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“Take This Plane to Cuba”: Remembering the Hijackings of the 1960s

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: February 14, 2023

A man who hijacked a plane in 1968 and forced it to Cuba has surrendered after 41 years on the lam. In the 1960s and early ’70s, before stringent screening and metal detectors at airports, it was a common occurrence for flights to be hijacked and diverted to Cuba.

Hijacker Surrenders After 41 Years

Luis Armando Pena Soltren surrendered to U.S. authorities Sunday, 41 years after he hijacked a Pan American flight and diverted it to Cuba. He will appear in court Tuesday to face charges of kidnapping and aircraft piracy.

Soltren, a U.S. citizen, was one of three men to hijack the plane, which left New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport bound for Puerto Rico on Nov. 24, 1968. Using knives and guns they smuggled aboard, they forced their way into the cockpit and ordered the pilot to land in Havana. No crew or passengers were killed during the hijacking.

During the late 1960s, it was fairly common for commercial planes to be hijacked and diverted to Cuba; according to The Times of London, there were more than 30 attempts in 1968 alone. Most of these hijackings were made as a political statement or as a way around the travel ban to Cuba.

Background: Hijackings of the 1960s and ’70s

The first hijacking of an aircraft was made by Peruvian activists in 1930, according to PBS. The first commercial flight was hijacked 18 years later in Macau, resulting in the death of all but one person aboard.

Hijackings remained infrequent until the late 1950s, when they would increase after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. Originally, it was anti-Castro Cubans hijacking planes from Cuba and escaping to the U.S., but that changed in 1961, after the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba.

On May 1, just weeks after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Puerto Rico-native Antulio Ramirez Ortiz, who wanted to migrate to Cuba, hijacked a plane and flew it to Cuba. He became the first man to hijack a plane in the U.S.

Four other planes were hijacked that year, and there were sporadic hijackings in the followings years, mostly by “homesick Cubans or politically motivated leftists,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica.

There was a surge in hijackings of U.S. planes from 1968 to 1972, peaking in 1969. Hijackings became so common that “[a]irliners carried approach plans for the Havana airport and crews were instructed not to resist hijackers. There were also standard diplomatic procedures for obtaining the return of planes and passengers, writes Robert T. Holden of Indiana University.

The nature of hijackings began to change during this period, as more began to be made as part of extortion attempts, especially in the Middle East. Palestinian and other Arab militants hijacked planes to garner attention for their cause, secure the release of prisoners and receive ransom payments. These hijackings could become violent, and passengers were put at risk.

Sources in this Story

  • The Times of London: Pan Am hijacker surrenders after 41 years on the run
  • University of Central Florida: Pegasus: The Contagiousness of Aircraft Hijacking
  • Latin American Studies: (The Miami Herald): Hijacker: Cuba Suspected Spying
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Hijacking
  • University of Maryland: National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START): Testing a rational choice model of airline hijackings (PDF)
  • PBS: Hijacked: Flight Crews and Airport Security
  • National Academies Press (National Materials Advisory Board): Airline Passenger Security Screening: New Technologies and Implementation Issues (1996)

Stricter Laws, Safety Measures Curtail Hijackings

The wave of Cuban hijackings began to slow in the 1970s due to anti-hijacking laws and improved airport security measures. In October 1970, the Cuban government made hijacking a crime; that December, 50 countries signed the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (the Hague Convention), which outlined the illegal seizure of a plane and laid out the obligations of signing countries in capturing and trying hijackers.

The U.S. and Cuban governments also developed an agreement to deal with hijackers. The U.S. State Department provides documents outlining the agreement.

The hijacking of four planes by Palestinian militant on Sept. 6, 1970, spurred widespread changes in aviation safety procedures. President Richard Nixon responded by ordering that armed federal agents ride on planes as air marshals.

Furthermore, he oversaw the creation of an anti-hijacking program under the Federal Aviation Administration to install “surveillance equipment and techniques” in U.S. airports. In January 1972, the FAA ordered tighter screening of passengers and baggage.

Following a hijacking that December, the FAA issued emergency procedures that are “almost identical” to the procedures used over the next several decades, according to the National Materials Advisory Board. In January 1973, metal detectors began to be installed in airports, greatly improving security.

Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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