On my first clear and pull jump, I spent too much time in free fall and
never gained a stable body position...It seemed like an eternity waiting
for the opening shock of the parachute...The last thing I remembered
before my head hit the asphalt surface was the sound
When I came to, there were soldiers standing over me. “Don’t move,
buddy, the ambulance is on the way.”
The remarks of the Jump Master in my parachutist log read: Free Fall
and Out of Control. That seemed reasonably accurate.
The Jump Master’s remarks, as it turned out, were not only an apt description
of Helmey’s jump that day, but would prove to be a kind of prophecy of events to come,
events that would eventually put Helmey in the cockpit of a Boeing 727 with a
.45 calibre pistol on the eve of the ‘69 Super Bowl.
In 1993, the CIA Historical Review Program released a document
revealing that the Central Intelligence Agency had directed an
aggressive and protracted campaign to assassinate Fidel Castro. The
operation, dubbed Operation Mongoose, was hatched in 1960, shortly
after Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries overthrew the government of
Fulgencio Baptista and installed Castro as “El Commandante” of Cuba.
The operation was officially aborted in 1963 but continued in one form
or another for many years afterward, and included among its activities
the 1967 assassination of Castro’s fellow revolutionary Che Guevara.
Plots ranged from thallium salts that would make Castro’s beard fall
out to an aerosol attack on the radio station from which Castro
broadcast his speeches, from chemical-laced cigars to an exploding
conch shell. No scheme was too outlandish for the CIA operatives.
So the idea that Reds Helmey hijacked a United Airlines Flight to Cuba
on January 11, 1969 in order to assassinate Fidel Castro may not be as
far-fetched as it may sound.
Helmey isn’t saying this is why he did it. But he’s not saying it isn’t, either.
What he is saying is this: Because of his particular expertise and
training in Special Forces he was sent in late 1966 to Fort A.P. Hill
in Virginia to train a group of Navy Seabees in POW camp survival and
Communist interrogation methods. A few days later, while having a drink
at a nearby bar with a friend, he noticed a man who looked familiar
seated next to him.
“Excuse me, sir,” Reds asked. “Don’t I know you?”
The man smiled. “You might remember my face from A.P. Hill the day you
ran the POW compound exercise for the Navy.”
Now Helmey recognized the man. He had been part of a group of observers
at the training exercises.
The man asked Helmey to take a ride with him. Curious, Helmey agreed.
When they had travelled for awhile, the man pulled the car over and
parked across from another bar somewhere in Washington, D.C.
“We’re both two sides of the same coin, Helmey,” the man said. “Special
Forces and the CIA. At times our government can’t do shit on the up and up.
Sometimes dirty work has to be done and it calls for people with
They went into the bar to discuss the matter over drinks. The man gave
no specifics, but after he gauged Helmey’s interest, he said he would be in touch.
The man noticed Helmey admiring a woman at a nearby table, a woman with blond
hair but a decidedly olive complexion. He introduced Helmey to her and left.
Helmey heard nothing more for several months. Then in early March of 1967,
he received a call from a man who identified himself as a member of an anti-Castro group.
Two months later, Helmey received a large manila envelope with a Miami postmark and
no return address. It contained a letter from the man Helmey had spoken to on the phone
and an old newspaper clipping of Castro and Khruschev embracing. Fidel’s picture was
crossed out with a red marker, and written across the top of the paper were the words
“Alpha 66.” After that, Helmey began studying Fidel Castro.
What Helmey is also saying is that he received three concussions in the
immediately prior to the hijacking.
The first two were received during military jump training. On December11,
Helmey received the third when a carelessly thrown chain at the Planing Mill he owned
with his father hit Helmey in the head and knocked him unconscious. When he awoke,
he was taken to the hospital and stitched up. It was then that he began to notice that
he was not quite himself.
He began to cry easily, something he had not done before. He became
unusually upset by several incidents, including the news that North Korean
patrol boats had seized the U.S. Navy intelligence ship Pueblo off the coast
of North Korea and imprisoned its crew for spying. North Korean authorities
coerced a confession and apology out of Pueblo commander Lloyd Bucher.
This infuriated Helmey, who felt Bucher had violated everything Helmey had
been taught about not collaborating with the enemy.
Shortly after Christmas of that year, a woman strolled into the yard of
the Planing Mill with a damaged section of a boat’s gunwale to be
matched. Helmey thought he recognized her, but it was only after she
left that he realized she was the same woman he been introduced to that
night in Washington, D.C. by the man who identified himself as a CIA agent.
When his men began to repair the gunwale, they found something very
strange: a bullet, lodged deep in the wood. A 7.62 mm short, the kind
used in Soviet AK assault rifles.
When the woman returned to the mill to retrieve her repaired gunwale,
Helmey confronted her. He does not relate the content of their conversation.
Helmey arrived home that evening at approximately 5:30. He and his wife
Angelyn had plans to have friends over for dinner. Instead Helmey walked
into the den where his wife and children were watching television.
He suddenly experienced a sharp pain over his right eye. From then on,
Helmey says he felt as though he was standing next to himself as events transpired.
“Angelyn, I need to talk to you,” he said softly.
He told her that he was part of a CIA and FBA plot to assassinate Fidel
and that after he landed in Cuba she would receive $250,000 from Ken Whitaker
of the Savannah FBI. He gathered his things — a briefcase, a Model 1918 Double
Action Smith and Wesson pistol, unloaded and not in working condition, and a CIA
Escape and Evasion capsule inserted rectally — and had Angelyn drop him off at a
gas station on Drayton Street. From there he walked one block to the house of his
friend Captain Thomas Close and asked him for a ride to the airport.
He boarded his connecting flight in Jacksonville early and found a seat
in the front near the cockpit. The man next to him was on his way to
the Super Bowl game in Miami — New York Jets and Baltimore Colts.
“Do you mind going by way of Havana?” Reds asked.
“No sir, I sure don’t,” the man said, then got up and moved quickly to the rear of the plane.
Reds rose from his seat and went to the door of the cockpit. He rapped
gently on the door with his pistol. The flight engineer opened the door.
“You boys mind taking me to Havana?” Reds asked.
“No sir, come right in,” the engineer said.
Helmey sat in the jump seat.
“Do you have enough fuel to get to Cuba?” Helmey asked.
“Yes,” the flight crew answered in unison.
“How about the weather?”
“There is a little squall line to the east of us,” said pilot D.M. Guyot.
“We won’t have any problem getting around it.”
“Will there be a problem with the North American Defense people?”
“No trouble at all,” the co-pilot said.
“Are you familiar with the runways at the airport in Havana?”
“Everything is all right,” the co-pilot assured him.
Helmey asked the co-pilot to have one of the stewardesses make sure the
passengers were all right and to bring him a drink. He then chatted amiably
with the flight crew. According to Helmey and the cockpit flight crew,
the trip was downright jovial.
This all may seem unlikely behavior in the cockpit of a plane that was
being hijacked, except that between 1968 and 1969 there were 117
attempted hijackings of American aircraft, three quarters of them to
Cuba. In fact, by this time, hijackings to Cuba were so commonplace
that all commercial American airliners kept copies of the flight path
from Miami to Cuba in the cockpit as a matter of policy. Very possibly
the crew was simply used to being hijacked.
A stewardess brought Helmey two little nip bottles of Jack Daniels. He
handed his pistol to the engineer to hold while he drank them. When he
had finished his drinks, Helmey asked the engineer for the return of
his pistol, and the engineer handed it back to him.
After about 45 minutes, the lights of Havana became clearly visible
through the cockpit window.
“You will taxi to the main terminal and unload,” said the air traffic controller
at Jose Marti International Airport. Do not stop on runways or taxiways.
Proceed immediately to terminal. Passengers will be escorted to the terminal
and taken to Havana. Crew will answer questions and will cooperate with
Cuban authorities. Armed passenger will be taken into custody as soon as
he arrives. Please inform us now of his name.”
“Havana, the name of our passenger is Robert McRae Helmey.”
The pilot turned to Helmey.
“Son, are you sure you want to do this?” Guyot asked him.
“Yes, this is what I have to do,” Helmey said.
He handed the pistol to Guyot and exited the cockpit.
The stewardess opened the door of the aircraft. Helmey jumped the ten
feet to the ground. He raised his hands high in the air and walked toward
a ring of Cuban police facing him with automatic rifles.
As he walked he looked back briefly at the red, white and blue colors
of the airliner. It would be the last time he was to see these colors for 107 days.
Reds Helmey (El Rojo) teaching
Tune in for Part 3 or 4 tomorrow
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