IF THE ARGYLE International Airport (AIA) is any indication, developments in aviation services have significantly taken flight in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) throughout the last four decades.
At least, this is what former deputy director of airports, Joel Jack believes, having been a witness of the developments in this sector since SVG gained its independence in 1979.
Less than a week after this country celebrates its 42 anniversary of independence next Wednesday, October 27, Jack will commemorate his own milestone by celebrating 50 years in public service, the majority of which was spent serving this nation in aviation.
Jack, in an exclusive interview with SEARCHLIGHT, shared some of the experiences he has had over the years and reflected on the many developments that he was able to witness dating as far back as years before SVG first gained independence in 1979.
“[The international airport is] clearly the biggest, biggest thing and something that I always looked forward to, wanted, urged and at a particular point, felt that it was going to be impossible, because we just didn’t have the space in St Vincent…that one would normally consider suitable for an international airport. And we knew that we needed one if the country is to develop properly…” Jack said this week.
The former Deputy Director of Airports joined the public service in 1971 at the age of 17 in the trainee position of airport cadet at the then Arnos Vale Airport, later renamed the ET Joshua airport.
At the time, there were only ever four positions at the airport: airport cadet, airport officer, airport manager and caretaker/ watchman.
His first day was a memorable one, because much like what is taking place now at the decommissioned airport in Arnos Vale, traffic still flowed across the runway.
Jack explained that there was bamboo on either side, that an individual would have to operate to stop the flow of traffic when a plane was about to land.
“For them to pull the bamboo, the person in the tower would have had to put on the light to alert them that something is coming up and then blow a horn. And when you blow the horn, they will pull the bamboo then when the traffic is created, you take off the light and alert them to remove the bamboo. That was funny. But the very first day I worked, a vehicle drove and had an accident, run into the bamboo, broke it. And the vehicle ended up in a little gutter next to the airport…,” he recalled.
Back then, the airport also operated from 6:a.m to 6:p.m.
Jack, who served on the International Airport Development Committee (IADC), told SEARCHLIGHT that many positions were created at ET Joshua over time, which enhanced the work being done within aviation services locally. Whereas in 1971 when all airport duties would be shared between three main positions, opportunities presented themselves for meteorological officers and forecasters.
The Director of airports and Deputy Director posts were also created.
Jack himself, received numerous training opportunities both regionally and internationally and served this country for an extensive period as Senior Air Traffic Controller and then Deputy Director of airports before his retirement in 2009. “One of the things I’m happy about is that over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to like, orient, and do the basic training of a number of people who have since been in the top management of the various disciplines…The Director of NEMO [Michelle Forbes], for example, worked at the airport. And when she came there…I was involved in helping to do orientation. Mrs [Corsel] Robertson, who was the last CEO at the AIA, she also came when I was there. So we had to, we had to, you know, things like that right?… And Mrs. Best, who is at the Aviation Services Authority,” the retired airport official said.
Things also changed drastically at ET Joshua after the 911 attacks on the United States in 2001, as there was a need to beef up security.
More posts were also created for passenger screening officers, whose role was to screen baggage and passengers.
Jack also noted that a significant amount of money was spent on equipment and changing the configuration of the building to facilitate these changes.
“In terms of aviation generally, I mean, over the years, St. Vincent has done its part in the sense that we have had in our country, small airlines that started and expanded and, giving service in other places. We have had young Vincentians, who went off to be trained as pilots, and some who have served all over the world, you know, in Africa and India, and the United States and various places. Right now, I think we have a local airline… they are now flying in Haiti so, you know, a lot of things have happened in terms of our development…” he said.
Jack added that aviation security is a speciality by itself that needs to be paid a lot of attention.
“I wish, honestly wish that in the Caribbean, there could have been a school that offered degree programmes in aviation, so that people who want to get into aviation early can do a degree and do different disciplines. That is being done in other places like Singapore and Britain and so, and I believe that if the countries would work together, that’s something — even at UWI, a division that does that programme — and it should be helpful,” the father of five said.
While there are some memories he appreciates, there are others Jack would rather forget.
This includes the flooding that usually took place at ET Joshua during heavy rain and the few crashes that took place in previous years.
The retired public servant expressed pride in knowing and being present to witness the developments that have taken place over the years.
And while he believes that SVG has done well in its 42 years of independence, he said “the sky’s the limit” for what this developing country can achieve in the future.
“…Certainly if we could co-operate more and work together, we can do so much, so much better. I think we’ve done pretty well in terms of our development at the airport. And, you know, maintaining an airport is an expensive project. It’s an expensive undertaking, and so we’d have to just be patient and do the best we can…” Jack said.
He also said that “ when you think of the spin-off benefits of having the airport, it’s really going to be more than worth it and so we just have to continue to do the very best we can”.
The retired airport official noted that “one of the things, as a people we need to really care about, is to be able to give really high quality customer service wherever we work. Be the very best, be outstanding. And if we do that, it will have an impact on people coming in, and they would want to recommend St. Vincent to others. And when they come, if they experience it, they too would continue to help us to promote our country”.
Once good health allows, Jack will visit the tower at the Argyle International Airport on his anniversary on November 1 this year.