'It didn't seem unsafe or terrifying'

The Antonovs that ferry tourists around the island are one more bizarre feature of the museum world that is Castro?s Cuba, writes Michael Williams
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The Independent US

The scene was so surreal all I could think of was the Red Baron. The engineer on the runway swung on the huge single propeller and the antiquated biplane gave a heave and spluttered into life. The percussion in the fuselage, windows and seats was replicated in my ribcage.

I was on my way from Varadero airport on Cuba's north coast to the showpiece heritage town of Trinidad in the south, a journey across the spine of the island, not undertaken easily by bus. When I booked the ticket the night before, I thought the price was ridiculously cheap for an air taxi, but in Castro's topsy-turvy world of state socialism anything was possible.

What I didn't expect was to find myself strapped rigidly into a canvas and tubing seat in a vintage Russian aircraft that didn't seem too far evolved from the Wright Brothers. There were about 12 of us – all tourists, because ordinary Cubans had no access to such "luxuries".

As we juddered down the runway, the co-pilot offered a bag of boiled sweets. "It's not pressurised," he said. "But you don't need to worry." I had a few jitters, especially knowing the country's terrible air safety record, and the fact that the Antonov had only one engine. "Oh, it's actually quite modern," he breezed. "It's just an old design, which means there's less to go wrong."

Certainly, it didn't seem unsafe or overloaded, and the crew exuded professionalism. They invited us, each in turn, to squeeze into the tiny cockpit. Despite the oily motorbike smell, this was not a terrifying experience, since the entire 100-mile journey was just a few hundred yards above the ground. By the time we landed, it had all seemed quite an adventure, a bit like a trip in one of the 1950s Chevys, Plymouths and Buicks that cruise the streets of modern Havana. Just another day in the museum world that is Castro's Cuba.

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