Ismael Hernández Chirino felt enormous relief when he finally saw land: he had been praying to the sky for some time that the fabric wing of the glider that kept him high above the Straits of Florida would not tear.
It had been almost two hours since Ismael and his friend* had escaped from their native Cuba, and this was the first time they had seen anything other than water, sky, and 4-meter waves crashing beneath their feet.
“We saw land after an hour and 50 minutes of flight,” Ismael told BBC Mundo, “we followed the beach line until I could see the international airport.”
Under their feet finally stretched the United States and the dream of a future in which the scarcity that they had to live with for so long on the island would be barely a memory.
Ismael and his colleague are part of an exodus that has seen more than 425,000 Cubans arrive in the northern country between 2022 and 2023.according to figures from the US Border Control Agency.
Analysts assure that the current wave of Cuban migration is greater than that experienced in the 90s, during the so-called “rafters crisis.”
But Ismael had not arrived on a raft, but on a glider for short flights and he still had the most difficult part of his journey to go, he still had to land.
Although Ismael’s partner has been identified in other publications, at BBC Mundo we omit his name at Ismael’s request.
love for flight
Despite his youth, Ismael had a large number of jobs before leaving Cuba: he worked in carpentry at his parents’ house in Havana, he was a cardboard cutter, and a welder.
But of all of them, the job he enjoyed the most was the one he got right after graduating from school, with the maritime mission of the Cuban border guard troops.
“I graduated from high school and almost learned to fly these airplanes.“, says Ismael, referring to the motorized hang glider he used to get to the US. “We were in charge of surveillance, checking that no drug shipments were coming, just surveillance work.”
It was a pilot program that the Cuban government tried to implement using these small aircraft to support coastal surveillance efforts.
Ismael explains that the job was a dream come true: “I really have to say that since I was little I know that what I want is to fly.”.
“Lifelong. Since the first time I saw a plane. Since he was a louse that could lift a meter off the ground. “I knew that what I wanted was to fly.”
The work with the guard, however, did not last long.
Budget cuts meant hang gliders were replaced by other, cheaper surveillance methods and Ismael ended up working in the tourism sector, as a taxi driver for local and foreign travelers arriving in Havana.
Ismael says that while working as a taxi driver, he met a friend who was involved in a new program that the Aviation Club – attached to the Cuban Ministry of Transportation – wanted to implement to promote tourism: use motorized hang gliders to the delight of tourists.
“He calls me and tells me: ‘Look, you’re not on the list. [del programa] but there everyone is afraid of this device. If you want to come, and show your face…’. And that’s when I ran away.”
Having flown the ships before, Ismael became part of the pilot team almost immediately and began to accumulate flight hours, an experience that, without knowing it, would end up being indispensable during his subsequent journey.
The idea of leaving Cuba, Ismael says, arose almost “from one day to the next,” when the island’s economic crisis also began to threaten the Aviation Club program.. The surveillance of the ships, for example, began to be carried out by fewer and fewer people, including Ismael.
“The last two weeks it was just my friend and I [cuidando el planeador]. It was like the rabbit was guarding the carrot.”.
“One day I was taking care of the plane when my friend comes and says: ‘Well, what do we do?’ That same day we prepared everything, we got fuel, we managed to make the modifications to the little plane to be able to arrive and the next morning, we took off.”.
Without even notifying their relatives, Ismael and his partner took off from a rented house near Havana, guided only by the GPS of a mobile phone.
Trying to stay focused, Ismael kept checking that all the parts of the worn-out aircraft were working properly, but his head couldn’t stop wandering.
“I became very nervous, very tense at that moment when I realized that I only saw sea and sea and sea, and that there was not a single piece of sand to fall on. And it gets more complicated when you look down to see two and three meter waves.”
On March 25, 2023, after 1 hour and 50 minutes of grueling flight, Key West, the southernmost point of the continental US, appeared on the horizon. But the most dangerous part of the trip was still to come, land the glider at Key West International Airport without having communication with the air authorities.
“I made the final approach and, well, I got rid of it because it was quite complicated,” says the young man, still surprised at having achieved a feat that seemed impossible everywhere.
“I slipped between two planes, one that was entering and another that was about to take the runway.. Thank goodness they saw me.”
Chaos took over the runway, with airport agents and several authorities arriving to see what had happened.
“When I arrived in Key West the firefighters arrived because the plane’s suspension broke and it was stuck in the middle of the runway. And when the border agents arrived they told me ‘don’t tell me, they are Cubans’”.
Ismael and his colleague were placed under the custody of the US immigration authorities and had to pass 6 months in an immigration detention center.
On April 4, The Aviation Club published a statement in which it classified the action as a “clear violation of Cuban airspace.”a “theft,” and asked for the aircraft to be returned.
BBC Mundo tried to obtain statements from the Cuban authorities in reference to the case but, until the time of publication of this article, it had not received a response.
The Cuban drama
Cuba has been facing an economic and energy crisis that some experts compare to the so-called “special period” that the island experienced during the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union.
For Ismael, it is clear that this was the same reason that prompted him to embark on such a journey: “We were going to lose our jobs, we already had a complicated situation because we had invested all our savings in order to be able to fly these devices with tourists, but everything indicated that we were going to have to close.”
“Being on the street, going hungry and our family going hungry, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”.
Today, from the other side of the strait that cost him so much effort to cross, Ismael sees things with different eyes: “I have the best impression of the United States, the first few days I almost didn’t sleep seeing so many things that I never thought would happen.” see”.
He currently lives in Tampa with his girlfriend, and is waiting for some paperwork to be resolved so he can start working.
What is certain is that he continues with his eyes set in the air, looking for the possibility of working in the aviation sector, trying to recreate that feeling he had when he finally managed to see Florida on the horizon.
“It was almost like feeling like the king of the world, like everything was too small for me. Flying has that, it frees you from everything… It gives you a different point of view, it makes you feel that there is no problem that has no solution.”
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