5 min read

It was a cold February day when I decided that we would fly our 1994 Mooney M20R to Havana, Cuba. Restrictions for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba had recently been lifted. The island was only 90 miles from Key West. We had flown our Mooney to the Out Islands of the Bahamas in the past.

Cuba is close in flying miles, but far away in culture.

The only problem was that my wife did not want to go. I had floated the idea to her a few months prior when we were discussing a spring trip. She’s not as adventurous as I am, and visiting a Third World Communist country was not on her bucket list. She preferred relaxing on the beach in the Bahamas or Key West. I briefly contemplated a relaxing vacation but could not get the idea of flying our own plane to Cuba out of my head.

I decided we were going to do it.

I came up with a plan where we would meet my wife’s sister and my brother-in-law in Port Canaveral, Florida. They would take our kids on a three-day Disney Cruise while we went to Havana for the weekend.

I contacted a handling company to assist with obtaining the permits and planning our itinerary. We would be flying from our home base in Dayton, Ohio (DAY) to Orlando Executive (ORL). The flight was 695 nm or about four hours in our Mooney.

The trip was set for late March. I was concerned the weather might not cooperate, but when our departure day arrived, clear skies prevailed. We even had a nice tailwind for the first leg of our trip. The flight was uneventful. The kids slept most of the way. We passed Disney World and downtown Orlando on our approach to ORL.


That’s not the Cayman Islands.

After landing, we unloaded our bags and secured the plane. The handling company had dropped off our documents at the FBO. I picked up the packet containing our travel visas, permits, and other assorted items while checking in and arranging a fuel order. We then drove over to Port Canaveral to meet up with my sister and brother-in- law. We had a wonderful seafood dinner at a local dockside restaurant.

The next morning, I awoke early to check the weather and file our flight plan. Everything looked good for the flight from KORL to Jose Marti International Airport (MUHA) near Havana. The flight would be 339 nm via Key West VOR. I was showing 2 hours and 15 minutes. We drove back to Orlando Executive. I performed a preflight and obtained another briefing. We loaded our bags and were ready for departure.

My wife still had no idea of where we were going. I was afraid she would hear the clearance from ATC but the controller just said “cleared to MUHA as filed” and she did not catch on. After a short taxi and run up, we were in the air and headed to Cuba. Eventually, we were handed off to Key West approach. Only after we passed over Key West VOR still at 8000 feet did my wife suspect something might be amiss. She asked if we were going to the Cayman Islands. I kept quiet and continued to fly the plane.

Cuba cigars

When in Rome…

About 10 minutes later, we were handed off to Havana approach. The controllers spoke excellent English and began giving us vectors and instructions to descend to 4000 feet. She knew something was up when the massive island of Cuba appeared on the horizon several minutes later.

There were some rain showers in the area with marginal VFR ceilings. We were vectored for the ILS runway 6 approach and had an uneventful landing. We taxied to the designated parking area and were met by friendly ground personnel who helped secure the plane and unload our bags.

We were taken to a terminal where we cleared customs and met our driver for the weekend. When we were on our way from the airport to our hotel in Havana, I asked my wife what she was thinking. She kept repeating, “I don’t know yet.”

We were in a completely different world. Cuba is so close to the U.S. in distance, but so far away in culture. After checking in at our hotel, we were taken to a beautiful seaside restaurant. We had a wonderful lunch of grilled fish and the best mojitos we’ve ever tasted.

Car in Cuba

You know you’re in Cuba when you’re riding in one of these.

That’s when my wife relaxed and decided to embrace the weekend. Over the next couple of days, we toured old Havana, strolled on the Malecon, visited Revolution square, toured Hemingway’s house, and met many wonderful people. It was an amazing experience!

The time to depart came way too soon! Internet service is not ubiquitous in Cuba. The hotel gave us tickets each with a long passcode that had to be entered into your mobile device each time you wanted to connect. The connection was still spotty and only good for about 20 minutes.

The morning of departure, I woke up early and checked the weather. I filed the eAPIS and flight plan at our hotel because I knew there would be no internet service at the airport. I also called the Customs office at Key West to notify them of our planned arrival time in Key West. We had planned to arrive at Jose Marti airport at 7:30 am and depart at 8:30 am.

We were not aware that the Cuban people do not usually open the airport until around 9:00 am. Once they showed up, we moved quickly through customs. Our departure from Cuba was a little later than planned, but otherwise uneventful.

After a short flight back to Key West, we were met by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. They asked why we were late. We explained that the Cuban people don’t share the same time concerns that we have here in the U.S. They understood and we were soon headed to Spaceport airport (TIX) on the Florida coast to meet up with our kids

They had a great time on the Disney cruise. We had the experience of a lifetime flying our Mooney to Cuba!

Patrick Larreategui
Latest posts by Patrick Larreategui (see all)
21 replies
  1. Jeff Schlueter
    Jeff Schlueter says:

    Wow, that is one understanding spousal unit! I expect I would have had a very restless weekend sleeping in the hotel lobby if I had tried that with my wife. Glad you had a good trip.

  2. Levi
    Levi says:

    Great story ! Last year I took my wife and two kids to the Bahamas for ten days we just island hopped in our 1974 cardinal 177rg. We are from Iowa so of course everyone thought we were crazy. Deep sea fishing to swimming with the sharks and just laying on the beach it was awesome just doing what I always hoped that private pilot license would do. Freedom!!!

    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      That’s awesome Levi! Bahamas are the perfect place to explore with general aviation! We are planning a trip to the Exumas in the spring!

  3. Antonio Urbizu
    Antonio Urbizu says:

    It was good that you found your way into Cuba. Naturally, your guide only showed you what they want for you to see and not the real Cuba. I would have done the same as your wife: Go somewhere else. I would not return to Cuba until there is freedom for the people. I was born in Cuba, and I vowed, for the memories of my parents, not to return until there a change in goverment. However, I found your article very interesting and for that I could lived through your experience. Thanks!

    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      Antonio– I have Cuban friends who feel the same way you do. I understand. My goal was to showcase the freedom that general aviation gives us. I know that we mostly saw the “tourist” Cuba and not all the poverty and oppression that still exists. The Cuban people are wonderful! I hope that change is coming for them!

    • Mark
      Mark says:

      I went to Cuba in 2015 when it was still “illegal” — without a driver or guide so I was able to see the country for what it was. I flew to Salvador and grabbed a connecting flight from there. I politely asked the Cuban customs people not to stamp my passport and they were happy to oblige my request. I find comments like yours deceptive to those who might not know better. Of course there was poverty, but there’s poverty all over the United States as well. The Cuban people are warm and friendly–eager to show off their countries accomplishments even against long odds. The US economic embargo has made life very difficult for Cuba and it’s people, but it’s quite impressive to see firsthand the society they’ve managed to build. It would be nice if their government was more allowing of dissent, but it’s also quite impressive to see a country where nearly everyone has a college level education, and has access to a medical system significantly better than what most Americans have access to, at no out of pocket cost I might add. All I’m trying to say is that everyone should go visit this place, it’s an amazing view of history that you won’t find in many if not most other places.

  4. Rex Myers
    Rex Myers says:

    The article did a good job of highlighting the positives of the adventure. I wonder what the negatives were. My friends also used a well known handling company. Our friends were part of a caravan of General Aviation aircraft. They were all hit with exorbitant departure fees some ten times the original quoted price. After a lot of back and forth the fees were negotiated down to only double the original quote.

    It spoiled the entire experience for our friends.

    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      Rex- We paid for everything (landing permits, hotel, departure fees, ground transport, tours, etc.) up front with the handling company. The only money we spent on the island of Cuba was for food and tips. We weren’t hit with any unexpected fees. It was expensive but worth it for a bucket list trip!

  5. Roderick Kleiss
    Roderick Kleiss says:

    Patrick, My wife and I visited Cuba a few months ago on a people-to-people visit in Havana and Trinidad. We loved their culture and openness. But we saw not one GA plane. We’d love to fly our plane back there. Do you know if that is still possible?

  6. Wendy Diaz
    Wendy Diaz says:

    I Loved your story and from the way you described it, your wife is a Saint!
    Chicken soup for the soul when someone accomplishs a task they challenge themselves to do and a check off the bucket list to boot! Double Score!!!!
    My only experience in a Mooney was with a fellow aviator friend for a scenic flight around Charleston, SC on a beautiful clear day, while he reviewed and practiced IFR procedures. It’s a fun plane for sure!
    I look forward to reading about your next adventure! -Wendy

  7. At McIntosh
    At McIntosh says:

    Great adventure! I have been to Cuba and would love to fly my 210 back there. Were you able to purchase gas there? I heard the availability was unreliable.

    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      We didn’t refuel in Havana. We filled the tanks in Orlando and then refueled in Key West on the way back. We could have prepaid for fuel through the handling company but I wasn’t sure about the reliability or quality of Avgas in Cuba either.

  8. George Haeh
    George Haeh says:

    While Cuba is not well off, I suspect that ordinary Cubans have a better and safer life there than just about any other country South of the US.

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