On March 19, 1964 a helicopter piloted by two Cuban refugees descended, at 1420 hours, local time, upon Key west International Airport. The fact that this flight had not been detected understandably prompted a query from Department of the Army and the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding radar surveillance arrangements at Key West.
The answer to this question was complex. The DEFCON being 5 (normal operations) at the time of the incident, the NCC’s Air Force AN/FPS-67 radar was responsible for surveillance; at 1400 hours this radar went down for maintenance. The surveillance mission was passed to a radar picket ship southeast of Key West and to airborne radar in the vicinity of the 24th parallel. ARADCOM’s Key West Defense at the time had an AN/GSS-7 surveillance type radar as a supplement to its HAWK acquisition radars, but when this radar was offered in the surveillance role, the NCC’s reply to the Air Defense Artillery Liaison Officer was that “this would not be necessary”. In the meantime, the airborne radar reportedly acquired the Cuban helicopter while it was still south of the 24th parallel, but the NCC erroneously correlated this track as friendly and then contact was lost. At 1456 hours, 36 minutes after the helicopter landed at Key West, the NCC requested the Key West ADA Defense to provide “forward tell” surveillance. The Army’s radar was used for this purpose until the NCC’s Air Force radar returned to action at 1545 hours.
Despite the relatively blameless role of the Key West Defense in this embarrassing concatenation of events an existent ADA weakness was suggested by this incident. This was the discomfiting fact that the Key West Defense, even had it been given a surveillance mission in time to spot the helicopter, would in all likelihood have been unable to do so. Its AN/GSS-7 radar had at best a limited low-altitude capability; furthermore, it had a damaged, unaligned antenna which had gone without repair since its installation at Key West in 1963. As far as the CWAR and PAR in the HAWK Batteries, their inherent limitations with respect to target speed and altitude would have made it impossible for them to pick up a low-flying helicopter.
In August 1968 another undetected penetration of Florida’s air defenses was made by a Cuban aircraft. Fortunately, this was another flight to freedom by anti-Castro refugees, rather than a “mad dog” on the loose. Packing 13 other refugees aboard a stolen Soviet built AN-2 single-engine biplane used as a crop-duster, the 26 year old pilot took off early in the morning of August 15 from Cardenas, about 80 miles to the east of Havana and headed across the straits of Florida for Homestead. Flying less than its normal cruise speed of 100 knots, the plane was flown along the tops of waves at an average altitude of six feet in order to avoid detection by Cuban and United States radar. The plane landed at Homestead General Aviation Airport at 0855 hours on the 15th.
This incident coincided with a visit to the Florida Defenses by Lt. Gen G.V. Underwood, Jr. who on July 1, 1968 had become Commanding General of ARADCOM. While at Key West on August 15 General Underwood had questioned the NORAD-prescribed alert status of the defense, in which one firing section in 25% of the fire units were on one hour alert and all other sections either on three hour alert or released status. Upon his arrival at Homestead on August 16 and discovery of the crop-duster incident, the conviction of ARADCOM’s new CG that a higher state of alert should prevail at Key West crystallized into an on-the-spot decision to augment the five minute alert status of ADC interceptors with a five minute radar surveillance alert status for Key West’s ADA Defense.
Normally, one firing section in one battery would now be on a modified five minute state of alert; one firing section would be on one hour alert; and all other firing sections, unless released, on three hour state of alert. Both of the two principal modifications to ARADCOMs customary five minute alert manning and equipment requirements reflected increased upon surveillance. connection of the umbilical assembly which permits firing of the HAWK missile, as well as the manning of such tactical positions as firing consoles, were omitted from the requirements of this new state of surveillance alert.
1969 Cuban defector lands MiG in Miami
In an embarrassing breach of the United States’ air defense capability, a Cuban defector enters U.S. air space undetected and lands his Soviet-made MiG-17 at Homestead Air Force Base near Miami, Florida, where the presidential aircraft Air Force One is waiting to return President Richard M. Nixon to Washington. The base is subsequently put on continuous alert, and opens a new tracking facility within a few weeks in order to prevent the repetition of a similar incident in the future.
On 5 October 1969 Lieutenant Eduardo Guerra Jimenez landed MiG-17AS number 232 at Homestead AFB, Florida. The aircraft was returned to Cuba, but before it left some of its interesting features were captured in both official and unofficial photos of the event. Of particular note, K-13 “Atoll” missile rails characteristic of the AS – were mounted under its outer wings. It was painted light gray overall instead of natural metal (except the drop tanks, which were bare metal except for a red nose cap), and its fuselage insignia was just a star in an inverted triangle without the blue disk.
According to one source the DAAFAR team which recovered the aircraft came in on a transport which had been hastily modified with reconnaissance equipment. As might be expected, this impromptu spyplane suffered “navigational errors” and overflew several sensitive US installations – the Turkey Point nuclear power station being mentioned specifically – during the course of its mission.
Guerra Jimenez was one of the squadron commanders in the Santa Clara regiment. Because of his defection a great purge was made of the FAR leadership, during which pilot friends of Guerra and even those simply thought to be acquainted with foreigners suffered expulsion from the FAR.
Tom Lyons provided these pictures of a Cuban plane that landed on Hwy 1 near Big Pine Key, in 1964. Tom was stationed at Charlie Battery on Saddlebunch Key and took these pictures. The Navy left guards on the plane and strapped large pieces of lumber on the wings. Later they removed the wings put it on a big truck and transported it down to Key West. Present location is unknown.