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1931: Charles Lindbergh landed a four-engined Sikorsky S40, like this one, in Jamaica.


Take to the skies

Dr. Rebecca Tortello, Contributor




FILE PHOTO - William Robert Clarke,
ex-serviceman of the Royal Air Force (RAF), poses next to an RE 8 biplane, a similar type to the one in which he was wounded twice during a gun-raging flight over France in World War I.

THE FIRST plane to fly in Jamaican skies was flown by Jesse Seligman, an American aviator, on December 21, 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers made history with the first plane flight the world had ever seen. Promotions for Seligman's flight spoke of "the chance to see man flying in the realms monopolised by the birds." It was a hot and windy day but that didn't stop the crowd of close to 1,000 people from all over Jamaica from gathering at 3 p.m. at the Knutsford Park Race Course (in what is now New Kingston) to see the thrilling aerial exhibition. After a 45-minute delay due to unfavourable 20-mile-an-hour wind and slight rain, 22­year-old Seligman, who had only been flying for four months, managed to take off in his Moisant monoplane, determined not to disappoint the spectators. Men holding on to the plane's framework for balance, let go, and the big bird-like construction of wood, steel wire and silk ran down the ground eastward at increasing speed.

Charles Lindbergh, the world-famous American aviator

After covering some 60 yards, it mounted into the air, reaching an altitude of 200 feet. The cheer from the crowd was so loud it almost drowned out the sound of the plane's engines. Seligman flew northwards and then westwards at a mile-a-minute pace, occasionally straying beyond the Race Course boundaries.

After about five minutes, the gutsy American brought the plane to land gracefully within the Race Park lands, ready to fly again the next day and thrill an entirely new crowd. A week later, Seligman left Jamaica to fly across the Isthmus of Panama following the course of the Panama Canal and Christmas ads of Santa flying a plane laden with toys appeared in The Gleaner. (www.joyousjam.tripod.com/id2.html, www.jousjam.tripod.com/fristflight jamaica1911.id1.html)


Not long afterwards, World War I began, and many young men left Jamaica to see foreign lands and fight for king and country. Some joined the Royal Flying Corps, later to be renamed the Royal Air Force (RAF). Only a few managed to become pilots, most worked as mechanics, navigators and bombardiers. One of the most famous Jamaican pilots was William Robinson Clarke, who saw active service in World War I and was shot down over German lines in France in 1917. Wounded, with shrapnel remaining in his body, Clarke lived to a ripe old age and was always happy to show off the scars that decorated his stomach to anyone who doubted his remarkable story.

When they returned home, many of the army pilots gave up flying as there was no national airline or Air Wing with which to work. Flying did continue though, as Rudolph Ehrenstein, a member of the Jamaican Legislature, recalled seeing "pilots perform stunts, loop the loop and all that sort of thing and land at Race Course," (as quoted in Bryan, 2003, p. 22).


The Flying Club's first aircraft ­ a Piper Cub.

Commercial aviation did not begin in Jamaica until December 3, 1930, when a Pan American Consolidated Commodore twin engine flying boat landed in Kingston Harbour. The Jamaican government did not welcome Pan Am ­ it did everything it could to prevent the American company from gaining a foothold in the region while promoting the establishment of Caribbean Airways. In 1931, Carib-bean Airways completed the registration of the first local carrier ­ VP-JAA, a DeHavilland Moth seaplane with a 100 horsepower Gypsy engine, and began to offer service between Kingston and Santiago de Cuba. They also operated a mail service. In the same year, amid much fanfare, Charles Lindbergh, the world famous American aviator (well known for completing a solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927) brought the inaugural Pan Am Clipper to Jamaica. It was a four-engined Sikorsky S40 which Lindbergh landed smoothly to the delight of the many spectators who lined Kingston Harbour in welcome. Flying boat service from Miami had begun. It was to continue during the war years and to expand to Montego Bay offshore the Doctor's Cave Beach and Casa Blanca Hotel.

Following financial difficulties, Caribbean Airways folded in the mid-1930s leaving Pan Am a wide open field, of which it took advantage. The number of their flights increased as the public's fear of flying decreased. Tourists began to arrive in greater numbers by plane. Watching those planes land like giant birds at Harbour Head was an exciting event for many young Jamaicans whose families made it a Sunday outing.

FILE PHOTO - A poster advertising the first plane to fly in Jamaican skies, which was flown by Jesse Seligman, an American aviator, on December 21, 1911.

Flying boat service was discontinued in 1944 when Pan Am started a land-plane service into the Palisadoes facility previously known as the Royal Navy Air Station, built by the British in 1940. Other carriers such as British West Indian Airways, which flew from Trinidad to many islands, including Jamaica, also emerged. Intra-island service began in 1946 with Jamaica Air Transport Ltd.'s regular Vickers flying boat service between Kingston and Montego Bay.

From the mid-late 1940s Palisadoes was kept busy due to the arrival and departure of many nonscheduled charter cargo flights flying freight out of Miami to South America which stopped in Jamaica to refuel (Bryan, 2003, p. 68). Palisadoes was chosen as the location for the capital city's airport due to its close proximity to Kingston, its ability to accommodate land and sea planes, its accessibility by road and boat, the room it offered for expansion (an important consideration for heavier aircraft), the easy facilitation of land reclamation and the natural protection afforded it by the dunes that bordered the sea front.

The year 1947 was a watershed year for Jamaica's aviation history as the island was declared a British South American Airways 'air trunk junction', and a Pan Am operated aerodrome opened in Montego Bay ushering in regular Pan Am flights began between Montego Bay and Miami. The Civil Aviation Authority took over the Montego Bay operations in 1949 and, indeed, has guided the development of the airline industry on the island (Nelson, 2003, p. 360).

The decade of the 1940s also brought with it a second wave of trained pilots ­ again army volunteers returning home from having served with the RAF. By the end of 1944, twenty-two Jamaicans had joined aircrews in the United Kingdom, 3,624 had joined the RAF ground staff and another 251 were in munitions. In 1944 3,540 more joined the ground staff and 33 joined the air crews (Bryan, 2003, p. 54). Jamaica itself adopted an air squadron, the Jamaica Squadron, No. 139, and in 1941, raised enough money to buy twelve bombers to contribute to the war effort (p. 60). Soon, the war planes began to be used for civilian travel, air traffic increased and flying began to become more common. By the 1950s, 80 per cent of tourist visitors arrived by air (Bryan, 2003 p. 87-88).


A pilot balloon station and club is said to have been formed in 1926 and The Manchester Gliding Club was established in 1931 (Bryan, 2003, p. 23). The first time a Jamaican flew was said to have been in the early 1930s when three Jamaicans tried to build and fly their own plane in Montego Bay. It took two years to build the aircraft that would be christened 'Miss Jamaica', in 1932. 'Pops' McGhie and his friends Cy Suarez and Dudley Webster, ordered the Heath Parasol aircraft in kit form from America. Its maiden flight in Montego Bay was disappointing as there was not enough power to lift off. 'Miss Jamaica' was taken to Kingston and displayed at the Kingston Race Course raising £600 from curious onlookers. Hundreds of onlookers followed the aircraft to Montpelier where it was to have its second trial. 'Pops' McGhie climbs into the cockpit and the plane actually takes flight but only for an instant as after a short steep climb the propeller disintegrated and 'Pops' has to be pulled from the crumpled body of the plane. Over 30 years later 'Pops' became a qualified pilot never having given up his dream to fly. (Wilmot, unpublished manuscript)

A few years later, in 1935. one Mr. Gray made his attempt to fly. His path involved a grassless area near Paddington Terrace. He also didn't get very far, as the plane crashed into some nearby trees. The first Jamaican to own and fly an airplane to Jamaica was Rowley Horne who purchased a 3-place F-2 WACO and landed at Harbour Head in 1936 (Bryan, 2003, pp. 35-6). It wasn't until the 1950s, however, that private flying peaked. The Flying Club was formed in 1951 and by 1953, had amassed nine planes and some 70 members. This was no mean feat considering that in 1952 only six planes were registered on the island. The planes were owned both individually and collectively by members which included aerial photographer-extraordinaire Jack Tyndale-Biscoe, Tony Kelly, now chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, and Carl Barnett, who founded Wings Jamaica with his wife, Earsley, and went on to train generations of Jamaican pilots.

Besides being recreational and taking advantage of the close to 30 private airfields listed in Jamaica at that time, club members transported dignitaries, trained pilots (until that function was taken over by flying schools) and performed emergency search and rescue as well as evacuation missions. When the Jamaica Air Squadron was formed in 1963 ­ the precursor to the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Air Wing ­ its inaugural members were members of the Flying Club. They flew their own planes because the JDF had none.

The first successful flight of a Jamaican-built plane, Pitts SI, affectionately known as 'Miss Pitts', occurred in 1970. Led by John Harrison and Mike Vicens, this plane was conceptualised and built in living rooms and is still flying in New York
in the care of Harrison's son. This same team built another plane, a Sonerai, which flew successfully in 1980.


* If any readers have information regarding the development of aviation in Jamaica please email Rebecca Tortello at rtortello@hotmail.com

Next month, the series will explore Part II of aviation with the birth of the JDF Air Wing and Air Jamaica .

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Complete List of Past Pieces
Port Royal Earthquake
Port Royal Earthquake : I Was There
June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
Bog Walk Tube
For Your Listening Pleasure
The Road to Freedom
Birth of Independence
Hurricane of 1780
Tragedy at Kendal 1957
The Ward Theatre 1912
The Guarded City: Port Royal 1690
The Triumph of Will:1960s
The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
Jamaica's Grand Hotels
Celebrating Christmas Jamaica 'Style'
Disaster - The Earthquake of 1907
The Great Exhibition of 1891
The Mutiny On The Bounty & The Arrival of The First Breadfruit 1793
The Fall Of A Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
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All Hail The State Visit Of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Jamaican Healer And War Heroine Mary Seacole
Mistresses Of The Sea: Female Pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The Capital City: A Historic Look At Kingston
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A Historic Portrait of the Town Where Jamaica's Tourism Began
Devon House -The first 500 years in Jamaica
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Jamaica Festival - What a Bam Bam
Captivated by Jamaica - Sir Hans Sloane's Passion for Jamaica
Captivated by Jamaica Pt II - Noel Coward, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming
The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP
The Founding Of the People's National Party
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A Pioneer, A Survivor: Dr. Cicely Williams

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Claude McKay: Jamaica's First Poet Laureate
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Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Jews In Jamaica
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Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Africans
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The Stamp Of History: The Jamaican Postal Service
The People Who Came - The English
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Printing in Jamaica
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Gibraltar Camp: A Refuge From War
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The First 500 years in Jamaica

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted December 5, 2005
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