Key West, Havana flight makes history.
By Dominic Soave
The first commercial passenger flight from Key West to Cuba in more than 50 years landed December 30, 2013 in Havana, capping several years of efforts to reunite the two islands.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection gave the final approval for the flight that morning, and the seven passenger aircraft departed 90 minutes later at 10 a.m.,” Key West International Airport Director Peter Horton said.
Federal officials granted Key West a green light to resume flights to and from the island country in October 2011. It took more than two years, however, for the first flight to take off. Charter operators said they had trouble getting all of the required approvals. Capacity issues also made it difficult as Key West is currently only approved to process 10 passengers and crew from Cuba at a time.
Thanks to the dedication of three caring women: Mercedes Costa, liason coordinator, Caribbean Direct International, Sonya Pimentel, VP of Operations for Marazul Charters, and Carolann Sharkey of the Florida Keys Tropical Research Ecological Exchange Institute (TREE Institute), all permits were secured from both the U.S. and Cuban authorities.
The permit from Cuba was the first since the revolution. Marazul Charters have a 30 year history with Cuba travel. Costa started the first cargo service to Cuba 20 years ago.
After a blessing of the flight by Rev. John Baker, Pastor of Key West’s St. Mary Star of Sea Basilica, the Cessna Conquest II aircraft, operated by Key West Executive Air Charter departed the Florida island Monday morning.
The plane carried two crew members and seven Florida Keys Tree Institute Committee and board members who organize and participate in a legal, licensed, “people-to-people” cultural exchanges.
The Obama administration reinstituted the cultural exchange licenses in 2011, allowing organizations like the TREE Institute, to take U.S. citizens to the island for educational activities that promote understanding and exchange with ordinary Cuban citizens.
The Key West travelers met with Cubans at botanical gardens, organic farms and cultural centers. “We’re doing some really meaningful things to help the people with their bio-diverse environment, ecology and endemic species,” said Carolann Sharkey, the Institute’s trip organizer.
“The Cuban people are full of knowledge about their environment and the use of plants in healing, cosmetics, and medicine. Cubans have maintained and expanded the use of their flora and fauna.
“Many Cubans are ‘self –taught’ specialists in their own regions. Lack of fertilizers, pesticides, plant accessories and other agricultural farming aids have made the Cuba people very creative. They became organic and green by necessity! With a small amount of help, the TREE Institute has been able to help them continue developing their potential.
“I never realized the extent that plants could do so much healing!” said Sharkey.
The flight also marked the 100th anniversary of the very first Key West –Havana flight ever in aviation history. On May 17, 1913 Domingo Rosillo el Toro flew two hours and eight minutes from Key West to Cuba, before landing his monoplane on a patch of grass near Havana. Rosillo was greeted by 50,000 Cuban fans who hailed him as a hero.
The Florida Keys TREE Institute is licensed to help
U.S. citizens legally go to Cuba on “People-to-People
Cultural Exchanges”. For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.