Forty Years Ago, Two Pelhamites Took

An Unexpected Trip

The familiar ring of the house phone sounded simultaneously at two houses in Pelham.   John Neary picked up the receiver at 300 Monterey Avenue while, a half a block away, Dick Anderson answered at 235 Monterey.  At the other end of each call, a representative from Eastern Airlines had some troubling news about their wives.

June 14, 1983 started as an almost perfect day in Pelham with a gentle breeze and mild temperatures in the 70s, warming to a high in the 80s before cooling off again just as Joan Neary and (the late) Anne Anderson set off together for LaGuardia International Airport.  They were both 20-year veteran stewardesses (as they were called in the days when all flight attendants were required by the airlines to be women, younger than age 32, and below a defined weight) who usually bid for the same flights and commuted together from Pelham.  Decked out in their uniforms, they boarded an A300 aircraft bound for Miami, Florida, fully expecting a quick turnaround that would get them back in Pelham that night.  They were expected home about the time their husbands each answered the phone. Instead, Eastern Airlines was calling to advise that their plane had been hijacked to Cuba.

Anyone under the age of 40 will have no memory of the almost routine occurrence of aircraft hijacked from the United States to Cuba.  Even those over 50, might be surprised at just how regularly these events occurred. There were so many that they stopped making the news (let alone the front page).  One recent report counted 95 planes hijacked from the United States to Cuba from 1961 to 1984.  The peak had been 1969 with a whopping 52 in that year alone.  Eastern Airlines, as a primary carrier out of Miami, the closest city to Havana, surpassed all the other airlines with a reported total of 28 hijackings.   (National Airlines, also a Florida-dominant carrier, came in second with 17.)

So when one Nelson Betancourt jumped out of his seat a short while into Eastern Airlines Flight 414 from Miami to New York, waived around something in his hand, and locked himself in the bathroom claiming to have an explosive device, Joan Neary, Anne Anderson, and the other flight crew remained calm.  “He said this is a hijacking and I want to go to Cuba,” Joan Neary recalled in a recent interview with the Pelham Town Historian.  She explained with a laugh that “The captain got on the PA and said -- he was so good -- ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a passenger that does not want to go to New York tonight. He wants to go to Cuba so we are going to accommodate him and go to Cuba’.”

While Betancourt remained locked in the bathroom, the pilot circled the plane and dropped fuel to reduce the plane’s weight to be able make a landing just 90 miles away in Havana.  Joan remembers that she and Ann went about their business serving dinner; they lowered the screen at the front of the plane and turned on the projector to play the scheduled movie for the 84 passengers.

When the plane landed in Havana, armed men in fatigues boarded and took Betancourt from the bathroom and off the plane.  The crew and passengers followed into the terminal.  “Some people bought Cuban cigars, it was such a big deal … because you couldn’t get them in the United States,” Joan recalled. There remained just the issue of refueling.   “I don’t know if this is true or not, but someone said the pilot had to give his credit card to get the fuel,” she said. 

The flight left Cuba and landed at LaGuardia at 6:20 am with reporters and cameras waiting.  Passengers disembarked with armfuls of souvenirs and gave glowing reports for the handling by the crew.  “The captain was always in control,” one passenger told an AP reporter; another said she was “momentarily very frightened. But the crew reacted very calmly.”  A seven-month-old on the flight reportedly slept through the whole ordeal.  As for Joan Neary, all she thought about was hurrying home to get her kids off to school.

Left: Passengers disembarking from Eastern Airlines Flight 414 at LaGuardia and displaying souvenirs (cigars, coffee and a t-shirt) from Cuba.

Photo:  Associated Press Laserphoto as printed in the Rapid City Journal (Rapid City, South Dakota), June 15, 1983, p. 27.

Hijackings had been so routine that Joan and Anne had received annual training on how to handle a hijacking through simulations with masked men wielding weapons.  Unlike terrorist hijackings in and to other foreign countries, nearly all the hijackings to Cuba occurred without injury or harm to crew or passengers (or the hijacker).  The airlines took them in stride with a policy of cooperation, apparently even carrying charts of the Caribbean in all cockpits, no matter the planned route, according to Brendan Koerner in his 2013 book The Skies Belong to Us.  It became almost a standing joke that people would tell about a planned trip somewhere but would add “unless we go to Cuba.”  Even Monty Python got in on the act with a skit about a Cuba hijacking.

For over a decade, the Federal Aviation Administration resisted the idea of screening all passengers, considering it an invasion of privacy.  Eastern Airlines and other carriers implemented a behavioral profiling system developed by the FAA, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the Air Transportation Security Act was passed, requiring U.S. airports to install metal detectors for all passengers and x-ray screening of all baggage.   (Earlier that year, a would-be assassin hijacked a plane in an attempt to crash into the White House and killed the pilot, co-pilot, and a policeman.)   Just when hijackings seemed to be a thing of the past, Fidel Castro allowed immigration to the United States in 1980 and, in the process, emptied his jails and mental health facilities and sent Cubans unwillingly to the United States.  Those who wanted to return saw hijacking as the only way back.  Instead of guns, they had (or, at least claimed to have) explosives or flammable liquids, like the hijacker of Joan Neary’s plane.  In May, 1983, there had been three hijackings to Cuba from Florida, the most in one month since the early 1970s. 

Joan Neary kept on flying with Eastern until its bankruptcy and dissolution in 1991, and later flew for United Airlines until she retired in 2013.  Asked if she had dined out on her hijacking story for years, Joan Neary said “I don’t know, it was kind of like … passé….  Every time you turned around, there was a hijacking to Cuba.”  

Left:  Joan Neary in her Eastern Airlines stewardess uniform (photo courtesy of Joan Neary)

Arthur L. Scinta, Town Historian

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