How I Hijacked a Plane & Spent the Next 44 Years Living in Cuba

DURING THE 1960S AND EARLY ‘70S,dozens of American citizens hijacked commercial airliners and took them to Cuba. Most of them were young radicals of one stripe or another; many were black nationalists. Before Washington and Havana signed the Anti-Air Piracy Act of 1973 in a joint attempt to stop an almost comical flow of airplanes south, many of the "skyjackers," as they were called at the time, received asylum from Castro’s Cuba upon landing. One of these men was Charlie Hill, a 22-year-old revolutionary with a group called the Republic of New Afrika. Hill arrived in Havana by way of an unscheduled stop on a TWA plane in November 1971, punctuating an unlikely escape from a statewide manhunt in New Mexico. Then and still the subject of a warrant for the murder of a New Mexico police officer, Hill is among the last remaining refugees from last century’s high tide of skyjacking. He is now 67 years old and beginning to go frail. He receives a Cuban pension of 200 pesos ($10) a month, which isn’t enough to live on, and supplements it with occasional tour guide work.

This autumn, while working in Havana, I met him through his lawyer, a Denver-based civil rights attorney named Jason Flores-Williams, and I got to know him well over hours spent talking about his life in the US, Vietnam, and Cuba. These conversations usually sprawled over plates of chicken and yellow rice, followed by harsh Cuban cigarettes and beer.

Since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, calls for Hill’s extradition have been growing. And while Cuba has repeatedly said that the radical refugees are off the negotiating table, Hill feels his future is more uncertain than at any time since his arrival on the island. "I don’t go near the new US embassy," he says. "That’s US soil."

Hill still considers himself a revolutionary. But like most Cubans, most of his energy is by necessity channeled into surviving in a rapidly changing Cuba. Here’s his life, in his own words:

Courtesy of Kadri Koop

I was born in rural Illinois, the son of a brick mason. I didn’t live around other black people until I moved to Oakland for high school. Back then Oakland was a prosperous black middle-class city. People made good livings working on the docks. The politics started to get heavy around 1965. I remember a white policeman was beating a black teenager, and people gathered and started throwing rocks and bottles. After the Watts riots in LA that year, Oakland exploded. The Panthers were active in my neighborhood around the time my friends started coming back from ‘Nam in body bags.

I turned 17 in November of 1966. They couldn’t send you into combat until you were 18, so enlisting at 17 was a kind of safe compromise. The peace movement was encouraging kids to do it. I signed up and spent two years in Stuttgart working in logistics. There was racism on the base, but I loved Europe. I traveled all over -- Italy, Denmark, Germany. I was on leave in Oakland when the Tet Offensive happened in January ‘68. The Army was low on infantry and artillery and they needed people to send to the bush. I didn’t expect the order. When it came, I thought, "You’re not gonna get my ass." I was considering my options when one morning armed CID [military police] agents made a surprise visit at my door in Oakland. They escorted me to the airport.

They can call me a coward all they want, but I made up my mind not to go back. You motherfuckers ain’t gonna see me no more.

I was deployed to a recon unit in Phu Bai, near the DMZ. Right away, I was in multiple firefights a day. We were fighting Vietcong and AVN [North Vietnamese Army]. The AVN were tough, man. They were well trained and well armed. They weren’t little guerrilla groups. They had Russian Grad-P rockets -- that’s a huge motherfucker, a huge mortar. They were really fighting for something. But what was I doing there? It didn’t make no sense.

After four months, I decided to go AWOL. They can call me a coward all they want, but I made up my mind not to go back. You motherfuckers ain’t gonna see me no more.

When I got back to Camp Eagle, I took some C-rations up to a bunker up on a hill. I sent word to the sergeant I was AWOL. At court martial, they busted me to zero rank, gave me a suspended sentence, and sent me back into the bush. I went AWOL again. This time they sent me to Long Binh Jail to fill sandbags. Everyone at LBJ was burnt up, a little cracked and crazy. A black officer tried to give me a week in the hole for not stopping on command. I said, "Fuck you, motherfucker," and punched him in the face. They beat me to a pulp. Everything felt like it was at the end of a tunnel, voices through a fog. They sent me to a minimum compound for bed rest. The food was dynamite. During my recovery, an Army shrink asked me how I felt. I said, "Let’s see, I'm in some bullshit war, back home they’re killing my people. How the fuck you think I feel?"

After being discharged in May of 1970, I went back to Oakland and linked up with my political cousin. He’d joined a group called the Republic of New Afrika. When I analyzed their program of reclaiming the Deep South for black people, it was like, yeah, that makes sense. What happened to our 40 acres and a mule? I did the math: 30 million black people times 40 acres basically equals the area of the Deep South. The RNA had a school in San Francisco. We taught children mathematics, black history, and self-defense. We got slightly damaged goods that had been donated, maintained a food kitchen and breakfasts for the kids, and offered free daycare for poor moms who couldn’t get off work until late. It was a community thing.

There was a TWA flight to Chicago at 10:55pm. We decided to be on it.

In August of 1971, things got real hot. The FBI attacked RNA headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. They came with armoured personnel carriers and machine guns. Razed the house. Me and two comrades decided to drive to Mississippi to rebuild the headquarters. We were on our way when we were pulled over outside of Albuquerque.

[Ed. Note: Hill’s lawyer, Jason Flores-Williams, comments on the night in question at the bottom of this page.]

We ditched the car and went to a friend’s house. He later got five years for aiding and abetting. I knew they’d track the car, so we left the house a couple of hours before the police arrived. We spent nearly three weeks in a hole in the desert. Hot during the day, freezing cold at night. We put sagebrush and a beat-up couch over us. Not much water, not much food. Were going to die or get found if we didn’t come up with a plan. So we decided to hijack a plane to Cuba. I walked down to a gas station near the airport to find out about flights and get some food. It was around Thanksgiving. There was a TWA flight to Chicago at 10:55pm. We decided to be on it.

They had just remodeled the Albuquerque airport, but you still had to walk out to the plane. That was key. Otherwise I don’t know how we was gonna get on the plane. At 9, we were still figuring out how to get on the tarmac. We came up with the idea of commandeering a tow truck. At about a quarter to 11, we busted through the gate, got out, and started walking toward the plane. I got on the ground with an M1 to provide cover, and told Ralph and Michael [Hill’s comrades], "If you hear shooting, keep walking." I stayed down in position until they were inside. Then I joined them. We could already see police lights outside as we sent the passengers to the back of the plane. I went into the cockpit and said, "This plane is being hijacked. Tell the tower that we’re going." I put the mic on speaker, showed them my guns, and said, "If the cop cars don’t move out, in 10 seconds I’m going to take measures." The cop cars disappeared and the plane took off. I told them we were going to Cuba. After 30 minutes in the air, the pilot said there wasn’t enough fuel. I told them to have a fuel truck prepared in Tampa, where we’d let the passengers off. That’s what happened. The flight was cool, no problems. The stewardesses and pilots came with us. It was really smooth. Thank God it was. I was really happy about that. We weren’t trying to hurt anyone. It wasn’t about pistol-whipping anyone to show them we were bad. That wasn’t the thing.

We landed in Havana early in the morning. When the plane stopped, a guy in an olive-green uniform came up the ramp. He asked for our weapons, in English. We handed over a 45mm, 9mm, .38, sawed-off shotgun, and an M1 carbine. He said, "Follow me."

Two other guys at the bottom of the stairs took our bullets. They put us into an Alfa Romeo and questioned us on the way to the G2 offices [state security]. They kept us six weeks, questioned us twice. Then one night, they said, "Let’s go, guys." Didn’t tell us nothing. They drove us to a halfway house in Havana that was full of hijackers and political refugees. There were no locks on the doors. They showed us to our bunk beds and that was that.

We weren’t trying to hurt anyone. It wasn’t about pistol-whipping anyone to show them we were bad. That wasn’t the thing.

The Cubans granted us asylum and asked us what we wanted to do for work. We said, "Hey, we’re in Cuba, and Cuba’s about sugar cane, right? Let’s cut some sugar cane." So we went to cut cane with the International Brigade. That’s how I learned Spanish. We’d go out there every day, dawn to dusk. At lunch we’d break out a little rum, go back at 2pm ‘til the sun went down. I met some bad dudes in the Brigade. It was made up of heavy politicals and hardcore revolutionaries -- Colombians with FARC, Puerto Rican nationalists, Hondurans, Brazilians, Costa Ricans, Mexicans, you name it -- people who came here because they were revolutionaries in their country, the way I was in mine. I didn’t always know their backstories. One of the first rules of living underground is, if they don’t tell you, you don’t need to know.

The Latin refugees would go back to their countries depending on who was in power. Countries like Brazil and Argentina, they had some wild swings in governments, fascists falling, revolutions, counter-revolutions. They thought I’d be able to return as well if a different person or party won the White House. I laughed and explained it doesn’t work like that in the United States. Everything still holds no matter who’s in the White House.

Our group really wanted to go to Africa, which we considered the motherland. But the Cubans couldn’t give us passports, because that would fall under "exporting terrorism" or something, even though we weren’t terrorists. They weren’t going to do anything illegal internationally to get us to Africa. It’s understandable, there’s a protocol you just don’t break.

One of the first rules of living underground is, if they don’t tell you, you don’t need to know.

After the hijacker group house, I went and stayed in a hotel starting in 1974. Hotel Monte Isla. That’s where a lot of the hijackers stayed. Many of them left if they could. They just went back and did or didn’t do their time. It was usually four to eight years for hijacking; the maximum was 20. For your first offense, it was two to three years and you were out. Some of these guys who hijacked planes here had no prior cases -- so why the fuck hijack a plane to Cuba? Did you expect them to give you a four-bedroom house just because you’re American and hijacked an airplane here? Most of them had no prior cases. That was crazy, man. There were easier ways to get here.

A lot of big names passed through. In the mid-1970s, Huey Newton was in Havana. His lawyer had told him to get out of the country for a while and let things cool down over a murder rap in Oakland. He was writing Revolutionary Suicide at the time. He used to call us up and invite us over to drink with him. He wasn’t too up on walking around the streets. He used to give us $100 a piece. Huey had money, man. Serious money from Hollywood, from Brando, the Fondas. He was sincere, a little egocentric. Only natural, I guess. He told us a lot about the Panthers, about how the state was splitting the party, infiltrating, COINTELPRO, nighttime attacks. Basically by then, the party had been destroyed. But they’d accomplished a lot. He went back to Oakland after a couple of years. He was killed not long after that. The whole thing was really sad.

Thrillist: You’ve seen most of the revolution. It was only 13 when you arrived.

When I landed in Havana in 1971, Galiano and Monte Obispo Streets still had all the old neon signs above the nationalized stores. With time, they fell apart. Now it’s all housing and you’d never guess what was there before the revolution. And when I got here, the Russians were really here. If you wore Western clothing, it was an offense called "ideological diversionism." You don’t hear that term much anymore. Maybe Raul [Castro] will say it on the radio every once in a while.

Those were very good economic times. In the Brezhnev years, a good meal cost five pesos. You could go out with a girl and for 20 pesos have yourself a nice date. A beer cost one peso. Shit, man, see what that gets you today! A lot of places Downtown don’t even accept pesos now, just the convertible currency. [Cuba has a two-currency system.]

The government has accepted me. Free medical, free education, for me and my kids. But sometimes it’s still hard. I miss my family.

When Soviet aid stopped coming under Gorbachev, everything changed overnight. The so-called "Special Period" came, man. Damn. That was a drag. I didn’t see how the revolution was going to make it. The lights didn’t just go out sometimes -- they didn’t come on! There was nothing to buy. No merchandise. The rations aren’t enough to get through the month. I was going around the country buying beans, tomato paste, reselling it in Havana. Those were hard times.

They had to open up. That’s when they turned to tourism. In July of 1993, Fidel lifted the ban on foreign currency. That was the beginning. The only thing they had left to sell was white sand beaches. It’s amazing how fast Cuba came out of those hard times. Hotels, new industries, people invested from around the world. The US really lost out. In 1993, Varadero had a few hotels, nothing taller than four stories. Now the whole peninsula of Varadero is developed. Club Med is there. It’s good they opened up, but it’s brought prostitution, egotistical ideas, class differences. Now there are Cubans that got some money, man. Fidel said in ‘93, we know this is going to make things dog-eat-dog. He knew what would happen. He was right. He was also right that there are things that were built under socialism that we can’t lose. The healthcare is good. Free education. We have one of the oldest populations in the world after Japan.

Thrillist: Do you think you’ll ever go back to the US?

It would be nice to see my hometown, see my family again. But I’ve been fortunate to live here in Cuba freely. The government has accepted me. Free medical, free education, for me and my kids. But sometimes it’s still hard. I miss my family.

Lenin said exile is one step from death. I don’t know about that, man. For me, exile is one step before jail.

*Statement from Hill's lawyer Jason Flores-Williams: "Mr. Hill was driving to Mississippi with two fellow activists and pulled over by a police officer in New Mexico. This is 1971. Everyone knows why they were pulled over: driving while black. They had convicted him before he was even arrested. And they’re still doing it today. Last year, Governor Susana Martinez wrote a letter to Secretary John Kerry calling for Mr. Hill’s extradition in which she calls him a 'terrorist' and 'cop killer.' This is a sitting governor actively intervening in a pending adjudication. If that’s what’s going on today, what chance did he have in New Mexico in 1971 when they wrongly accused him of killing a white police officer? None. It was over. He was going to spend the rest of his life in chains, in a cage, on death row."

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Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist based in New Orleans.