Origins of Bahamian Aviation

First Published: 2005-02-02

A recent article about Bahamasair sparked comments on the first Bahamian airline from 87-year-old Abaco pilot Leonard Thompson. So we decided to take a closer look at the early years of aviation here.

It was liquor that brought flying to the Bahamas – just a decade or two after the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

Commercial aviation took off after the First World War, when many military aircraft and the men who flew them converted to civilian life.

This was also the era of prohibition in the United States, when liquor was banned, but smuggling it was big business until the law was repealed in 1933.

A mechanic from Kentucky named Arthur ‘Pappy’ Chalk is often credited with starting the world’s first airline. In 1917 he ran charters from Miami, and two years later began scheduled flights to Bimini, carrying both rum runners and lawmen.

Pappy Chalk retired in 1964 and died in 1977. But Chalk’s Ocean Airways still operates seaplanes to the Bahamas.

Although colonial records mention a proposal by a Major H. H. Kitchener for an air service between Nassau and Miami in 1921, the first Bahamian airline was started by another American barnstorming pilot like Pappy Chalk.

After learning to fly with the US Naval Reserve, Charlie Collar joined the brand-new Pan American Airways in 1928, flying mail and passengers from Florida to the Bahamas and Caribbean.

Two years later he set up his own flying service in West Palm Beach, borrowing money from a Grand Bahama liquor dealer to buy a plane. At the time, the West End smuggling run was a lucrative business for both air and boat crews.

"Buyers would charter a plane, fly to the Bahamas, buy liquor and arrange to pay the Bahamian boat crews $5 per case when delivered to prearranged points, which could be as far north as the Carolinas," Collar recalled in his 1997 book, Barnstorming to Air Safety.

"There were 21 aircraft operating (to West End) at the peak of business…morning takeoffs became known as the dawn patrol."

When prohibition ended, Collar turned to the lobster business – buying crawfish in West End at 4 cents a pound and flying them to West Palm Beach in iced sacks where they were steamed and shipped to New York for 70 cents a pound. But he soon tired of this.

"I headed for Nassau in 1933 to start Bahamas Airways – although it wasn’t quite that simple and it took a while," he wrote. He began running charters, and one of his first customers was Harry Oakes, the legendary Canadian mining millionaire who was looking to invest here.

After a rough flight from West Palm to Nassau, Oakes heaped scorn on Collar’s "rattletrap" aircraft (a single-engine, 8-passenger Loening Air Yacht) and insisted he buy a better one. The twin-engine, 9-passenger Douglas Dolphin that Collar later acquired was the beginning of Bahamas Airways.

When Oakes moved to Nassau in 1936 he agreed to finance the fledgling airline; and then he set about building Oakes Field, the country’s first airport. Until that time only seaplanes operated in the Bahamas.

A few months later, 20-year-old Abaconian Leonard Thompson persuaded Collar to take him on as an apprentice pilot. Thompson was Bahamas Airways’ third employee – his seniors were mechanic Bob Addison and a helper named Elgin Rahming.

During the 1930s Nassau was an ‘in’ destination for the wealthy. Both Collar and Chalk regularly flew millionaires, movie stars and royalty – including well-known names like the Duke of Windsor, Axel Wennergren, Howard Hughes, Standard Oil heiress Betty Carstairs (who owned Big Whale Cay), and the future founder of Freeport Wallace Groves (who owned Little Whale Cay).

"Visiting Nassau evidently became the thing to do," Collar wrote, "like visiting Newport or the Riviera…you just weren’t anybody if you could not nonchalantly mention the winter season that you spent in Nassau."

But Collar felt the airline was his in name only: "The Bay Street merchants saw to it that Bahamians (meaning power brokers like Harold Christie and Kenneth Solomon) remained in firm control."

And although the government eventually provided a yearly subsidy, Collar said Bahamas Airways would not have survived its early days without Harry Oakes.

So when the US entered the Second World War in December, 1941 Collar left the Bahamas and wound up as a top air safety investigator…"since I had probably done as much unsafe flying as anybody".

He retired from the National Transportation Safety Board in 1970 and died in Florida in 1998.

After he left, Bahamas Airways was sold to Pan Am and Oakes Field became a Royal Air Force training base. Windsor Field was built to accommodate RAF Transport Command, which ferried men and planes from American factories to North Africa via South America.

Windsor Field was abandoned after the war and Oakes Field reverted to civilian use. Bahamas Airways was then able to recruit pilots and managers from the more than 40 Bahamians who had served in Allied air forces.

One of those was former apprentice pilot Leonard Thompson, who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, flown bombing missions over Germany and spent time in a prison camp.

According to Paul Aranha, who became a Bahamas Airways pilot in 1963, "Of those who returned, Thompson is the first name that springs to mind. Hartis Thompson became director of civil aviation and his brother, Leonard, enjoyed a long and distinguished career in aviation, both as a pilot and as manager of Bahamas Airways."

Another top wartime pilot was Philip Farrington, who died last year: "Philip was my boss and a legend in his own time. He was a leading light with Bahamas Airways, right up to the day the company was liquidated," Aranha said.

In the immediate postwar years, the airline used a variety of flying boats to deliver mail to settlements like Harbour Island, Governor’s Harbour, George Town, West End, Hope Town, Marsh Harbour, and Green Turtle Cay.

As Thompson recalled in his 1995 book I Wanted Wings: "Flying was still a novelty in those days and crowds would gather to watch our take-offs and landings, particularly on a Sunday or holiday. On the Out Islands our arrival would bring out the entire population."

But seaplanes were expensive to operate and, as more airports were built, the airline cut back on the number of settlements it served directly. Except for Chalk’s, most amphibian aircraft were phased out of service in the 1960s, although some continued to be used in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, BOAC (the British national carrier) had bought Bahamas Airways from Pan Am and, apart from a two-year period in the 1950s, maintained ownership until the Swire Group acquired the airline in 1968. Swire was a British conglomerate that also owned the very successful Cathay-Pacific Airlines at the time.

In a sense, we can trace the origin of our present national flag carrier all the way back to 1949 when Ed Albury – Bahamas Airways’ top mechanic – left with Leonard Thompson to start a charter operation called Skyways.

Thompson eventually sold out and returned to Abaco to help develop Treasure Cay. He now lives in Marsh Harbour and is working on another book of memoirs. Meanwhile, Albury went on to run a succession of independent carriers, including Bahamas Air Traders and Island Flying Service.

Finally, he set up Out Island Airways – the carrier that was to become Bahamasair in 1973 – with American pilot Gil Hensler and a Lyford Cay investor named Sherlock Hackley. It was a profitable business with more than 280 employees at its peak and over a dozen aircraft, including BAC-111 jets.

Unfortunately, the record of Bahamasair’s birth is clouded by political intrigue. According to the airline’s web site, it was "a result of the discontinuation of service by British Airways in 1970 and Pan American Airlines in 1973 due to the fuel crisis." But this is a fiction if ever there was one.

The truth is that the government refused to deal with Bahamas Airways for its own political reasons, despite the Swire Group’s offer of a majority stake in a going concern. So Swire put the airline into liquidation in October, 1970.

Out Island Airways took over its northern routes and then made a bid to become the country’s new flag carrier, offering the government a 20 per cent stake.

"But they wanted it all so we were forced to sell half of OIA to the government for nowhere near what it was worth" Albury told Tough Call recently. "In 1973 they took us over completely for less than 30 cents on the dollar."

And that’s how we got Bahamasair. Albury went on to become the first manager of the new airline (leaving three years later to go to Freeport) and OIA’s Thomas Bethel was its senior pilot, reporting to Chief Pilot Henry Pyfrom.

Albury returned to Bahamasair in 1992, but three years later he retired for good to Canada, where he still lives. He is 74.

Despite hundreds of millions in government subsidies over the past 30 years, the flag carrier has never turned a profit and has always been a centre of scandal and controversy.

Works Minister Bradley Roberts recently dubbed these years the "nightmare era" of Bahamian aviation. It is a nightmare we have yet to awaken from.

This article was first published in The Tribune November 11, 2004.

The column ‘Tough Call’ by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood’s Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year’s leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: larry@tribunemedia.net

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