Popular rumor has it that Cuba was supplied with P-51 Mustangs in 1947 via the Rio Pact of the same year. Although this rumor is unfounded, the P-51 Mustang did serve in Cuba when Che Guevara and Fidel Castro started the revolution against dictator Batista in 1959.
Birth of the Fuerza Aerea Rebelde
In February 1958, Fidel Castro ordered his brother Raúl to lead a force of some fifty men and open a “second front” against governmental forces. This small force quickly encountered logistical problems. Supplies could not be transported via land, and the waters around Cuba were totally controlled by the Cuban Navy. The only alternative was air transport. A Curtiss C-46 was rented in Miami for $ 2,000 and flew weapons and ammunition to the Cuban rebels on March 31. The airplane was flown in by Pedro Luis Diaz Lanz, future leader of the FAR, but was damaged upon landing and had to be destroyed to prevent it from being identified by enemy forces.
This first failed attempt in the creation of an air force did not discourage the Cuban rebels and on April 12, 1958 Raúl Castro signed the orders creating the Fuerza Aerea Rebelde. First Lieutenant Orestes del Rio, a civilian pilot with 500 hours of flight time, was named at the head of the FAR. Del Rio started gathering the personnel and material needed to organize an effective air force.
The FAR quickly grew and on November 30, 1958 Ramón Castro, Fidel's elder brother, was appointed in charge of supplies for the FAR. The importance of an air arm was now quite clear to the revolutionary leaders, especially since the government's air arm was a constant nuisance to rebel forces. Enemy aircraft often spotted rebel troops, quickly followed by ground-attack aircraft, notably F-47 Thunderbolts. Several light aircraft were purchased, mostly in the USA, and entered service. Most of these were destroyed rapidly on the ground by governmental forces, while a few other ones crashed due to bad maintenance.
However, the FAR did not operate combat aircraft until November 10, 1958 when Lt. Antonio E. Bascaró Sanchez encountered engine trouble with his Vought Sikorsky OS2U-3 Kingfisher and was forced to land in rebel-held territory. Although the Kingfisher was not brought down by enemy action, the rebels claimed the aircraft was “intercepted”, trying to imply that the FAR operated fighters. A month later, on December 4, another combat-worthy aircraft landed in Cuba: a North American T-28 Trojan, flown in by Jorge Triana. However, the FAR had by then received far superior aircraft: two North American F-51D Mustangs.
The FAR had already attempted to buy two F-51Ds from Venezuela. While the Venezuelan Mustangs were never acquired, on November 13, 1958, FAR coordinator Haydee Santamaria sent Raúl Castro the following message: “We expect that, within days, Michel will arrive with two F-51 which will have to be armed.” Michel Yabor was an FAR pilot, who had been trying to purchase war equipment in the USA. On November 18, 1958 he was able to purchase F-51D-30-NT serial number 45-11700 from Leeward Aeronautical Sales in Miami. The aircraft had been bought as war surplus, stripped of its military equipment and given the civilian register N5422V.
The second Mustang was ex-Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF-9233) F-51D-30-NA serial number 44-74505. This aircraft was also sold on the US civilian market (register N68DR, later N3990A) and also ended up in Miami, where it was bought by a certain Allen McDonald, presumably a cover name for FAR operatives.
Rumor has it that another ex-RCAF F-51D (civilian register N89E) was also purchased and sent to Cuba, but no evidence corroborates this claim. On November 23, Allen McDonald registered flight plans for both Mustangs as “local test flights”. The aircraft were then secretly flown out of the US by Michel Yabor and Adolfo Diaz Vazquez and landed at Mayari Arriba in Cuba.
Even before they could land in Cuba, the two F-51Ds were fired upon. On the morning of November 23, two Cuban F-47 Thunderbolts had attacked the base. When the Mustangs appeared over Mayari Arriba, ground defenses thought the base was one again under attack and opened fire. The first Mustang suffered hits by .30 caliber projectiles in the right wing tank and the tail before Captain del Rio could order his men to cease fire.
The two Mustangs eventually landed and were taken in for repairs and, most importantly, arming. The Mustangs still lacked guns, and FAR mechanics began working at this. Fortunately the aircraft were hidden: the next day, another pair of Cuban F-47s attacked the field but failed to spot the Mustangs being refurbished.
Excitement was high among FAR members as the Mustangs were the first true combat aircraft they had acquired. Raúl Castro wrote: “They are wonderful, and are at present in secure places, the machine guns being prepared. We are also preparing napalm bombs, which will deliver the final blow on the enemy regiments in the East.”
Work on the Mustangswas carried on as quickly as was possible. The aircraft were coded FAR-400 and FAR-401. On December 28, 1958 the FAR was ordered to fly the aircraft to a recently-captured airfield in Imias. On December 31, 1958 the first aircraft was declared combat-ready.
However on January 1, 1959, word of Batista's defeat came through. The second Mustang was declared combat-ready a few hours later. The much-expected confrontation between the Cuban F-47 Thunderbolts and FAR F-51 Mustangs was not going to take place.
Another missed opportunity: the Bay of Pigs
Following the rebel victory, the two aircraft were transfered to Columbia airfield in Havana. Journalists noticing the battle damage (due to the friendly-fire incident of November 23) contributed in creating the myth that the FAR had operated fighters before the end of the revolution. The aircraft were used very little as few mechanics were qualified on the Mustang and no spare parts were available. They apparently did fly a few hours, however, and were given FAR markings as well as sharkmouths.
The two aircraft were destined to see combat again, pretty much in the same fashion as they already had. On April 15, 1961, aerial attacks preceded the Bay of Pigs invasion. During these attacks, the two Mustangs were damaged. Repairs were undertaken immediately, but only FAR-400 could be repaired by April 20, at which time the fighting was already over.
The two Mustangs remained in active FAR service until June 1961 when the first Soviet-supplied MiG-15bis were delivered to Cuba. They were then written off. Only FAR-401 was kept for display in the FAR Museum in Havana, where it can still be seen.
Colours & Markings
It was only after the Castro's victory that FAR Mustangs received any form of markings. The two aircraft were kept natural-metal with black anti-glare panel. The nosecone appears to have been painted yellow, although they appear red or another dark colour on some photos. The rudder bore Cuban rebel colors with blue and white horizontal stripes while the wingtips were painted red. Red and black (or blue?) bands were applied diagonally on the fuselage side. The FAR insignia was painted at the “usual” nationality marking location. Both aircraft (FAR-400 and -401) appear with and without sharkmouths on photos.
The Cuban Mustang fleet was the smallest any air force ever possessed, with only two F-51D. In addition, one could say fate did not want these aircraft to see action. Although the Cuban Mustangs were involved in two "wars", they failed both times to be ready for action in time, by only a few days.
This article was written by k51d and modified by GM. Version 1.1. Profile by GM for Mustang!. Any addition or correction is welcome.
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