The jet engines of the Iberia Airlines DC-8 thundered in earsplitting crescendo as the big plane taxied toward where we huddled in the tall grass just off the end of the runway at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport. For months, my friend Jorge Perez Blanco and I had been planning to stow away in a wheel well on this flight, No. 904—Iberia’s once weekly, nonstop run from Havana to Madrid. Now, in the late afternoon of last June 3, our moment had come.
We realized that we were pretty young to be taking such a big gamble; I was 17, Jorge 16. But we were both determined to escape from Cuba, and our plans had been carefully made. We knew that departing airliners taxied to the end of the 11,500-foot runway, stopped momentarily after turning around, then roared at full-throttle down the run way to take off. We wore rubber-soled shoes to aid us in crawling up the wheels and carried ropes to secure ourselves inside the wheel well. We had also stuffed cotton in our ears as protection against the shriek of the four jet engines. Now we lay sweating with fear as the massive craft swung into its about face, the jet blast flattening the grass all around us. “Let’s run!” I shouted to Jorge.
We dashed onto the runway and sprinted toward the left-hand wheels of the momentarily stationary plane. As Jorge began to scramble up the 42-inch-high tires, I saw there was not room for us both in the single well. “I’ll try the other side!” I shouted. Quickly I climbed onto the right wheels, grabbed a strut and, twisting and wriggling, pulled myself into the semi-dark well. The plane began rolling immediately, and I grabbed some machinery to keep from falling out. The roar of the engines nearly deafened me.
As we became airborne, the huge double wheels, scorching hot from takeoff, began folding into the compartment. I tried to flatten myself against the overhead as they came closer and closer; then, in desperation, I pushed at them with my feet. But they pressed powerfully upward, squeezing me terrifyingly against the roof of the well. Just when I felt that I would be crushed, the wheels locked in place and the bay doors beneath them closed, plunging me into darkness. So there I was, my five-foot-four-inch, 140 pound frame literally wedged in amid a spaghetti-like maze of conduits and machinery. I could not move enough to tie myself to anything, so I stuck my rope behind a pipe.
Then, before I had time to catch my breath, the bay doors suddenly dropped open again and the wheels stretched out into their landing position. I held on for dear life, swinging over the abyss, wondering if I had been spotted, if even now the plane was turning back to hand me over to Castro’s police.
Content continues below ad
By the time the wheels began retracting again, I had seen a bit of extra space among all the machinery where I could safely squeeze. Now I knew there was room for me, even though I could scarcely breathe. After a few minutes, I touched one of the tires and found that it had cooled off. I swallowed some aspirin tablets against the head-splitting noise, and began to wish that I had worn something warmer than my light sport jacket and green fatigues.
Up in the cockpit of Flight 904, Capt. Valentin Vara del Rey, 44, had settled into the routine of the overnight flight, which would last 8 hours and 20 minutes. Takeoff had been normal, with the aircraft and its 147 passengers, plus a crew of ten, lifting off at 170 mph. But, right after lift-off, something unusual had happened. One of three red lights on the instrument panel had remained lighted, indicating improper retraction of the landing gear.
“Are you having difficulty?” the control tower asked.
“Yes,” replied Vara del Rey. “There is an indication that the right wheel hasn’t closed properly. I’ll repeat the procedure.”
The captain relowered the landing gear, then raised it again. This time the red light blinked out.
Dismissing the incident as a minor malfunction, the captain turned his attention to climbing to assigned cruising altitude. On leveling out, he observed that the temperature outside was—41 degrees F. Inside, the pretty stewardess began serving dinner to the passengers.
Shivering uncontrollably from the bitter cold, I wondered if Jorge had made it into the other wheel well, and began thinking about what had brought me to this desperate situation. I thought about my parents and my girl, Maria Esther, and wondered what they would think when they learned what I had done.
My father is a plumber, and I have four brothers and a sister. We are poor, like most Cubans. Our house in Havana has just one large room; 11 people live in it—or did. Food was scarce and strictly rationed. About the only fun I had was playing baseball and walking with Maria Esther along the seawall. When I turned 16, the government shipped me off to vocational school in Betancourt, a sugarcane village in Matanzas Province. There I was supposed to learn welding, but classes were often interrupted to send us off to plant cane.
Young as I was, I was tired of living in a state that controlled everyone’s life. I dreamed of freedom. I wanted to become an artist and live in the United States, where I had an uncle. I knew that thousands of Cubans had got to America and done well there. As the time approached when I thought I would be drafted, I thought more and more of trying to get away. But how? I knew that two planeloads of people were allowed to leave Havana for Miami each day, but there is a waiting list of 800,000 for these flights. Also, if you sign up to leave, the government looks on you as a gusano—a worm—and life becomes even less bearable.
Content continues below ad
My hopes seemed futile. Then I met Jorge at a Havana baseball game. After the game we got to talking. I found out that Jorge, like myself, was disillusioned with Cuba. “The system takes away your freedom—forever,” he complained.
Jorge told me about the weekly flight to Madrid. Twice we went to the airport to reconnoiter. Once a DC-8 took off and flew directly over us; the wheels were still down, and we could see into the well compartments. “There’s enough room in there for me,” I remember saying.
These were my thoughts as I lay in the freezing darkness more than five miles above the Atlantic Ocean. By now we had been in the air about an hour, and I was getting lightheaded from the lack of oxygen. Was it really only a few hours earlier that I had bicycled through the rain with Jorge and hidden in the grass? Was Jorge safe? My parents? Maria Esther? I drifted into unconsciousness.
The sun rose over the Atlantic like a great golden globe, its rays glinting off the silver-and-red fuselage of Iberia’s DC-8 as it crossed the European coast high over Portugal. With the end of the 5563-mile flight in sight, Captain Vara del Rey began his descent toward Madrid’s Barajas Airport. Arrival would be at 8 a.m. local time, the captain told his passengers over the intercom, and the weather in Madrid was sunny and pleasant.
Shortly after passing over Toledo, Vara del Rey let down his landing gear. As always, the maneuver was accompanied by a buffeting as the wheels hit the slipstream and a 200-mph turbulence swirled through the wheel wells. Now the plane went into its final approach; now, a spurt of flame and smoke from the tires as the DC-8 touched down at about 140 mph.
It was a perfect landing—no bumps. After a brief post-flight check, Vara del Rey walked down the ramp steps and stood by the nose of the plane waiting for a car to pick him up, along with his crew.
Nearby, there was a sudden, soft plop as the frozen body of Armando Socarras fell to the concrete apron beneath the plane. Jose Rocha Lorenzana, a security guard, was the first to reach the crumpled figure. “When I touched his clothes, they were frozen as stiff as wood,” Rocha said. “All he did was make a strange sound, a kind of moan.”
“I couldn’t believe it at first,” Vara del Rey said when told of Armando. “But then I went over to see him. He had ice over his nose and mouth. And his color…” As he watched the unconscious boy being bundled into a trucks, the captain kept exclaiming to himself, “Impossible! Impossible!”
The first thing I remember after losing consciousness was hitting the ground at the Madrid airport. Then I blacked out again and woke up later at the Gran Hospital de la Beneficencia in downtown Madrid, more dead than alive. When they took my temperature, it was so low that it did not even register on the thermometer. “Am I in Spain?” was my first question. And then, “Where’s Jorge?” (Jorge is believed to have been knocked down by the jet blast while trying to climb into the other wheel well, and to be in prison in Cuba.)
Content continues below ad
Doctors said later that my condition was comparable to that of a patient undergoing “deep freeze” surgery—a delicate process performed only under carefully controlled conditions. Dr. Jose Maria Pajares, who cared for me, called my survival a “medical miracle,” and, in truth, I feel lucky to be alive.
A few days after my escape, I was up and around the hospital, playing cards with my police guard and reading stacks of letters from all over the world. I especially liked one from a girl in California. “You are a hero,” she wrote, “but not very wise.” My uncle, Elo Fernandez, who lives in New Jersey, telephoned and invited me to come to the United States to live with him. The International Rescue Committee arranged my passage, and has continued to help me.
I am fine now. I live with my uncle, and go to school to learn English. I still hope to study to be an artist. I want to be a good citizen and contribute something to this country, for I love it here. You can smell freedom in the air.
I often think of my friend Jorge. We both knew the risk we were taking, and that we might be killed in our attempt to escape Cuba. But it seemed worth the chance. Even knowing the risks, I would try to escape again if I had to.
More About Survival Stories
What You’re Sharing
- 24 Stories About the Touching Kindness of Strangers That’ll Make You Tear Up
- Watch the Seasons Change on One of the Nicest Hidden Streets in America
- This Dad Makes Halloween Costumes For Kids in Wheelchairs–and You NEED to See Them
- 17 Extraordinary Stories of Giving—From People Just Like You and Me
- The First Thanksgiving of This Immigrant Family Who Lived in a Tent While Dad Built Them a House Will Give You Chills