"U.S. Plane Seized, Flown to Havana"

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"U.S. Plane Seized, Flown to Havana"

The Hijacking of National Airlines Flight 337

Newspaper article

By: Milt Sosin

Date: May 1, 1961

Source: The New York Times.

About the Author: Milt Sosin was a newspaper reporter who worked for both the Miami News and the Associated Press. Sosin remained an active journalist until his death at age ninety-two in 2000. His 1975 article regarding the May 1, 1961 hijacking of National Flight NA 337 to Havana is the only known press report to quote hijacker Antulio Ramirez Ortiz, regarding both his role in the execution of the hijacking, and his subsequent attempts to flee Cuba, where he had been granted asylum.

INTRODUCTION

On May 1, 1961, Puerto Rican born Antulio Ramirez Ortiz, a 35-year-old American citizen, locked himself in a forward bathroom compartment of National Airlines Flight 337, bound for Key West from Miami, Florida. He passed a note under the compartment door, claiming that he had a bomb sufficient to destroy the aircraft. Ortiz demanded that the plane be flown to Havana, Cuba.

The National Airlines pilot and crew complied with the threat. The plane was diverted to Havana where Ortiz disembarked without incident. The aircraft then returned to Key West. No one was physically injured and Ortiz was granted immediate asylum by the Cuban government.

Ortiz would ultimately be the subject of prosecution both in Cuba, when he attempted to leave that country in 1962, as well as in the United States, when he returned in 1975.

PRIMARY SOURCE

History's first hijacker of a plane to Cuba told a U.S. magistrate today he became disillusioned with Fidel Castro but it took him 14 years to get back home.

Antulio Ramirez Ortiz said he served two prison terms in Cuba's notorious Morro Castle and La Cabana prisons for a total of six years during his long stay on the island.

Ramirez Ortiz pleaded for release on his own recognizance so he could look for a job. But Magistrate Peter Palermo said his story would have to be checked out first. Meantime, his $25,000 bail was reduced to $10,000.

Now 49, Ramirez Ortiz testified he went to the Swiss Embassy in Havana to seek his return to the United States and even tried to escape the island by raft, getting more prison time after he was picked up by a Cuban vessel.

Finally, after he was released from his second prison term last August, he was permitted to leave. He took a flight to Kingston, Jamaica on Nov. 11, but he spent 10 days there before he could talk to a U.S. embassy official who permitted him to fly to Miami. The official also tipped off the FBI which was waiting to arrest him when he arrived here Nov. 21.

Ramirez Ortiz hijacked a National Airlines two-engine plane to Cuba in 1961—the first such midair piracy. There was not even a federal charge to cover that specific act at the time. He was charged with assault and transporting a stolen aircraft across state lines.

The NAL flight was en route from Key West to Miami with a stop at Marathon, a trip the airline no longer makes.

When the Cuban missile crisis developed in October of 1962, Ramirez Ortiz said, he "could no longer be in sympathy with Castro."

He went to the Swiss embassy and paid for a plane ticket to Mexico, he said, but then was arrested, and charged with espionage. He was sentenced to three years in Morro Castle.

"After I got out, I tried to figure out a way to leave Cuba,." he testified. With another man, whom he did not identify, he built a sailing raft and got to sea for two days. They, spotted a merchant ship—but it turned out to be Russian, he said. His companion went aboard but Ramirez Ortiz stayed on the raft. The Russian ship left the area and the companion was never heard from again.

A Cuban fishing boat picked up Ramirez Ortiz the next day and returned him to Cuba, where he was sentenced to three more years for attempting to escape.

Ramirez Ortiz said that from a New York Times account of the hijacking, which he read in Cuba, he realized he was in trouble back home. He told the embassy in Jamaica, he said, that he would probably face charges.

While in Cuba he worked as a general laborer. He had divorced his second wife before he left the United States and married a woman in Cuba in 1969, he said. His wife left on a Freedom Flight to the United States and is now in California, he said.

His attorney, Michael Osman, told the court that a Miami woman, Marta lbarra, of 525 NE 63rd St., has offered to let the returned hijacker stay in her house until he could get established here.

U.S. Attorney Don Ferguson objected either to rejection of Ramirez Ortiz' bond or his release, even if his story checked out. He said the man had been indicted on charges of a serious crime which carried a substantial prison penalty if conviced. Ferguson also said the prisoner had "no roots" in this community.

But Palermo said, "If this man's story checks out . . . I would he inclined to grant the defendant's release on his own recognizance."

Palermo told government officials to check out the story with the FBI and advise the court on Monday, when another hearing will be held.

SIGNIFICANCE

Ortiz was not the first international aircraft hijacker, a distinction belonging to a group of rebel soldiers who took charge of an aircraft at Arequipa, Peru in 1933, intending to drop propaganda leaflets on Lima. However, this was the first hijacking of an American aircraft. There were four more hijackings in 1961 alone, and 177 hijackings committed worldwide between 1961 and 1969. Over 70 percent of these either originated in Cuba or involved an attempt to divert a flight to Cuba. The expressions "Take me to Havana" and "skyjacking" became a part of the North American lexicon.

Further, the hijacking occurred in the immediate aftermath of the attempted invasion of Cuba by American backed Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, on April 15, 1961. The actions of Ortiz and the immediate grant of his asylum by Cuba took place at a time of extreme political tension between the United States and Cuba.

When Ortiz subsequently had a change of heart regarding his view of both Cuba and Castro, he was jailed for several years for attempting to leave the country.

The events of the Flight 337 hijacking precipitated significant changes to the manner in which the American legal system would regard such acts. As of May 1, 1961, the United States did not have a specific law designed to address an act of air piracy, nor was there any security structure in place to deter such activity. In September 1961, in response to concerns in the United States regarding the safety of air travel and the apparent vulnerability of aircraft to hijackers, President John F. Kennedy implemented the first Sky Marshall program, a policing program that returned to prominence in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks forty years later. President Kennedy also signed into federal law several criminal sanctions for aircraft hijackings, ranging from a minimum of twenty years imprisonment to the death penalty.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Ortiz, Antulio R. Castro's Red Hot Hell. 1963; (unpublished), stored at National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Kennedy Assassination, Doc. 005134.

Web sites

Aviation Saftety Network. "Hijackings." <http://aviation-safety.net/database/record> (accessed July 4, 2005).

Unites States Department of State. "Significant Terrorist Incidents, 1961–2003." <http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/pubs/fs/5902> (accessed July 4, 2005).