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Undocumented immigrant flew hang glider from Cuba to Florida

As I fought anxiety, I looked down and saw huge waves, almost three meters high. “God, help me not fall into those waves,” I prayed.

  • 1 month ago
  • March 12, 2024
9 min read
Cuban undocumented immigrant Ismael flew a motorized hang glider across the ocean to Key West, FL where he was detained and eventually granted political asylum. | Photo courtesy of Ismael Hernández Chirino Cuban undocumented immigrant Ismael flew a motorized hang glider across the ocean to Key West, FL where he was detained and eventually granted political asylum. | Photo courtesy of Ismael Hernández Chirino
Ismael Hernández Chirino, undocumented immigrant from Cuba granted asylum in the U.S.
Journalist’s Notes
Interview Subject
Hang glider pilot Ismael Hernández Chirino, 30, flew with a friend from Tarará, Navarra, Cuba to Key West, Florida. The two hour and 10 minute flight over the ocean proved frightening. When the undocumented immigrants landed, Ismael and his friend were detained at an immigration center for months before achieving political asylum. They used a motorized, ultralight hang glider that Ismael flew in tourism services in Cuba before the company shut down and he lost his job. The Cuban Aviation Club labelled them traitors and demanded the return of the hang glider. Ismael defended himself and said that the government kept them in poverty and hungry. He also argued that he would face the maximum penalty if the U.S. deported him.
Background Information
Amidst a severe economic and political crisis in Cuba, the country’s worst since Fidel Castro implemented communism over 60 years ago, recent data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reveals that approximately 425,000 Cubans have migrated to the United States in the last two fiscal years. This significant migration surge presents an unprecedented crisis, underscoring the formidable challenges confronting the Biden administration as it strives to address the mass displacement triggered by authoritarian regimes and political turmoil in the Western Hemisphere. Read more here.

FLORIDA, United States — In Cuba, life felt impossible. The social, political, and economic situation grew more dire by the day. Meanwhile, resources and opportunities dwindled. As a newly trained motorized hang glider pilot, I spent several months hosting tourists before my employer closed its doors and my job came to an end. Having invested significant capital into my training, I found myself in a desperate situation, left with nothing.

Considering my next steps, a friend suggested we leave Cuba for good to seek opportunity. Without hesitation, I accepted his invitation and decided to flee. We planned our escape for months, even simulating an extra day of training on the runway to avoid suspicion. We would wait for the exact right moment, then we would fly from Tarará, Cuba to Key West, Florida more than two hours away, across a vast ocean.

Read more immigration stories at Orato World Media.

Determined to fly to America, man leaves his family behind

I made all the preparations for my flight in secret, never telling anyone about my plan to leave Cuba, not even my family. In the days ahead, I watched them closely, memorizing their faces as if taking mental photographs. I noted their everyday activities, capturing their looks, laughter, and conversation in my mind. Occasionally, they would ask, “Ismael, you seem different. What’s the matter?” I responded with a smile, a shake of my head, and a shrug, all while secretly wiping away a tear they never saw.

The day before I left, I hugged my mother tightly, feeling my soul shatter. I smiled through tears and told her I loved her, hiding the turmoil inside. Feeling a mix of desperation and sadness, I silently bid them all farewell. As the time came to leave, I took fear by the hand, as if it were my traveling companion. I felt terrified, but also more alive than ever.

With extreme focus, late at night, my friend and I got everything ready. We transformed and organized the hang glider, checked the weather, and looked at all our calculations. We loaded our luggage and prayed. Early the next morning, when it came time to take off down the runway, we pretended it was just another day of training. I felt my nerves take over my entire body and shivered as my hair stood on end. “Will we reach our destination safely,” I wondered.

We faced a short runway with an overloaded hang glider, and I needed to get airborne before the airstrip ended. I pushed the throttle to the maximum and prayed to God for help. My entire body shook, but with determination, I felt the wind lift the plane. Breathing a sigh of relief, I left Cuba behind. We did it.

Undocumented immigrant crosses the ocean in a hang glider as waves crash below

For two hours and 10 minutes, my friend and I crossed the ocean, fighting strong winds that threatened to throw us off course. Full of anxiety, I kept a tight grip on the controls. The only helpful element was gusts of wind blowing us north in the direction of America. Over 200 meters high, I felt incredibly vulnerable.

Throughout the flight, worries engulfed me. “What if the engine overheats,” I thought. “Will the turbulence rip off the wing? What happens if the glider refuses to descend from this high altitude?” As I fought anxiety, I looked down and saw huge waves, almost three meters high. “God, help me not to fall into those waves,” I prayed.

Just then, I noticed a ship in the middle of the waters. With a distinctive shape, I knew what it was: part of the United States Coast Guard fleet. I panicked, thinking they might shoot me. With no radio to contact them and warn them of my presence, I chose to ignore it and focus on reaching my destination. As land approached, I knew I had no alternative but to land in Key West. As we began to descend, everything started to move extremely fast.

Approaching a runway without permission, I knew the hang glider was not ready for such a hot and windy landing. “What if the authorities try to shoot me down,” my mind shouted. Full of worry, I landed as quickly as possible, using all my skills to pull it off, and it worked. The wheels touched ground and a wave of joy and relief washed over me.

At the detention center, immigrant is interrogated by the FBI, CIA, and American Aviation Federation

The right gear suffered some damage from the weight of the landing maneuver, but it felt amazing to make it to America. Immediately, the authorities approached, and I surrendered. Removing my gear, I relaxed and breathed a little easier. Looking around, I saw that the airport came to a complete standstill. All activity ceased.

From the outset, everyone I encountered demonstrated empathy and understanding. They knew my reasons for leaving Cuba behind and risking my life to come to America. Although at moments they questioned my actions, they never showed me any disrespect. My friend and I navigated the entire process together.

After questioning, the authorities escorted us to an immigration office for registration. Subsequently, they took us to a detention center where we underwent further interviews. We encountered interrogations from the American Aviation Federation, the FBI, and the CIA. During my first night at the detention center, something surreal happened. Nothing felt real – as if everything we just went through was not my life.

Uncomfortable and out of place, I struggled to accept my very existence. Even in the confines of the detention center, the notion that I was there seemed unfathomable. Eventually, I experienced a paramount realization. I made the journey; I took the steps to construct the life I desired. With each passing day, I adapted to the idea that things were progressing in a positive manner. This became my newfound reality.

After months in the detention center, man is granted political asylum

I spent five months in the detention center, encountering different people, each with their own story and case. Many of their cases offered no hopeful solution and I saw sadness and distress everywhere. The nights proved the hardest. Tears welled in my eyes as I laid my head on the pillow. Each time, I chose to pull myself together, wipe away my tears, and carry on. I trusted the authorities to see the light; to find the life I imagined.

During my stay, I made an effort to avoid violent situations, turning a deaf ear to any kind of provocation. While I saw few fights, the security forces made a show of strength. Some acted aggressively toward the detainees and sadly, it seemed normal.

Then, on July 5, 2023, the judge handling our case made his determination. He granted my friend and I political asylum. This form of protection meant we avoided deportation back to Cuba. However, the prosecution reserved the right to appeal. This prolonged the process until one night when the authorities notified us, we were free to leave.

As I walked out of the detention center, I immediately contacted my family, marking a moment of incredible joy. The news spread rapidly and my family back home celebrated my new status. Most importantly, I wanted my mother to know I was alive and safe. As we spoke by phone, excitement marked the conversation. I told her the details of my flight which remained a vivid memory in my mind. In a tear filled exchanged, and in a trembling voice, she simply said, “I love you.”

Undocumented immigrant looks forward to a brighter future with gratitude

As I embraced my newfound freedom in America, I reached out to family members already in the States. My girlfriend from Cuba arrived before me and already secured employment. I often think back to that night in Cuba as I finalized my preparations in the airport hangar, readying the hang glider for my journey over the ocean.

I think of the encouragement of my friend, who helped me overcome my fear and the sorrow of leaving my family behind to pursue a better life. Every day, the pride of landing in Florida after being suspended in air during that long journey remain forefront in my mind.

When I consider the kindness of strangers – those who treated me with respect and understanding of the reasons behind my actions – immense gratitude flows through me. Fear reveals our vitality. That fear propelled me forward. At home in Cuba I declared, “Enough is enough,” and I soared through the sky in my hang glider toward a brighter future.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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