsequently abandoned by the rebellious forces.

After the revolution in 1933 and the final overthrow of President Gerardo Machado y Morales and the subsequent reign of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar led to a reorgainsation of the Cuerpo de Aviación del Ejército de Cuba. The service was divided into the Cuerpo de Aviación del Ejército de Cuba and the Aviación Naval. The new organisation finally became effective in 1934, at the time of the renewal of the US-Cuban Treaty. The Air Force now comprised a Escuadrón de Persecución (Fighter Squadron), a Escuadrón de Observación y Bombardeo (Observation and Bombardment Squadron) and one Escuela de Aviación Militar (Military Aviation School).

On 3 June 1940 the ANACRA (Academia Nacional de Aviación Civil Reserva Aérea), a national reserve flying academy, was activated at Campo Brihuegas and addiational airfields were established at La Habana, Camagüey, Kawama, Perla, San Antonio de los Baños, Santa Clara and San Julián.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor Cuba declared war on Japan on 9 December 1941 and on Germany and Italy on the 11 December. During the next years the CAEC received 48 aircraft through the Lend an Lease Program from the United States. Most of these aircraft were communication and training aircraft. During World War Two the United States had some air bases in Cuba. The USAAF operated a squadron of P-39 Aircobra from San Antonio, while the US Navy operated aircraft from San Julián. After signing the Rio Treaty in 1947 Cuba received additional aircraft, this time also combat aircraft and transport aircraft to form a Escuadrón de Transporte (Transport Squadron).

In 1947 the "Legión de Caribe" was formed in Cayo Confites, in the north of Cuba, to overthrow the Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. About 1000 men and 16 aircraft were assembled. But spies of President Trujillo discovered the plot and launched a media campain to stop the activities in Cuba. After these information have become public the operation was stopped and the aircraft were confiscated and put into service with the CAEC. On 23 April 1952 a reorganisation combined both army and naval aviation elements in a semi-autonomous force with the titel Fuerza Aérea del Ejército de Cuba (FAEC).

In 1956 Fidel Castro started the Cuban Revolution a second time, when he landed with 81 supporters, coming from his exil in Mexico City, in Cuba. Part of the FAEC supported Castros movement "26. July" with the bombardment on the 5 September 1957 of the Cayo Loco Naval Station in Cienfuegos. During the struggle with Castros forces President Batista tried to purchase additional aircraft from the United States, but the U.S. government embargoed for example the purchase of 10 T-28 Trojan. The FAEC received only some aircraft from Great Britain. During 1958 aircraft of the FAEC supported operations of the Cuban Army against Fidel Castros forces. The Fuerza Aérea Rebelde (FAR),  which was formed on the 2 May 1958, made their first combat operation with a captured, former Fuerza Aérea Naval, Kingfisher aircraft, against positions of the Cuban army at La Maya. On the 10 November 1958 B-26s made their first night time combat support operations. From the 16 to 24 December 1958 the FAEC flow 70 combat support operations with B-26 and F-47, while the Kingfisher and T-28 of the FAR flow 4 bombing missions. The last battle of the Cuban Revolution was fought on the 28 December 1958 in Santa Clara, in central Cuba. B-26, F-47 and Sea Fury aircraft supported the operations of the Bastista forces. On 1 January 1959 President Batista resigned and fled with a DC-4 to the Dominican Republic and landed at the Base Aérea de San Isidro in Santo Domingo. The Fuerza Aérea Revolucionara (FAR) was formed on the same day.

When the CIA decided that it was time to get some foreign bases out of sight of the US public opinion to complete the training of the Brigade 2506's soldiers and pilots -already training in South Florida-. Guatemala was found as a solution. With a similar tropical environment as Cuba, and ruled by a government more than friendly, the CIA soon began to negotiate with the Guatemalan government the establishment of two secret bases, one for training the brigade's soldiers and the other, a small air base, to complete the training of pilots.

The first base to be created was code-named 'JMTrax'. Located on a coffee plantation called 'La Helvetia' in the foothills between Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu departments, JMTrax served as a training camp for the ground forces of the brigade. At first, the Cubans pilots were there too, since their Airbase was under construction yet, but two weeks after the arrival, they were finally moved.

The Airbase, code-named 'JMMadd' (known to the Cubans as 'Rayo Base'), was basically a 4800ft long paved runway, coupled with an array of barracks, warehouses and supply shops scattered around a main building that served as administrative and command center. This base was very near to Retalhuleu city, right between the road to Champerico port and the railroad to Mexico. The base's parking ramp proved to be somewhat of a challenge also: Since the only way to accomodate the planes (C-54s, C-46s and B-26s) was lining them up, one behind the other. There was no way to turn an aircraft around. JMMadd was disguised at all times as a Guatemalan Air Force base, despite the obvious lack of local personnel. Thus many of the CIA planes based there were painted in Guatemalan Air Force Colours, and in the case of the C-46s, they even gained faked FAG Serial Numbers in the 800 range. On the other hand, the case of the B-26s was somewhat different: the planes had been delivered officially to the Guatemalan goverment, but right after their arrival all but two were 'leased' to the CIA. Thus, the Cubans and CIA pilots involved in the operation trained in aircraft sporting the blue-white-blue colours, while the local Air Force pilots wondered where the new planes were. 

Most of the Cuban pilots were also checked out in C-46s, but their main task was to become efficient B-26 drivers, which they did and had the chance to prove over the skies of Playa Girón. On their part, a group of North American pilots concentrated their efforts in flying supply missions between JMMadd and JMTide, which was the code-name for the CIA airbase in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. These flights were carried out using the faithful Douglas C-54s. JMMadd was supplied by C-54s flying from Miami and South Florida. In contrast with the flights between the two secrets bases, these flights were carried out by 'foreign national' pilots, mainly from Europe and Asia under CIA's contract. The end of JMMadd as a CIA secret base began in late March when the B-26 crews were transferred to Nicaragua, and came for good on April 10 1961 when the last troops were flown to JMTide together with all the equipment for the invasion.

In the early morning of 15 April 1961, eight CIA B-26B, with FAR markings but piloted by cuban exiled crews, took off from Happy Valley in Nicaragua and headed to Cuba. At 6:00 AM, the planes attacked La Libertad airbase where they destroyed a Sea Fury, among other planes. Seven people were killed. Later that same morning, another Sea Fury was destroyed in a hangar of the MOA bay mining company. Shortly after, the San Antonio de los Baños Airbase and the Antonio Maceo Airport were attacked by the B-26Bs. By the end of that day, the FAR was left with less than half of its original air power. There remained only two B-26C, two Sea Furies, and two T-33A at San Antonio de los Baños Airbase, and only one Sea Fury at the Antonio Maceo Airport. On the other hand, two of the attacking B-26 were damaged by ground fire, one of them managed to reach Key West with one engine feathered and low on fuel, and the other landed at Miami IAP in almost the same conditions. 

Around 2:00 AM on 17 April, the CIA/cuban exiled assault force reached the shore at Playa Girón but soon they were discovered by an army patrol. The soldiers alerted the nearing bases and several skirmishes broke up. The two surviving Sea Furies were deployed from the San Antonio airbase, and within fifteen minutes they were over the area, making several low passes and strafing the invading forces. When the FAR B-26Cs arrived and began to attack the invaders, the Sea Furies headed to the sea in search of the mother ships. Soon, they were located and the Sea Furies began to attack them. The Sea Fury FAR 541, damaged with rockets the command and control ship "Marsopa" and later, sunk the main supply ship "Houston". Now the invading forces had no command post and almost all the supplies of ammo, food and communications for the invasion were in the bottom of the sea with the "Houston".

One of the Sea Fury (FAR 542), was lost to AAA fire from an invading ship while he was trying to shot down a Curtiss C-46 of the invading forces. Soon after, the four T-33A arrived and began strafing the ships while they were trying to reach international waters. With the worsening of the situation for the invading forces due to the swampy terrain and the strong defense showed by the Cuban Army, four B-26B were deployed from Nicaragua, but after entering the area, one was shot down by a T-33A and another by the Sea Fury. A third B-26B was badly damaged by a Sea Fury (possibly FAR 543). Both surviving B-26B managed to escape to Miami. Near the end of that day, the Sea Fury FAR 541 strafed the invading ship "Rio Escondido" near international waters. From then on, the two surviving Sea Furies concentrated only on ground attack missions against the invasion forces. Within the next 72 hours, the FAR gained total air superiority over the invading force. By 20 April  two more B-26B were shot down by the FAR’s T-33A, and on 21 April, ten of their twelve B-26B were destroyed. Attempts to escort the bombers with Nicaraguan Mustangs were made by the invading force, but the idea was quickly discarded; the Mustangs could not reach Cuba, engage in combat and then return to Nicaragua. These planes just didn't had the range to do the job. By wednesday april 21, the invading troops were pushed back to their landing zone at Playa Girón. Surrounded by the cuban army and constantly hammered by FAR aircraft, some began to surrender while others fled into the hills. In total 114 men were killed during the failed invasion. The Sea Furies, and the rest of the surviving combat types in service with the FAR, were replaced finally in May 1961 with the arrival of at least 60 Mig-15 to form three combat squadrons,  one at least being at the San Antonio de los Baños Airbase.

American-Cuban relations grew still more perilous in the fall of 1962, when the United States discovered Soviet-supplied missile installations in Cuba. U.S. President John F. Kennedy then announced a naval blockade of the island to prevent further Soviet shipments of arms from reaching it. After several days of negotiations during which nuclear war was feared by many to be a possibility, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed, on 28 October 1962, to dismantle and remove the weapons, and this was subsequently accomplished. By the time of the Missile Crisis of October 1962 there were 36 MiG -15bis and MiG-15Rbis in Cuba, dispersed to several bases: San Antonio, Santa Clara, Camaguey and Holguin. They frequently tried to intercept US RF-101 and RF-8 reconnaissance aircraft over Cuba. During 1962 the first Mig-21 arrived in Cuba with a soviet air defence regiment. But is was not until 10 August 1963, that the first Cuban MiG-21F-13 regiment was officially established. With this, Cuba obtained the first Mach-2 airplanes in all of Latin America.

On 18 May 1970 several MiG-21s overflew the Bahamas to send a pointed message to the Bahamian government, which was holding fourteen Cuban fishermen it claimed had been fishing in its waters. The fishermen were released.

The Fuerza Aérea Revolucionara got equal status with the Army and Navy in 1972.

In December 1975 Fidel Castro sent a squadron with 9 MiG-17Fs and one MiG-15UTI to the FAPLA (armed forces of the MPLA - "Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola") air force. The MiG-17Fs, which flow in Angolan markings, commenced operations against the FLEC (Cabinda Enclave Liberation Front) separatist movement. Their zone of operations was in Cabinda and the north of Angola, while MiG-21MFs worked south and east. These operations led to victory in April 1976. In the years following the Cuban MiG-17s operated against UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) until replaced by newer MiG-21s, when they were passed to the Angolans. To supplement Cuba's regular aviation units in Angola, in December 1975 Castro ordered MiG-21MFs to be shipped directly from the USSR. In January 1976, giant Antonov An-22 transports airlifted one squadron (twelve MiG-21MFs) to Angola from the Soviet Union. One of the few combats of the war involving enemy aircraft happened on 13 March 1976 when, while attacking the UNITA aerodrome at Gago Coutinho, a flight of four MiG-21MFs surprised a Fokker F-27 on the ground discharging arms.

On 10 September 1977, under "Operation Pico" one squadron of MiG-21MFs overflew Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic to press for the release of the merchant ship Capitan Leo, which, enroute to Angola, had violated Dominican waters and been interned by the authorities. The plan was to bomb Puerto Plata and Santiago de los Caballeros the next day if the Dominican government didn't cede the ship, but after hurried negotiations it did.

Another part of Africa in which Cuban MiG-17s saw action was Ethiopia. In December, 1977, one squadron of MiG-17s and one squadron of MiG-21bis were employed in operations against Somalian forces invading the Ogaden, which resulted in the latter being pushed completely out of the Ogaden by 13 March 1978. One MiG-17 was shot down by Somali AAA fire. The MiG-17s and Mig-21s made 1013 combat support missions during this conflict. It is interesting to note that in this conflict Cuban MiG-17s and MiG-21s flew combat missions alongside Ethiopian F-5A/B/Es against Somalian MiG-17s and MiG-21s. The last Cuban soldier and aircraft left Ethiopia in September 1989 after 12 years of continous combat operations.

On 10 May 1980 two FAR MiG-21s attacked the Bahamian patrol vessel HMBS Flamingo, which had arrested four Cuban fishing vessels. Cuba admitted this to be in error and paid indemnity.

On 6 November 1981 a South African Air Force (SAAF) Mirage F-1CZ shot down a MiG-21MF, over Angola with 30mm gunfire. It was the SAAF's first victory in air-to-air combat since Korea. Almost a year later on 5 October 1982, the second aerial combat of the war took place. Two Mig-21 clashed with a couple of Mirage F1s. One MiG-21 was lightly damaged by the 30mm gunfire. The MiGs broke contact and returned to their base in Lubango, without encountering any further problems. In 1984 Cuba obtained fifty MiG-23MLs which were sent directly to Angola where they were employed in primarily in the air-to-ground role until late in the war.

The only recorded aerial victory for the Cuban MiG-21s occurred on 3 April 1986 when a pair of MiG-21MFs intercepted two C-130s reportedly carrying cargo to UNITA. They shot down one and the other escaped seriously damaged. According to South Africa (and the International Air Transport Association) they actually shot down a civilian C-130 registered to the Angolan government airline. The best-documented loss of a Cuban-flown MiG-21 over Angola was on 28 October 1987 when an armed two-seater MiG-21UM was downed by ground fire near Luvuei. The two crewmembers successfully ejected and were captured by UNITA.

During late 1987 to middle 1988 - the time of the Cuito Cuanavale battles - the Mig-23ML began to be used also as interceptors against the South African Air Force. With the intensification of the conflict by the end of 1987, some aerial combat with the MiG-23s takes place. On 27 September 1987, a couple of MiG-23MLs took off to provide cover for a helicopter rescue mission at the Cuito-Canavale area. They received a ground-based radar warning regarding two South African fighters that had crossed the Angolan air space, heading North. These were two Mirage F1CZs from the SAAF's 3rd Squadron. The MiG-23ML followed the radar instructions to intercept the Mirages, and approached them on a head-on direction. The two pairs of fighters crossed head on, and attempted to get behind each other. The MiG-23ML however, has a clear maneuvering advantage over the inert Mirage F1, and its turning radius is shorter. In a few seconds one pilot manages to position himself behind SAAF Mirage F1CZ "206" and fires from a distance of 300m an R-60MK that exploded in the Mirage's tail. The other Mirage upon seeing the fate of its companion, immediately dives down and leaves the combat, flying very low towards Namibia. The MiG-23MLs consider that the first Mirage has been shot down and attempt to pursue the fleeing Mirage, but they had already reached the limit of their fuel supply, and had to head back to base.

The pilot managed to get out from the combat, albeit with a damaged airplane, dives down in order to go unnoticed, and at the highest possible speed, heads to his base in Rundu, Namibia. The R-60MK missile exploded near the exhaust, and damaged the wings and controls; the braking parachute broke loose, but the worst damage had been done to the hydraulic system, which powered the flight controls, and began to fail. The pilot could hardly control his Mirage F1CZ, and when attempting to land, veered off the runway and crashed, losing the landing gear. Upon impact, the ejection seat activated but the parachute did not have enough time to fully deploy, and hit the ground, heavily. As a result, the pilots spine was severely damaged and he became paralyzed. His Mirage F1CZ "206" is withdrawn from use, and is employed as a parts source to repair Mirage F1 "205" which also had been out of service.

But on 7 June 1988 Castro indicated to the Cuban command in Angola that according to intelligence information the SAAF was planning a surprise attack, and ordered that MiG-23s be prepared to bomb South African bases in Namibia and other objectives in case of such a strike and serve as a warning to South Africa. On 26 June South African troops counterattacked near Chipa. On 27 June eleven Cuban MiG-23MLs with demolition bombs appeared over the hydroelectric dam at Ruacana-Calueque (in Namibia), protected by the South African Army and which provided electricity to most of Namibia. The attack was a total success (13 deaths admitted by the South African forces), the South Africans abandoned the complex, and when Cuban troops arrived several days later, they found all the signs of a disaster: armored vehicles overturned and burned out, blood and blood-soaked pieces of uniforms, and equipment and central installations were either destroyed or damaged. Surprise was complete, and all the MiG-23 returned to base without even a scratch.

The MiG-23 fleet did sustain losses, most of them due to the Stinger shoulder-fired SAMs supplied to the insurgents by the US. UNITA downed a MiG-23ML and a MiG-23UB in 1985, the latter on 9 December 1985. Also, in "General Del Pino Speaks" Rafael Del Pino comments on how three MiG-23s were lost in one week during combat in Angola. When Cuban forces withdrew in 1989 surviving MiG-23MLs were shipped to Cuba and later used by the 23.Regimiento de Caza.

Today the FAR operates 2 multi-purpose regiments and 1 transport regiment.
 

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First Created: 5 November 2003 - Last Revised: 15 April 2008
Copyright © 2003 Erich Klaus.     e-mail: erich.klaus@a1.net