Missing over Cuba: The decades old mystery of the plane that vanished

The content originally appeared on: Cayman Compass

On Good Friday, 1975, a twin-engine prop plane departed Grand Cayman bound for Fort Lauderdale. It never arrived. 

There was no distress signal from the cockpit and no wreckage was ever found.

For years, rumours persisted that the pilot and crew were captured and interned in communist Cuba.

Now the granddaughter of co-pilot Carlton Bodden is attempting to unfreeze the coldest of cold cases and unravel the strands of a family mystery that has fascinated her for decades.

In a special feature, the Cayman Compass delves into the facts, theories and conspiracies surrounding the story of the Lockheed Lodestar plane N51131 that vanished without a trace.

– Advertisement –

Looking for answers

Angelique Ritch has been hearing tales about her grandfather since she was 3 years old.

Angelique Ritch

There’s the one where he is alive, living a new life in Cuba after being imprisoned there for many years.

In another version, his plane was shot down by Fidel Castro’s henchmen.

There is evidence that he was part of a crew of pilots carpet-bombing the communist island with Christian pamphlets.

Some believe he was a CIA recruit on the Cold War’s tropical front.

There are more insidious whispers – however unfounded –  that the plane could have been involved with the cartels that trafficked narcotics and laundered cash through the Caribbean.

Then there’s a potentially more routine explanation – that the plane simultaneously suffered mechanical failure and radio malfunction before crashing into the ocean south of Florida.

But, if that’s the case, how to explain the fruitless Coast Guard search for signs of wreckage or the alleged sightings of a plane with the same tail number years later?

And what to make of Bodden’s cryptic final conversation with his wife, when he told her he had a dream he would not return. Was it a premonition or a way of communicating something he could not put into words?

A fog of rumour and hearsay

All these theories and questions have been running through Ritch’s mind for as far back as she can remember.

The facts are shrouded in a fog of rumours, superstition and hearsay. Some of the theories sound hard to believe. But Cayman was a different place in the 1970s. So was Cuba.

Ask anyone who was around at the time to discount some of the wilder conspiracies and even the most sceptical shrug and concede that “anything is possible”.

Pulling the disparate strands together into a coherent narrative more than 40 years later is next to impossible.

But doing so has become an obsession for Ritch. She turned 31 last year – the same age as her grandfather when he disappeared.

The milestone combined with fears that her grandmother could pass on without knowing the truth have inspired her to begin a research project she hopes could become a documentary series.

So far, the search has taken her down a rabbit-hole of online newspaper archives, flight records, and the niche theories of missing plane enthusiasts in the most obscure corners of the internet.

The official record – to the extent that there is one – is hazy. But let’s start there, with what we do know.

What we know

The plane left Owen Roberts International Airport just after 10am on 28 March 1975, with a flight plan that would take it over Cuba, en route to Fort Lauderdale.

“We feel the plane went down in the northern part of Cuba but we haven’t heard anything definite” – Barbara Kronick

The plane’s owner Brian Kronick, 43, an American citizen and regular visitor to Cayman, enlisted Bodden, who ran a small two-plane aviation company called Cayman Flying Services, as the co-pilot. Mark Cox, 18, and Steve Miller, 20, were also on board. Miller’s brother David recalls the pair hitched a ride for a Spring Break trip to Florida.

There were a number of portents that made Bodden’s family worried.

He had received a long call, where he spoke in Spanish, the night before, which they believe was a warning of some kind.

Carlton Bodden and his wife Corinthia in an old family snap.

His wife, Corinthia, who later wrote a book about her struggle to raise their five children in the half-finished home he had built off Crewe Road, claimed he told her of a dream that he would not return. By 3pm that day, the dream had become a real-life nightmare.

“I will always remember it,” says Lutz Bodden, who was 6 years old when he watched his mother break down as she was informed the plane had not arrived in Florida.

“Listening to that call and seeing my mother crying was the worst scare I ever had in my life,” he said.

According to the first news reports of the crash, there was conflicting evidence over whether the plane ever cleared Cuban airspace.

The Miami Herald reported US Coast Guard sources indicating the plane “never checked out of the Cuban air corridor”.

The Compass news report from the week after the incident.

A Compass report at the time indicated Cuban authorities stated the plane was not in the territory.

The report reveals routine radio contact was made with Cuban Air Traffic Control at 11:10am but the plane failed to check in as expected over Varadero at 11:36am. However, “radar sighting” was later made 15 miles south of Florida, according to reports from Cuban authorities cited in the paper.

US Air Traffic Control never received direct radio contact from the plane.

Later news reports chart the fruitless search for wreckage south of the Florida Keys and cite family members’ suspicions that the men were being held in Cuba.

“We feel the plane went down in the northern part of Cuba but we haven’t heard anything definite,” Kronick’s wife Barbara told the Herald at the time.

After 1975, the news reports dry up. There’s no report of any further investigation. All that’s left are theories.

Theory number 1: Lost at sea

The Lockheed Lodestar was reportedly a difficult aircraft to fly.

Managing the weight balance of the plane was like “balancing a sheet of paper on the tip of a ballpoint pen”, according to one observer, who witnessed a crash of the same model aircraft at Kingston in 1953, that killed 13 people, including pilot Owen Roberts, for whom Cayman’s airport is named.

Billy Adam, whose cousin, a flight attendant, was on that plane and died in the crash, recalls that the safety record of the aircraft was not good.

Adam, an amateur aviator who shared a cockpit with Carlton Bodden on a handful of occasions, believes mechanical or pilot error can’t be discounted.

Bodden was a skilled aviator, he says, though he typically flew a Cessna twin-engine.

“I don’t know what kind of experience Bill Kronick had on that type of plane,” he added. “It is possible they crashed in the ocean.”

A Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, similar to the one being flown by Bill Kronick and his crew in 1975. Photo: Robert Yarnall Richie, ca. 1947. Photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

Initial search and rescue efforts focused on the ocean south of the Florida Keys, and it remains feasible that the plane went down in this area and was simply never found.

Family members of the missing men were sceptical about this explanation, however, and remain so to this day.

Barbara Kronick told the Miami Herald her husband was a flight instructor, with more than 10,000 flying hours, and had made the same trip on dozens of occasions.

“There was no other radar contact (after the plane checked in to Cuban air space), no wreckage found, no storm in the area,” she told the paper.

Was that grief or wishful thinking? Or were there legitimate reasons to believe that something more sinister may have taken place?

For Angelique Ritch, there are simply too many holes in the official record for this version of events to stand up.

“No one in our family thinks they died in a crash,” she said. “There is no evidence that there even was a crash.”

Theory number 2: Imprisoned in Cuba

In the late 1990s, Lutz Bodden travelled to Cuba to investigate an enduring theory about his father – that he had been imprisoned in the Communist territory after his plane was captured.

Your family thinks you are dead. We can keep you here for years. No one knows about you.

He visited the British Embassy and travelled to a prison outside Havana, but learned nothing new. An electrician with no investigative experience or official clearance, he was greeted with closed doors wherever he went.

In desperation, he visited a psychic. The man lit a candle and threw some bones on the floor of his rustic dwelling. After some time, he told him, his father had been released from prison and was living with a woman in Cuba, but was unable to leave the island.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough to buffer a long-cherished theory that the men were still alive. The theory that they were imprisoned in Cuba has persisted since day one.

There were conflicting reports over whether the plane ever left Cuban air space. And, amid the hostilities of the Cold War, it was conceivable it was shot down or forced to land by the Cubans.

Family members of the victims consistently said they believed the plane was taken in Cuba.

Investigations by relatives of the missing men, including Hugh Cox, father of Mark, and a travel agent in Cayman, and Kronick’s widow, were reported regularly in the US press.

A ham radio operator in Cuba relayed a message about a Lockheed Lodestar being forced to land by Cuban authorities, and a Panamanian cargo pilot reported sighting the plane in Havana.

At one stage, Cox was said to be in communication with Jamaican officials acting as intermediaries with the Cuban government.

“Officially, the plane is not there. Unofficially, it is there,” he reportedly wrote in a letter to Kronick’s wife published in the Miami News.

The story was consistently denied by Cuban authorities. David Miller, brother of Steve, was in the US military at the time and made inquiries through the outpost at Guantanamo Bay, which yielded no confirmed intelligence that the aircraft had been sighted in Cuba.

The island may have been a closed society in the 1970s, but relations with the US have thawed considerably since then, and he is convinced that if his brother and friends were held in Cuba, we would know about it by now.

One story which may add weight to the prison theory is the tale of Tom White. A self-styled ‘Christian soldier’, White ran aerial missions from Cayman to drop Gospel tracts over Cuba.

On one such mission, recounted in his book ‘God’s missiles over Cuba’, his Cherokee Six plane was forced to crash land.

He was captured, interrogated and imprisoned for 17 months.

“Your family thinks you are dead. We can keep you here for years. No one knows about you,” he claims his interrogators taunted him.

But White’s imprisonment did become common knowledge, his family was allowed to visit him and he was ultimately released.

If the four men aboard the missing Lodestar were jailed in similar circumstances, wouldn’t they have been afforded similar courtesies?

White’s book – which covers his time in prison – doesn’t reveal any information to substantiate rumours that the missing men might have been locked up in Cuba.

It does, however, provide a clue as to why their plane may have been targeted.

A grainy black-and-white photo of four people in front of a small Beechcraft D-18 appears in a chapter detailing the first aerial sortie of White’s crusaders.

The faces of the crew are blacked out, but leaning against the fuselage, one hand in his pocket, is the man who piloted the plane on that day – Carlton Bodden.

Theory number 3: Christian soldier

White’s operation was well known in Cayman. Youths from church groups helped package Christian pamphlets with sticks of Wrigley’s chewing gum to be unloaded over Cuba.

As a religious man, Bodden was an obvious choice to fly the planes. But both he and White got more than they bargained for on that first mission.

White recalls pouring thousands of pamphlets through the plane’s emergency window so they fluttered like snowflakes over the sugarcane fields and green countryside of Camaguey province.

As he worked to unload the cargo, the plane’s large back door was sucked open and a large stash of leaflets was dumped in one bundle. White speculates the plane was being tracked and that projectiles launched from the rear door set alarm bells ringing among a Cuban military paranoid about American airstrikes.

Whatever the cause, they were soon flanked by a pair of Russian MIG-29 fighter jets. As White scrambled to ditch evidence, Bodden remained cool.

“Wait, Tom,” Bodden advised. “We might get away OK. Let’s see what they do.”

His instincts proved correct and the plane’s unwanted escort eventually backed off, the book reports.

For White, it was a precursor to his later capture in Cuba. Could that be true of Bodden too?

Is it possible that his work for White put him on a watch list of some kind? Could the Good Friday trip have had a secret purpose that put Carlton and his crew in the cross-hairs of the Cuban military and their Russian allies?

Ritch has some doubts. Her grandfather was a devout Christian, but there is no evidence that he flew more than one mission for White.

If he were targeted by the Cubans because of the pamphlets, then why was White – the self-avowed ringleader of that operation – only jailed for 17 months while Bodden and his friends have been missing for nearly 50 years?

It is possible, of course, that the plane was mistakenly shot down. White acknowledges in his book that dropping any kind of ‘missile’ – even religious pamphlets – over Cuba ran serious risks.

But again, there is no evidence that the trip had any connection to White’s mission. Bodden’s past association could simply be another red herring in the search for answers about his disappearance. The evidential value of White’s book doesn’t stop there, however. The seeds of another theory are planted in his recollection of his interrogation.

“Stop this Jesus talk,” an army major reportedly scolded him. “We know you are with the CIA.”

Theory number 4: Agent Bodden

Tom Holum (a legislative aide to Senator George McGovern) informed the intelligence committee of a report from a private source that Tom Hubbell, a Grand Cayman bar owner and pilot, may once have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The theory that a Caymanian pilot may have been an agent for the CIA might seem implausible in 2021.

But 1975 was the height of American paranoia about the threat of Communism spreading in the Caribbean. Michael Manley’s left-leaning People’s National Party in Jamaica was friendly with the Castro government, and the newly independent nation was awash with American agents working to counter the ‘Red menace’.

As a British colony positioned in the middle of those two countries, Cayman would have made an ideal base for covert operations in the region.

Pilots, particularly those involved in daring missions to drop pamphlets over Cuba, would have made ideal recruits.

An early newspaper report about the missing Lodestar cites hearsay that Tom Hubbell – another pilot who was later killed in a plane crash in Grand Cayman – had links to the CIA.

The August 1975 story from the Tampa Tribune details a mission to Cuba from members of the US Senate Intelligence Select Committee.

“Tom Holum (a legislative aide to Senator George McGovern) informed the intelligence committee of a report from a private source that Tom Hubbell, a Grand Cayman bar owner and pilot, may once have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Relatives of Bodden say he and Hubbell spoke frequently, including the day before his ill-fated mission.

In truth, there is little, beyond circumstantial evidence, to link either Hubbell or Bodden, or any of his crew mates, to the CIA, but the story has a kind of circular logic.

If there was such a link, then it would likely have been kept secret. The agency was said to have targeted Castro for assassination on numerous occasions.

Cuban President, Fidel Castro, pictured here at the United Nations in 1979, was reportedly an assassination target for the CIA. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

If the Cubans discovered – or believed erroneously – that the plane was tied up in an American plot, it would have provided motive to capture or kill the crew and to keep it secret.

For Ritch, this is the most compelling theory. She views her grandfather as a slightly mysterious character. He spoke Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese, and flew aircraft around the Caribbean. She believes it is perfectly plausible that he was recruited by the Americans.

“I believe he was a CIA agent and that something went wrong on this mission,” she said.

Theory number 5: Caribbean cartels

Religious zeal and clandestine CIA missions weren’t the only motives for private flights through the Caribbean in the 1970s.

This was a time when dirty cash is acknowledged to have been laundered through Cayman.

Leigh Ritch, the Cayman-based drug kingpin, details in his book ‘In Too Deep’ how he brought plane loads of cash into the islands in the 1970s, which he deposited in local banks for a 1% counting fee.

Leigh Ritch in a screenshot from archive footage of his testimony to a US senate committee in 1988.

He later gave evidence before a US Senate committee of links between his operation and Panama dictator Manuel Noriega.

There’s nothing to suggest that Kronick or Bodden and their two young passengers were ever involved in any nefarious activity. If this was a money laundering mission, then the plane was going in the wrong direction.

But it is possible the illicit trade may have contributed to what some family members see as an official reluctance to investigate the missing Lodestar plane too deeply.

Lutz Bodden recalls hearing a story that the same plane was held on the tarmac in the Bahamas two years later in a drug inquiry, before being released to depart.

An archive of Lockheed Lodestar aircraft curiously lists the plane with the epitaph, “disappeared in the Caribbean prior to April 1982, possibly drug running”. It is not clear where the information – on a site for plane enthusiasts – is sourced from, however, and it is difficult to give it much credence.

There’s nothing in Bodden’s character that suggests he was the type to be mixed up in illegal activity.

Nonetheless, his granddaughter doesn’t close the door on that explanation. If the plane was on an illicit mission, it is possible it would have filed a false flight plan. N51131 could have passed over Cuba en route to some other destination and some unknown end.

Legacy of pain

It’s approaching 50 years since the Lodestar went missing. Separating rumour from reality gets harder with every passing year.

What is undeniable, however, is the profound effect the incident continues to have on the families of the missing men.

David Miller remembers his own mother going crazy with grief. His parents split not long afterwards and he has continued, over the years, to follow up on threads and rumours that have come his way.

Hugh Cox, he says, spent thousands of dollars going back and forth to Cuba trying to get information.

Miller himself, who was close in age with his brother, often wonders if he will ever resolve the puzzle of his disappearance.

“It has always been a mystery,” he said. “What the hell happened to that plane?”

Lutz Bodden lived with nightmares for much of his life. He often thinks back to that first phone call and the fright he felt at losing his dad in such circumstances as a defining moment in his life.

“It’s something that grew in my DNA and became a part of me. I grew up a scared little boy,” he said.

CIA agent, drug trafficker, political prisoner, religious warrior or the unfortunate victim of an aviation accident – Angelique Ritch is determined to follow the facts wherever they might lead.

Angelique Ritch with her grandmother Corinthia Bodden at the family home off Crewe Road.

“I am just looking for the truth,” she said. “I would like to be able to solve this for my grandmother before she passes.”

Corinthia Bodden doesn’t talk so much these days.

Earlier this month, she manoeuvred her wheelchair to the shaded porch of the home off Crewe Road that her husband Carlton built when they were first married – the home that he left for the last time on Good Friday, 1975.

When Ritch asks her what she believes happened to her husband, she just shrugs and shakes her head sadly, as if to say, “Anything is possible.”

Anyone who can assist Angelique Ritch with information or stories about the missing plane can email her at [email protected]

How do you feel after reading this?

– Advertisement –

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now