Stowaway in the Landing Gear
The thrilling story of a teen who made a daring escape from Cuba—in the frigid belly of a transatlantic DC-8 jet. An RD Classic from the January 1970 edition
The jet engines of the Iberia Airlines DC-8 thundered in an earsplitting crescendo as the big plane taxied towards where we huddled in the tall grass just off the end of the runway at Havana’s José Martí Airport. For months, my friend Jorge Pérez Blanco and I had been planning to stow away in a wheel well on this flight, No. 904, Iberia’s weekly non-stop run from Havana to Madrid. Now, in the late afternoon of 3 June 1969, 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 made carefully. We knew that departing airliners taxied to the end of the 11,500-foot runway, stopped momentarily after turning around, and then roared at full throttle down the runway 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 on to the runway and sprinted towards the left-hand wheels of the momentarily stationary plane. As Jorge began to scramble up the 42-inch-high tyres, I saw there was not room for us both in the single well. “I’ll try the other side!” I shouted. I climbed quickly on to 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 take-off, 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 upwards, squeezing me 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, 63-kilo frame literally wedged in amid a spaghetti-like maze of conduits and machinery. I could not move enough to tie myself to anything.
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 whether I had been spotted, whether even now the plane was turning back to hand me over to [Fidel] Castro’s police.
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 tyres 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 shirt and green fatigues.
Up in the cockpit of the DC-8, Captain Valentin Vara del Rey, 44, had settled into the routine of the overnight flight, which would last eight hours and 20 minutes. Take-off had been normal, with the aircraft and its 147 passengers, plus a crew of 10, lifting off at 273 kph. But right after lift-off, something unusual had happened. A light on the instrument panel had remained on, 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 lowered 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 levelling out, he observed that the temperature outside was 41 degrees below zero.
Shivering uncontrollably from the bitter cold, I wondered if Jorge had made it into the other wheel well, and I began thinking about what had brought me to this desperate situation. I thought about my parents and my girlfriend, María Esther, and wondered what they would think when they learnt 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. Food was scarce and strictly rationed. About the only fun I had was playing baseball and walking with María Esther along the sea-wall. 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 gotten to America and done well there. As the time approached when 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 was a waiting list of 8,00,000 for these flights. Also, if you signed up to leave, the government looked at you as a gusano—a worm—and life became even less bearable.
My hopes seemed futile. Then I met Jorge at a Havana baseball game. We got to talking. I found out that Jorge, like me, 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 light-headed. 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? María 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 8,952‑km flight in sight, Captain Vara del Rey began his descent toward Madrid’s Barajas Airport. Arrival would be at 8 a.m. local time, he 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 manoeuver was accompanied by a buffeting as the wheels hit the slipstream and a 322 kph turbulence swirled through the wheel wells. Now the plane went into its final approach; now, a spurt of flame and smoke from the tyres as the DC-8 touched down at about 225 kph. It was a perfect landing—no bumps. After a brief postflight 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 Ramirez fell to the concrete apron beneath the plane. José 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 Lorenzana said. “All he did was make a strange sound—a kind of moan.”
“I couldn’t believe it at first,” Vara del Rey said. “But then I went over to see him. He had ice over his nose and mouth. And his colour ...” As he watched the unconscious boy being bundled into a truck, 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 have been put in prison in Cuba.)
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 José María Pajares, who cared for me, called my survival a medical miracle, and, in truth, I feel lucky to be alive.
[Editor’s note: Experts cited at the time of Socarras Ramirez’s flight estimated that at an altitude of 29,000 feet and a temperature of 41 degrees below zero—the approximate conditions in the wheel bed that day—a person would be expected to live only a few minutes. An engineer said the chances of not being crushed by the retracting double wheels were “one in a million.”]
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, who lives in New Jersey, telephoned and invited me to come 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.
Armando Socarras Ramirez is now 69 and lives in Virginia. He retired from the transportation industry. He and his wife have four children and 12 grandchildren.