The Jamaica Aviation Club, formed in 1936 with members J.L Varna, Cecil B. Facey, W. J. Masterton, H.O. Stedman. Leslie Ashenhiem and V.C. Gray, spoke to the growing interest in flying in Jamaica (Bryan, 2003, p. 36).
The first successful flight of a Jamaican-built plane did not occur until 1970. The Pitts SI, affectionately known as 'Miss Pitts', was conceptualised and built largely by John Harrison and Garth Drew, ex-Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots and members of the Flying Club (a later version of the Aviation Club of the 1930s). 'Miss Pitts' is still flying in New York in the care of Harrison's son.
JDF AIR WING
of the Flying Club in the 1950s, Harrison and Drew performed search and
rescue efforts, medical airlifts and other important manoeuvres. PiecesPast
Along with fellow ex-RAF servicemen captains Bobby Dickson and Jack Oliphant,
captains Harrison and Drew received commissions in early 1963 to form
the Jamaica Air Squadron, the brainchild of Chief of Staff, Brigadier
Paul Crooks. The squadron was the formal precursor to the JDF Air Wing
and was part of the National Reserve. It was under the command of Major
Basil Thornton, then chairman of the Flying Club (Brown, 1993, p. 16).
Later joined by lieutenants Derrick French and Paul Stockhausen, these
pilots flew their
That situation was soon to change. On July 3, 1963, the Air Wing was officially formed with Captain Victor Beek as the first and only member. Beek holds the distinction of being the first Jamaican to hold a fixed wing and helicopter licence (Bryan, 2003, p. 90). Soon after, Jamaica received four Cessna 185B aircraft (JDF A-1, A-2, A-3 and A-4) from the US Government as part of a military assistance programme. In September of 1963, Lance Corporal Scott, its first airman, was posted to the unit.
The development of the Air Wing opened the door to a new career. As Col. Anthony 'Bunny' Stern, who commanded the Air Wing in the late 1960s, recalls: "When I was growing up, it was very rare to see a coloured pilot. I knew I wanted to fly from as young as age 5, when I saw photos of my uncle in his WW II pilot's uniform." His desire to become a pilot was kindled by sightings of a blimp at around age 10, and later, of planes landing at Palisadoes, when he visited his grandmother in Kingston.
Young Stern saved up and worked towards his private pilot's licence at Wings Jamaica Ltd. He became a member of the Flying Club and flew at the most once a month the cost, £1, 8 shillings per hour, but when a modern trainer arrived that cost jumped to £5, 15 shillings per hour.
By October 1963, there was a demand for helicopters due to the their flexibility in landing in the island's mountainous terrain. The first regular officer commanding, British helicopter instructor Major Leslie Whittingham-Jones, arrived to train helicopter pilots and organise the Jamaica Air Wing. Soon after, JDF H-1, a Bell 47G-3B-1 helicopter, was delivered to Jamaica, followed by a second Bell. As the Air Wing grew, adding pilots and maintenance crew (including female pilots the first of whom was Yola Cane), the Jamaica Air Squadron became the Jamaica Defence Force Air Wing (Reserve).
True to their motto, 'We Fly for All', the Air Wing has gone on to regularly perform daring search and rescues, play major roles in disaster relief efforts in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, support the work of the Jamaica Constabulary and Defence forces, as well as assist in realigning downed power lines and water routes, and transporting local and visiting dignitaries (Cummings, 2003, p. 4)
WINGS JAMAICA TAKES FLIGHT
Many JDF Air Wing pilots learned to fly in the JDF but some, such as George Brown, Andrew Bogle, Bunny Stern, and Victor Beek, who comprised the first JDF Air Wing unit, had learned to fly before joining up. Taught by the Barnetts Carl and Earsly they were graduates of the young flying school, Wings Jamaica. The company was formed in 1959, the brainchild of a couple united in their love of flight. Operating the tiny Cessna 150 they flew to Jamaica from the United States together, the Barnetts began a company designed to cement the future of flying in Jamaica.
Joined by friends Charles DePass, Rudy Mantel and Carl Webster, Carl and Earsly were determined to make their mark in the growth of commercial aviation on the island. A Cessna 172 and Link simulator were added in 1962. As the company, grew more planes were added and more pilots were trained (Wings Jamaica Supplement, Thursday, July 19, 1990). During this time pilots were also trained in Montego Bay at Rutt Air, another flying school, started by Czech-born crop dusting pilot, Ken Rutter.
Wings Jamaica moved to Tinson Pen where it stands today a home to
the island's flying fraternity.
Many JDF Air Wing and Wings trained pilots went on to fly for Air Jamaica. The national airline was started in 1966 under a tripartite agreement between the Jamaican government, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and British West Indian Airways (BWIA). It operated on a wet lease arrangement. The first chairman was G. Arthur Brown. There were two routes New York and Miami flown by DC8s and DC9s. On April 1, 1969, it became Air Jamaica Ltd. with share capital as a joint venture between the Jamaican government and Air Canada. That airline provided pilots, top management, equipment, technology and training. New routes were also added which, after the building of what would become known as the Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay in the late 1940s, included flights in and out of that city. Jamaicans also began to take over the internal management of the airline, with Guillermo 'Biggie' Machado becoming head in the 1970s.
The airline's personality began to emerge with the appearance of the now well-recognised orange, yellow and magenta colours and Doctor Bird symbol. Although the airline focused on assuming control over the travel market to and from Jamaica, it still had the wherewithal to establish a cargo service in 1976. By 1984 the Jamaican Government had acquired the airline through a 'buy back' agreement. Planes evolved to include 727s and routes expanded to include locations that would now be described as part of the Jamaican diaspora as well as parts of Europe and the Caribbean. A highlight of the 1980s was the short-lived but inspiring Concorde Programme under which the first plane to break the sound barrier flew on a leased agreement weekly between Montego Bay and New York.
In 1994, due to continual financial losses, the airline was privatised and turned over to the Gordon 'Butch' Stewart-led Air Jamaica Acquisition Group (AJAG). This led to a revital-isation programme that involved fleet renewal, the introduction of service to new destinations (raising the total to 25), the expansion of on-board amenities such as the premiere of the 'flying chef'. Montego Bay became a second hub. A decade after that, in 2004, again due to severe financial losses and post-9/11 turbulence in the airline industry, the Government of Jamaica once again took control of the airline. Dr. the Hon. Vin Lawrence was appointed executive chairman and he has since been followed by O. K. Melhado.
Today Air Jamaica operates some 16 planes including airbuses A320s, 321s and 340s flying 19 routes independently and eight through code share agreements with Delta. A winner of numerous travel awards ranging from the 'Prettiest Planes in the Skies' to 'Best Honeymoon Airline' and 'Best Airline to the Caribbean', Air Jamaica is responsible for the majority of passenger and air traffic to the island. Its cargo division accounts for over 70 per cent of the country's air cargo traffic serving as the main carrier of Jamaican produce to North America. Considered a significant force in tourism, it is regarded as a strong contributor to the national economy. The airline has a staff of approximately 2,500 (Air Jamaica History and Development, 1966-present).
INTERNAL AIR SERVICE
Internal air service began prior to World War II when a licence was granted to Rowley Horne and Dale Scott to operate a 'seaplane' taxi service from the Pan American Base at Harbour Head. Horne, who learned to fly at Long Island's Roosevelt Field, was the first Jamaican to fly a seaplane home to Jamaica, landing his 3-place F-2 WACO at Harbour Head on Christmas Eve 1936 (Bryan, 2003, p. 36). Interestingly, that plane is still on the U.S. Registry in the state of Missouri. Internal Air Service really 'took off', however, following independence when BWIA instituted The Jamaica Air Service (JAS) flights between Montego Bay, Kingston, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio in 1963. Jamaica Air Taxi, owned and operated by American Rudy Mantel, also emerged in the 1960s. JAS was reincorporated in 1967 but in 1974 it was threatened with bankruptcy, at which time the Jamaican government assumed control and created Trans Jamaica with a few private sector partners, including Mantel. In 1996 Air Jamaica assumed control of these routes and renamed this affiliate Air Jamaica Express (Bryan, 2003, p. 161-163). Due to lack of profit, it ceased operation in 2005 although some of the routes are being flown by International Air Link.
Today scheduled carriers into the island include: Air Jamaica, American Air Lines, Air Sunshine, Sun Country Airlines, British Airways, Continental, Spirit, Copa, Cayman Airways, ALM Antillean Airlines, Air Cubana, LTU International, Martin Air, Delta, US Airways, Air Canada, BWIA, and Jet Blue. In 2006 more airlines are slated to make Jamaica a destination. These include: Alitalia, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, Iberia, Lufthansa. The Jamaican Air Transport Sector (including flight safety) is closely monitored by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which replaced the Civil Aviation Department in May 1996. The CAA therefore oversees some 700 licensed pilots, 50 licensed air traffic controllers, 150 licensed maintenance engineers, as well as 400 cabin attendants, two airline handling agencies and two air courier companies. In addition, it oversees the country's two international airports, Norman Manley and Donald Sangster, and four active domestic aerodromes, Tinson Pen, Boscobel, Port Antonio and Negril (http://www.jcaa.gov.jm/About%20CAA.htm).
It is said that geography is nine-tenths destiny and that is certainly true when you consider Jamaica's aviation history. The first half of the industry's development was clearly influenced by World Wars I and II, and the second half by its close proximity to the North American tourist market. Throughout, aviation in Jamaica has been the story of fascination with flight, adventure and travel with a bit of national and international politics thrown in for good measure.
SOURCES: Brown, O. (1993). "The Jamaica Defence Force Air Wing (National Reserve) Thirty Years of National Service." The Altimeter, 11, p 16, Bryan, P. (2003). Jamaica: The Aviation story. Kingston: Arawak Publications Ltd., Cummings, D. (2003). History of the Jamaica Defence Force Air Wing." The Altimeter. 12. p. 3-4. D'Costa. D. (April, 1991). "To the Stars the Hard Way Homebuilding in Jamaica". Sport Aviation, 39, (4), pp. 57- 60, Nelson, B. (2003). "Aviation in Jamaica" in A tapestry of Jamaica The best of Skywritings, Air Jamaica's in-flight magazine. Kingston: Creative Communications Ltd. and Oxford: Macmillan Publishers. Pp. 559-361. Wilmot, F. Unpublished manuscript on aviation. Interviews with Tony Kelly, Peter MacCaulay , M. Biscoe (Sept. 2005), M. Hamilton, (Oct. 2005). Major General R. Neish, Col. B. Stern, Capt. A. Bogle, Col. G. Roper, Col R. Meade and C. Barnett (Nov. 2005). The Altimeter, (July 1993) vol 12, Kingston: JDF Air Wing. (www.joyousjam.tripod.com/id2.html, Air Jamaica History and Development, 1966-present unpublished document.
thanks to Col. Bunny Stern and Harold Stockhausen for their assistance
with this piece.
* If any readers have information regarding the development of aviation in Jamaica please email Rebecca Tortello at email@example.com
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted December 5, 2005
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