By Lloyd Kandasammy
In March 1913 George Schmidt, a German American, was credited with successfully flying the first plane over Guyana, from the Bel Air Park Race Course over Georgetown, dropping messages from the sky. Advances in the field of civil aviation were temporarily halted with the outbreak of the First World War. No flying was allowed over the colony of British Guiana for the next six (6) years (1914 – 1920).
When the regulations were lifted in 1921, Major C. R. Cochran-Patrick, a representative of the Bermuda and West Atlantic Aviation Company Limited, offered his Company’s services to the government of British Guiana to carry out a demonstration in aerial surveying. His proposal was accepted for a fortnight at a cost of $1,000 plus accommodation, travelling expenses and duty-free fuel. The expedition encountered several difficulties as the Company’s flying boat, “The Chaguaramas,” flown by Captain Ward, departed for the Orinoco Delta on November 29, 1921.
Success and Failures
After successfully completing the survey of the area, the plane’s engine stalled during the attempts to depart the Barima River on December 1, 1921. Ward’s attempts to drop anchor in the Barima River failed, as the plane’s locality was too deep. Helpless, the flightless bird drifted towards the riverbank where the plane was further damaged as an overhanging branch tore the fabric of one of the plane’s wings. The wing was soon repaired and the plane finally landed at Georgetown in the Demerara River on December 16, 1921.
A second expedition of “The Chaguaramas,” under the guidance of Major Cochran-Patrick accompanied by a photographer, A. W. Sanders, was organised to survey the lower Demerara between Georgetown and Hyde Park (later Atkinson Field and presently Timehri). Inclement weather prevented the team from surveying the entire riverbank and they diverted, flying across the Essequibo River, photographing the savannahs between the Demerara and the Essequibo Rivers. Upon returning en route through Supenaam, Georgetown was photographed and a mosaic was compiled. It was first exhibited in the Department of Lands and Mines and later transferred to the British Guiana Museum.
Attempts at Internal Transport
Surveys aside, serious efforts were then undertaken to promote the feasibility of transport possibilities. Major Cochran-Patrick on Decem-ber 22, 1921 attempted to make the first flight into the interior of Guiana. Unfortu-nately this experiment failed, as the plane was severely damaged in the Kurukupari River when it struck a submerged rock, severely damaging the hull. The plane was then abandoned and the team returned to Georgetown, departing for Trinidad on January 19, 1922.
Upon his return Major Cochran-Patrick described his journey and stated that it was feasible to utilise the services of planes for transport. He advised officials of the government of British Guiana that it was necessary to have the area and its rivers properly surveyed to avoid similar accidents in the future. Based on these recommendations, the government sponsored an expedition led by A. J. Cheong, a senior surveyor, and Major Hemming to survey the route flown by Major Cochran-Patrick along the Essequibo River in December 1924.
Transport re-examined: The Fairey Nicholl
In 1925 the activities of the Real Daylight Balata Estates resulted in the formation of legislation for flying in British Guiana by the Air Navigation Ordinance 1925. Financed by Managing Director of the Estates, Edgar Ernest Hodgkins, the plane, a Fairey seaplane G-EBKE, was equipped with a Rolls Royce Eagle 6 engine and radio equipment, which facilitated communication through the long wave system. This marked a successful chapter in the history of the aviation industry in British Guiana.
On February 28, 1925 Governor Sir Graeme Thompson and Lady Thompson were the first passengers aboard the estates’ sea plane, The Fairey Nicholl. The flight, which lasted only twenty-five minutes, flew the couple over Georgetown.
Though the seaplane was used primarily for transporting the estates’ employees from Georgetown to its depots at Potaro Mouth and at Apoteri, it was also frequently utilised by government officials and executives of mining companies in the upper Mazaruni district.
The Fairey Nicholl made numerous flights into the interior and over Georgetown during its three years of operation from 1925-1928. Examples of some noteworthy flights include:
The Director of Public Works, Mr. J. E. Pudsey, on March 23, 1925 to inspect flooded areas along the East Coast of the Demerara River between Georgetown and Mahaica.
Dr. P. James Kelly, the Surgeon-General, who visited the Upper Mazaruni Mining district on August 8, 1927. As a result of this flight the first official airmail was officially delivered into the interior.
The first search by air in British Guiana in September 1927 for an aviator, Paul Redfern, who was reported missing during a flight from Puerto Rico to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Mercy flights for transporting those who were ill out of the interior. One noteworthy example was that of the Warden-Magistrate of the Mazaruni District, Mr. Vincent Roth, in October 1927.
Attempts at Expansion
On September 9, 1927 the British Guiana Air Transport Company was formed. Its objective was to secure government’s assistance to provide charter flights to the interior. The investment was in vain, as poor public response resulted in the premature closure of the company. On March 3, 1928 The Fairey Nicholl was dismantled and shipped to the United Kingdom.
Air Mail Service & Famous Guests
The arrangements for the delivery of mail via planes were spearheaded by B. Rowe who piloted a Pan American Airways Survey Amphibian Plane to Georgetown, Puerto Rico and countries along the South American Atlantic Coast in July 1929 to coordinate details for an air service to transport mail between British Guiana and the rest of the world. In September 1929 that service became a reality.
During the years 1927 to 1929 British Guiana hosted several famous guests, including the Trans Atlantic Flight by Marchise de Pinedo, the Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force, on March 25, 1927 and the famous aviator, Colonel Charles Lindbergh, who moored his amphibian plane in the Demerara River on December 22, 1929.
Airstrips and Development
The field of aviation entered a new phase during the early 1930s with the activities of Russell C Davis, a pilot, Frank F Davis, an air observer, Captain C. C. Halliday and John Morgan who shipped a WACO bi-plane from the US. Their flight to Kamakusa on September 15, 1931 was the first flight to the interior by an aircraft using a landing strip. All previous efforts had to be limited to the use of rivers.
Like “The Chaguaramas,” the first flight was met with mixed fortunes, as the plane landed at a small field at the back of the Kamakusa Government Station, one of the tyres of the landing gear became dislodged, toppling the plane and damaging one of the propeller blades.
On October 26, 1931, after receiving news of favourable weather forecasts, Davis and a photographer, Frank V Quigley, departed George-town for the Upper Mazaruni district to photograph the area. Inclement weather conditions prevented the duo from completing their journey and a shortage of fuel forced the two to make a hurried landing at Bartica.
While attempting to land at the Bartica cricket field, they observed that school children were on their landing area. This led to the plane landing on Third Avenue crashing into the stairs of a building close to the avenue. Both men were seriously injured and the plane was wrecked beyond repair.
Air transport into the interior of Guyana developed with the activities of Arthur Williams, an American pilot. With his small five-seater Wasp Ireland NC 183, Williams established regular flight services to the interior. Many government officials, such as Dr. Gordon J. Williams, the government’s geologist, chartered his services. It was during one such flight on November 19, 1934, whilst transporting Dr. Gordon J. Williams that the first aerial photograph of Kaieteur Falls was taken.
The Boundary Commission also chartered Williams’ Wasp Ireland during 1935-1938 to transport team members as well as regular supplies. As the demand increased for his services, a second Ireland Wasp was acquired in 1936 and as a result of the frequent flights to the interior; a regular mail service was established.
On May 27, 1938 Arthur Williams and his partner John Henry Hunter, a British subject, registered a private company known as the British Guiana Airways Limited which would dominate the aviation industry for a considerable period in British Guiana.
The formation of the British Guiana Airways Limited marked an important phase in the development of civil aviation in the country. It led to the establishment of an internal flight radio system to facilitate communication between the planes with specially constructed ground stations, the principal station being Marine Airport Ruimveldt, which was known as ‘3xY.’
Difficulties and Assistance
During its early months of 1939 the company transported the Lord Moyne Royal Commission and the Jewish Commission for the proposed settlement of displaced persons from Germany. The company soon experienced financial difficulties, as the internal demand for air traffic was too small to sustain the air service. Indeed as early as 1938 negotiations had commenced between Williams and his partner to secure the assistance of the government of British Guiana.
This was soon achieved and the British Guiana government entered into a contract providing for a subsidy of the British Guiana Airways Limited for the period October 1, 1939 – October 1, 1942. As a result of the satisfactory services rendered during the war years the government renewed their contract in March 1944 for a period of five years from the date of the conclusion of the first contract.
This contract provided for an increase in the subsidy on account of the increased costs of maintenance due to the overhauling of the Wasp Ireland seaplanes and engine replacements.
With an increased demand for its services the Company soon expanded. In August 1944 the government granted a special subsidy, which allowed Williams to purchase a Grumman Amphibian NC 39084 to sustain and expand air services in Guiana.
This plane would be used as a shuttle service for the transport of passengers between Georgetown and Mackenzie, to ferry passengers of the British West Indian Airways Service, which had commenced service in Guiana after the withdrawal of the Pan American Seaplane Services in 1945, to and from the Mackenzie Airport.
In August 1946 the company successfully applied for an advance from the government to purchase two Douglas D.C. 3 (C47) freighter planes and the necessary spares from the USA.
The aircraft were flown into the colony in November 1946 and March 1947. The acquisition of these two carriers allowed for further expansion as not only were a significant number of airstrips completed but the company now had the capacity to transport 6,500-8,000 lbs of cargo or twenty-seven passengers.
By special arrangement, these planes were based at Atkinson Field (formerly Hyde Park and presently Timehri).
Through a special arrangement with the British Government in 1941 Atkinson Field was used as a base for US army authorities during the war years.
In 1947 the Wasp Ireland Seaplane was replaced with the services of the Grumman amphibian. A fortnightly airmail and passenger service was operated with flights into the Rupununi and Mazaruni districts by the Dakotas. The field of civil aviation was further expanded when flights were initiated to Potaro when an airstrip was completed in March 1947.
This increase in services resulted in the purchase of a second Grumman amphibian.
At the expiration of the second contract a third contract was drafted and readily accepted by all parties involved for a period of five years on October 1, 1951. The conditions of this agreement had specific stipulations for the management of the company.
Having invested significantly in the operations of the company the government requested that two-thirds of the Directors should be British subjects and that the Colonial Treasurer should be appointed as a Director and a Chairman. The agreement also provided for a significant increase in the authorised capital for the expansion of services, exemption from customs duties and supplies of radio equipment and the establishment of an Aircraft Replacement Fund.
Airfields and Landing Strips
In January 1945 under the funds of the Colonial Development & Welfare Act a grant was provided for the construction of model airstrips at Manari, Northern Rupununi Savannahs, Aurora, Cuyuni, Baramita between the Barama and Barima rivers and Mahdia.
The US Army undertook the initial development of Manari, Orinduik and other airstrips during the War years. Major Williams was tasked with the supervision, planning and construction of all airfields and landing strips in the country. The British Guiana Airways Ltd., acted as the agent of the government in executing the work. By January 1947 Manari Airfield and twenty other landing strips had been completed.
It was proposed to use the sites of the airfields and landing strips for various purposes. Manari for the transport of beef, which had been initiated by the Americans in 1942 with the activation of Atkinson Airfield base and the other locations to serve mining areas for future development.
On June 11, 1948 after a successful trail to transport beef by the Airways Dakota aircraft, the Rupununi Development Company commenced shipments to Georgetown on July 9. In their first year of operation some 300,000 lbs of beef were transported. By 1949 shipments increased to over 382,702 lbs and in 1950 the annual shipment increased to 521,470 lbs. In 1951 this figure increased significantly totalling over 1,000,000 lbs for that year.
On March 28, 1947 Major Williams and Captain Wendt were awarded medals by the British Government for their extensive work in the development of air transport within the colony during the years 1934-1947.
On December 16, Williams received the award of the Order of the British Empire for his pioneer work in the development of civil aviation in British Guiana.
On December 5, 1957 Captain Harmon Edgar Wendt was also awarded the Order of the British Empire for his ‘exceptional flying and engineering skill.’
After several years of occupation, this area, which had been used by the Americans as a civil airport was deactivated when a United States Mission visited Guiana in 1952 to resolve issues for the disposition of property and equipment.
On October 26, 1953 the responsibility of Atkinson airfield was vested into the hands of the Director of Civil Aviation.
This office had been created in 1948 when Major J. Nicole, an ex R.A.F. officer of the First World War was appointed to that post.
In 1949 after a short visit to Trinidad he was retrained as a pilot and after his return in March 1949 he took up residence at Atkinson field. His tasks included the supervision and control of all civil aircraft in the colony, the preparation of Air Navigation Orders and the supervision and maintenance of interior airstrips.
With the deactivation of Atkinson, the maintenance of the infrastructure of the area, notably the supply of water and power, roads, lands, drainage and buildings were absorbed by the Public Works Department.
The end of an era and the start of a new company
As the date of the third contract between the British Guiana Airways Ltd. and the Government neared a special committee was appointed in May 1950 to analyse the future operations of the company.
The Committee recommended that the contract be extended to December 31, 1953 after its expiration on October 1, 1951. They further stated that all attempts to reorganise the company be halted. There appears to have been some disagreement between Williams and the Government as he ‘invited’ the government to purchase the entire company. After the conclusion of intensive negotiations the Government purchased the entire business of the company on July 15, 1955.
With the dissolution of the old company a special arrangement with the British West Indian Airways led to that company acting as the managing agents and advisers of air transport in Guiana for two years.
In April 1957 the British West Indian Airways assumed full management of the company as agents and advisers on behalf of the government of Guiana.
Adaptive use of Atkinson
During 1950 Atkinson Airfield’s terminal building was altered to facilitate its use for civil aviation purposes. During the next two years the entire area was transformed with the erection of a new terminal, which was officially opened on March 15, 1952 by Governor Sir Charles Wooley, KCMG, OBE, MC. The opening ceremony commenced with a fly past of the British Guiana Airways fleet consisting of two Dakotas, two Grummans and a Wasp Ireland.
On August 5, 1959 the newly constructed wooden terminal, which was considered one of the best in the Caribbean, was destroyed by fire.
Nevertheless operations continued when a disused terminal on the southeastern side of the aerodrome was renovated and put into use as an airport terminal in 1960.
With the exception of the WACO venture in 1931 and Williams’ investment, aviation in Guiana soon expanded to include those owned by private companies and individuals. Noteworthy examples include:
The introduction of light aircraft by the Booker Sugar Estates Group between 1952 and 1953 for crop spraying and general surveys.
The introduction of a ‘Piper Apache’ by the Reynolds Mining Company for transporting personnel of the company and also for emergency errands.
The formation of the Guiana Air Limited by Donald Hawk and Henry Fitt who acquired a Cessna 140 from Caracas in 1958. Based at Ogle Airstrip they were given permission for charter flights.
The founding of the Demerara Light Aero Plane Club in September 1954 by Major Nicole, John Rix, Barney Camacho etc.
Between 1955-1956 a revolutionary approach was made in the attempts to undertake a soil survey in British Guiana. For the first time a helicopter was used for field operations. A Bell G 47 helicopter equipped with pontoons was utilised for this task.
Modifications and expansions by BWIA in collaboration with a number of stakeholders including the government, private owners and companies operated by companies served to transform the aviation industry in Guiana, particularly in the field of telecommunications, meteorology, legislation for licensing and registration of aircraft, an increase in airstrips and landing areas and an expansion in domestic and international air traffic.
Source: Land of Six Peoples