While in the U. S. Air Force I flew B-52 bombers; I was an electronic warfare officer. But given my Russian language skills [not very good but passable in aviation terminology], among other interesting things that I did, I had an additional duty of flying on Soviet diplomatic flights as an additional navigator. Whenever official Soviet aircraft entered the US, we required that an American Air Force representative accompany the crew to ensure their compliance with American aviation rules. That was the official version. The real reason was that the Soviets used to impose the same requirements on us, so it was a tit-for-tat. I have over 75 hours of ‘additional navigator’ time in IL-76s and TU-154s.
On July 1989 I flew my first mission as a “Штурман [shturman or navigator].” I was accompanied by another more experienced senior officer, who was showing me “the ropes”. Our mission was to escort an IL-76 that was on an international expedition to the Antarctica safely through American airspace. Our duties began in Minneapolis, Minnesota and would end in Havana, Cuba. Soviet flights would typically recover in Cuba as they had a large maintenance and repair facility there. As I am a native Spanish speaker, I was doubly valuable because although we had more capable Russian speakers than yours truly, I was the only one that spoke Spanish—a useful skill when in Cuba.
We had official U. S. Passports with Cuban entry visas obtained through the Cuban Embassy to the UN. After we cleared the Ministry of Interior inspection at Jose Marti Airport, we boarded a taxi. We were both in civilian suits and I sat in the front of the taxi next to the driver.
It was a Monday morning and the people of Havana were going to work. At some point in the drive to the hotel, we got behind a bus. It was crammed with people and they all seemed to have grim looks. Some of the people in the back of the bus began glaring at us; one young man with a mustache seemed particularly unfriendly.
For some reason, I instinctively stuck my arm out of the taxi and waved at them. To my surprise, everyone broke out into a smile including the young man that had seemed so grim before. People are people.
Little things matter, even in diplomacy...