Former Panamanian Hostage Kurt Muse Tells His Story

Photos courtesy of Kurt Muse

U.S. Army veteran and retired businessman Kurt Muse visits the American Helicopter Museum for a lecture and book signing.

Today, Kurt Muse is a U.S. Army veteran, retired businessman, author and sought-after lecturer. In 1989, he was one of the most famous men in Panama, the leader of a plot to overthrow the dictatorship backed by Gen. Manuel Noriega. “Noriega was a ruthless thug, a human trafficker and a drug dealer,” says Muse.

Kurt Muse
Photo courtesy of Kurt Muse

Muse’s efforts to oust Noriega’s government landed him in La Modelo, one of the worst prisons in Central America, where he spent nine months in solitary confinement. “In my mind, I took trips to the Appalachian Trail,” says Muse. “I imagined mountains, streams, animals, birds, trees, leaves, even moss. That’s how I stayed sane.”

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On Dec. 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush authorized a mission to rescue Muse. Members of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment landed Hughes MH-6J “Little Bird” helicopters at Modelo prison in Panama City, Panama. “I didn’t hear the helicopters, but I heard the gun fire,” Muse recalls. “I had no idea they were coming to rescue me.”

Operation Acid Gambit took just six minutes, though it did involve the crash of the helicopter Muse was riding in. “It was the first Little Bird to be used on a rescue,” he says. “It was so heavily damaged it couldn’t be repaired.”

an mh 6-J helicopter in flight
Photo courtesy of Kurt Muse

Given the otherwise successful extraction and the subsequent overthrow of Noriega’s government, that Little Bird became a historically important aircraft. It resided at the Smithsonian Institution until it was donated to the American Helicopter Museum in West Chester, where it’s now prominently displayed.

Muse will speak at the museum on Nov. 14 at an in-person/Zoom event from 7 to 8 p.m. And while he will talk about his 2007 book, Six Minutes to Freedom, he’ll also stress the importance of free and fair elections. Back in 1989, Muse and others fought and almost died to reinstate democracy in Panama. “We wanted every able-bodied person to vote,” Muse says. “We invited international bodies to monitor the election, and they saw fraud immediately.”

When Noriega cancelled the election results, Panamanians rioted in the streets. By that time, Muse was already incarcerated. “I saw the rioting from my jail cell,” he recalls. “I never imagined this would have relevance in the U.S.”

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