by Garrey Michael Dennie & Clare Keizer
Ninety-five years ago St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) entered the Age of Flight. In a truly momentous occasion, on April 8, 1927, four American planes landed on St Vincent.
The Leoning Amphibian planes had names – New York, San Francisco, San Antonio and St. Louis. These aircraft were piloted by senior American military officials – mission commander Major Herbert A. Dargue, three captains and six lieutenants.
The pilots whose deeds are now preserved in the American museums were on an epic trip. They flew 22,000 miles to 25 capital cities in Latin America and the Caribbean bringing living proof of the technological marvels of air travel.
Vincentians were fully aware of the era-defining events of which we had become invited players. The government hosted the pilots in an official ceremony. And throngs of people gathered at Kingstown Harbour to gaze upon these machines which flew through the air but landed on the sea. The reason was simple. St. Vincent lacked an airport.
Time has obscured memories of this moment. But the discoloured pages of the fifth edition of the Saint Vincent Handbook, a deteriorating photograph at the National Archives of SVG, and NASA’s exhibit of the San Francisco hold powerful reminders of this golden nugget of Vincentian history.
Hence, the opening of the Argyle International Airport (AIA) in 2017 is perhaps best understood when placed against the humble beginnings of Vincentian aviation history.
For in the magnitude of its construction, and in its capacity to accommodate non-stop trans-oceanic travel by the world’s largest airliners, the completion of AIA was an Apex Moment – the realization of the dream of generations of Vincentians barely imaginable even 20 years ago.
This essay explores Vincentian fascination with, and commitment to air travel. It sheds light on the genesis moment – the catalyzing event that triggered the Vincentian appetite for air travel. And, it chronicles the construction and operations of airports in SVG from 1932 to 2017.
It makes two observations. First, successive Vincentian governments saw the creation and expansion of airports as a core national responsibility. Second, however, Vincentians’ participation in this new technological universe would disrupt and transform Vincentian life in ways utterly inconceivable when the first plane landed in 1927.
Stunning photographic evidence from 1932 provides compelling proof of Vincentians’ embrace of the Age of Flight. On 29th July, 1932 a Trinidadian pilot, Mr. Michael Cipriani, flew into St. Vincent and landed his plane at the Diamond airfield, St. Vincent’s first airport.
Vincentians greeted the arrival of Mr. Cipriani’s flight with joy. The police, dressed in full regalia, provided security and solemnity to the occasion.
But alongside the powerful and the privileged were also the poor – drawn to the spectacle of air flight. The photograph thus captured a sense of the wonder, the sheer excitement that gripped the Vincentian mind as the country entered the age of aviation.
Not all Vincentians viewed air travel purely through star struck lenses. Some took a decidedly more pragmatic approach to this new technology, particularly the Post Master.
When the Leoning Amphibian planes landed at Kingstown in 1927, the Commander of the American squadron, Major Dargue handed over mail to Mr. F. W. Jacobs, Chief Clerk of the Post Office in the presence of Ebenezer Evans, Senior Postman.
The St. Vincent Post Office was the first beneficiary of the construction of the Diamond airfield. Thus, in 1952, the government issued a stamp celebrating twenty continuous years of airmail delivery.
In 1982 it issued four other stamps celebrating 50 years of airmail delivery.
Indeed, it also issued a stamp celebrating the 75th anniversary of the invention of the plane.
The Diamond Airport revolutionized the delivery of mail in SVG. Before 1927, mail moved between St. Vincent and any other country in the world by boat. Airmail changed that. The reason is quite simple: speed. Planes are faster than boats.
Whether saint or sinner, quicker mail delivery benefited anyone who sent or received mail. Certainly, the literate benefitted first. However, over time, Vincentians’ literacy levels rose. Hence, in the long run, airmail services democratized the very means through which the vast majority of Vincentians would communicate with friends and relatives abroad.
These seismic shifts in Vincentian cultural practices cascaded across the full terrain of Vincentian life. For example, the mail boat industry collapsed – entering a prolonged death spiral from which it would never recover. For a time, the Grenadine islands offered a lifeline to mail boat operations.
But with the construction of airports in the Grenadines, the writing was on the wall. Today, Mayreau is the only continuously inhabited island of the St Vincent Grenadines to rely solely on boat for its mail services. Elsewhere, the mail boat is a relic of an earlier time.
The airport at Diamond is less than that. It has ceased to exist. All that remained up to a few years ago was a derelict moss covered building that once stood as its terminal.
The building has since been demolished to make way for a modern commercial enterprise.
During the 1930’s, however, Diamond thrived. Whereas the airmail services provided the profit, passenger services provided the magic. This was in fact a global phenomenon. For example, in 1924 in England, in its first year of operations, the British Imperial Airways transported 212,380 pieces of mail but only 11,395 passengers.
In St. Vincent, the Diamond Airport would not be fully commissioned for passenger service until 1934.
Indeed, by 1943, Vincentian law would designate Diamond Airport as protected space that permitted entry only to passengers, flight crews, and airport workers.
Hence, during the next decade, planes roared down the runway providing a constant reminder that for some, the Vincentian dream of flying to distant lands was already a reality.
The vast majority of Vincentians, however, stood outside of this dispensation. Very few could afford the price of flight. After all, St. Vincent was a poor outpost of the British Empire.
Moreover, between 1939 and 1945 the Second World War crippled the development of passenger travel everywhere. Some civilian planes were shot down. Hence, it was not until the end of the war that passengers replaced mail as the first priority of commercial airlines.
Obviously a return to a state of global peace explains this. But the war also offered two benefits for civilian air travel. First, it revolutionized airplane technologies. Planes became bigger, heavier, faster. Second, it produced a great number of pilots available to fly these planes.
These developments doomed the Diamond Airport. After 1945, commercial aviation required runways specifically constructed to accommodate the speed and weight of modern planes.
In the early 1950’s, with Diamond Airport incapable of meeting these requirements, the government closed Diamond and moved airport operations to Villa.
At best, Villa Airport was simply a landing and take-off zone for amphibian aircraft. Individual stories and photographic evidence offer eloquent testimonies of Vincentians’ astonishment of seaplanes motoring through the sea and lifting into the air.
A young Norma Ince remembered flying out from Villa en route to Jamaica to begin her studies at the University of the West Indies in 1957. She would go on to become Mrs. Norma Keizer, distinguished Headmistress of the St. Vincent Girls’ High School and founding Editor of the Searchlight newspaper.
Travelling with her on that flight, but en route to the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, was a young Basil Williams. He would go on to become Dr. Basil Williams, a world renowned agronomist.
They could not have known that their 1957 photograph boarding the British Guiana Airways Grumman Goose aircraft would one day stand as priceless evidence of St. Vincent’s aviation history. Still, the resurrection of these older technologies of flight starkly underlined St. Vincent’s need for a modern airport.
The 1962 opening of the Arnos Vale Airport was a signal moment in Vincentian aviation history.
It immediately offered St. Vincent’s airlift capabilities beyond the limitations of the 1920’s. It opened access to the technological advances of the 1950’s. For the first time, St. Vincent had a runway designed to handle modern passenger aircraft.
And no airline would make a greater commitment to Vincentians’ pursuit of airlift capabilities than the much maligned LIAT, which celebrated its 60th anniversary of service in the region in 2016.
Seen from the vantage point of 1962, the urgent mission of the E.T. Joshua Airport was to increase air travel between St. Vincent and the rest of the world.
But at midnight on February 13th, 2017, E.T. Joshua Airport closed its operations. However, 55 years of continuous service permits one to assess whether the airport accomplished that mission.
We do not know precisely how many passengers used E.T. Joshua Airport. However, we do know from numbers collected by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority, that between January and August 2016, 161,000 tourists landed at the airport.
In fact, between 2001 and 2016 alone more than one million tourists arrived at the E.T. Joshua Airport. Clearly, over the course of 57 years, millions travelled to and from that airport.
These numbers point to profound transformations in the culture and economy of flight in St. Vincent. The central achievement of the E.T. Joshua Airport is that it democratized air travel. Once the privilege of the few, it became the choice of the many. This did not happen overnight.
After all, in its first year of operations, BWIA only operated two scheduled flights per day to the new airport. Moreover, between 1960 and 1975 the Federal Palm and The Federal Maple offered low cost travel between the Caribbean islands.
In 1965 Yvette Glasgow of Rose Place travelled to Barbados by boat. In 1971 she returned by boat as well. But in 1976, her daughter Mrs. Pamela Darroux would begin her flight to England from the Arnos Vale Airport. Their story was not unique but one told and re-told by many Vincentian families.
But undoubtedly, the failure of the Federal Palm and Federal Maple accelerated the processes through which the E.T. Joshua Airport would become Vincentians’ gateway to the world.
Throughout the 1970s to the year 2005, successive Vincentian governments demonstrated a genuine commitment to the protection and expansion of this gateway.
The decade of the 1970’s witnessed key developments. The runway was extended. Night lights were put in place. The terminal building was upgraded.
On December 16, 1988, the airport was re-named in honour of the former Chief Minister, E.T. Joshua, who was instrumental in its establishment.
In 1996, American Eagle initiated direct flights between St. Vincent and San Juan, Puerto Rico. And as late as 2005, the government performed major renovations at the airport. These actions were often described within the language of financing and engineering technicalities.
But underneath this all was a key development that did not exist in 1960: the airport had become an important plank of Vincentian national identity.
The E.T. Joshua fuelled Vincentian nationalism. For Vincentians returning home, landing at the E.T. Joshua was the most powerful statement of one’s return. This is perhaps best captured in Dread Conditions’ calypso, “I Am Happy To Be Back Home.”
In 1979, Vincentians flooded the airport to greet the national soccer team on their triumphant return from the finals of Caribbean Football Union, yet another example of how the airport had become a meeting ground of Vincentian nationalism. In particular, for Vincentians returning home via Barbados, the calls for upgraded airport facilities were very strong.
The E.T. Joshua also proved to be a critical platform for the expansion of Vincentian economic ambition.
In a crucial speech in 2005 where he outlined the case for constructing the AIA, the Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves was absolutely clear on this point: for more than three decades successive Vincentian governments contracted numerous studies to examine the feasibility of expanding the E.T. Joshua Airport or choosing a new site for the construction of an international airport. In this he was absolutely correct. These studies exist. And all were premised on the idea that St. Vincent’s expansion of its airlift capabilities would bring significant economic benefits to the country.
Geography is, of course, the nursery of Vincentian national ambitions. Strung out across the Caribbean Sea, the Grenadine islands acted as critical proving grounds for this intoxicating mixture of economic nationalism and patriotism.
From the 1970’s onwards, Vincentian governments constructed and improved these airports out of the conviction that they would strengthen the tourism industry. The Mustique Airport was privately funded. But the airports on Union Island, Bequia and Canouan are Vincentian airports whose raison d’etre differed from that which motivated the construction of the E.T. Joshua.
The AIA clearly represents a much larger canvas than the Grenadines’ airports for the unfolding of Vincentian national ambitions expressed within the language of economics.
But above all, the AIA stands as the fulfillment of an historic journey of the Vincentian imagination that took flight with the arrival of the American pilots, soared into the clouds of Diamond and Villa, and for a time found sanctuary in the achievement of E.T. Joshua.
Today, the AIA welcomes regularly scheduled weekly and bi-weekly flights from North America and Europe. The first commercial transatlantic flight — a Virgin Atlantic A330-300 — landed one year ago — on Wednesday, October 13, 2021.
How fitting it is that like its predecessors before it, the AIA is the bearer of SVG’s IATA code, SVD (St Vincent Diamond). For the AIA is a testament to that history. And in doing so it has become a great patrimony bequeathed to Vincentians now; and Vincentians not yet born.
An earlier version of this article was published in print on February 14, 2017 under the title APEX MOMENT: From Diamond Airstrip to Argyle International in the Commemorative Magazine published by Searchlight on the occasion of the opening of the Argyle International Airport.
[[UPDATED on Monday, October 10, 2022 at 10:00 am to change “the greatest patrimony” to “a great patrimony” in the final sentence of the essay.]]
Multimedia assistance with the publication of this article was provided by Lorenzo McMaster.