During our visit to Havana, we were invited to meet the man whose signature graced our landing permits.
Roberto Brown-Drake, Chief of Flight Planning and Flight Permits for the Cuban Civil Aviation Agency, under the auspices of the Cuban Air Force, spoke with us shortly after our arrival.
The shelves in his office display dozens and dozens of model aircraft with which he has had some connection. He obviously likes things with wings, having begun his aviation career as a navigator in a DC-4.
Courteous and hospitable, he claimed to speak poor English, but, like most educated Cubans I met, it was really quite good. We were soon joined by my fellow American participants, who chose to continue the interview in Spanish. Any lapses in accuracy, therefore, may be laid squarely at the feet of this linguistically-challenged reporter.
A little background: Over half a century ago, Cuba had a thriving general aviation community. The largest island in the Caribbean had airfields serving towns from one end to the other. All that ended in 1959. The privately-owned airplanes capable of crossing the 90 miles of water between the U.S. and Cuba, apparently did so.
The transition from a fairly open society, despite corruption and huge economic gap between rich and poor, to a closed one was hard, and many fled. Cuba was transformed. What had been a society, in which the relatively well-off could take advantage of the freedom of the skies, transitioned to a government that instituted strict controls, soon dictating nearly every facet of its people’s lives.
The American embargo further isolated the island, and general aviation for, by, and of Cuban citizens was no more.
Only now are the strictures imposed by both governments beginning to loosen. The thawing of economic relationships with the U.S. presents Brown and his offices with some real aviation challenges.
American pilots look at a map of Cuba and see many long runways, and being Americans, see no reason why they shouldn’t land there to explore our beautiful tropical neighbor’s countryside.
Those outlying civilian airfields fell into disrepair, though, and most have no fuel, no hangars, no repair services or parts, no lights, no approaches, no facilities for handling passengers or providing the many functions of a general aviation airport. Perhaps most importantly, they can’t provide the security and oversight the Cuban government still requires.
So Brown has a dilemma on his hands. On one hand, he can see the economic value — in fact, the inevitability — of much-increased tourism from the United States, including private aviation, and on the other, he must consider the difficulties of working within an economically-strapped system that still needs to exert strict central control. Obviously, it is difficult to know what to do with these free-wheeling American pilots and their little airplanes.
A political pragmatist, he knows that on a fundamental level, his government is unlikely to open its skies to all comers. He sees a need for positive control of all aircraft, so he says there will be no VFR flying in Cuba on his watch.
Furthermore, his personal opinion is that “General aviation and commercial aviation should not mix.”
Havana’s international airport has but a single runway and, especially in poor weather, it’s a major challenge to get airliners in expeditiously, even without adding little airplanes to the mix.
To that end, Brown is serving on a task force to find a solution for welcoming more GA flights to Cuba, perhaps eventually opening a second Havana-area executive airport to handle international corporate and private flights.
It seems that commercial aviation is on the fast track to being normalized, with the recent approval of American scheduled flights directly to Havana, flights American tourists will be able to book online on their own.
“We’re expecting more tourism with commercial aviation, and this is a necessity if Cuba is to grow and evolve,” admitted Brown.
To that end, he needs to find the resources to upgrade Havana’s international airport facilities to accommodate and process the thousands of new visitors arriving daily on commercial airlines, and that squeaky wheel will obviously get the first allocation of bureaucratic grease.
Then there’s the business of upgrading facilities for general aviation and inter-island tourism. Terminal 5’s makeshift GA space is obviously a far cry from the FBOs at major American airports, Brown admits with candor.
“We are pioneers. We are not prepared to support general aviation,” he said. “We have to work on that. At some point we will get there, maybe with other companies.”
So perhaps in a few years, there will be a branch of one of the big American FBOs at Jose Marti International Airport, with soaring spaces and cushy pilot lounges. It’s just a guess, but Havana’s already impressive ramp fees, handling fees, fuel prices, are not likely to go down with this potential improvement.
One area where Cuban support of GA shines is the expertise and seamless handling of Cuban air traffic control. Brown is rightly proud of this professional cooperation between Cuba and her big neighbor to the north.
“Relationships between Cuban controllers and U.S. controllers are superb,” he said. “There are busy routes over Cuban airspace from the U.S., so good relationships and communication is important. Even when we were nearly at war, the controllers still had meetings and honored letters of agreement on airspace.”
So, Cuba is, in the chief’s estimation, not truly ready for GA prime time. But change is coming, and Roberto Brown-Drake is helping to lead the way, gently and carefully.