He made the skies safer for local pilots…Retired Deputy Director of Civil Aviation Aubrey Alexander is a Special Person
by Michael Jordan
“I was uncompromising in advocating safety in civil aviation, and I brooked no interference from the
politicians…Civil aviation is a serious matter and I took it very seriously. “
It’s amazing that a man who retired almost two decades ago can still speak with such passion about a career so long behind him. But that’s 74-year-old Aubrey Alexander for you; a man who served with humility but with distinction for 34 years in the aviation field in Guyana, while others with fewer achievements hogged the limelight.
Few of his colleagues can attest, like Mr. Alexander, to having served in practically every position in the Civil Aviation Department—from Assistant Air Traffic Control Officer to the esteemed position of Deputy Director of Civil Aviation.
And few, also, can boast of having contributed so much to the field, from ensuring the safety of pilots to drafting plans to enhance the aviation industry locally and internationally.
He’s been around during many historic moments in the department…like the day he was almost trapped in the Atkinson Airfield control tower when it burned to the ground, or when the first message came to Timehri about the bloody Rupununi Uprising.
“I had the pleasure of serving in every position of the CAD from Assistant Air Traffic Officer (ATO) to Director, including Air Traffic Control Officer II (ATCO), Senior Air Traffic Control Officer (SATCO), Controller of Aerodrome Operation (CAO)-Airport Manager (AM & SATCO) Aviation Inspector Aerodrome and Licensing, Deputy Director Civil Aviation (DDCA) and Director Civil Aviation (DCA) on numerous occasions,” Mr. Alexander said.
“I was uncompromising in advocating the safety of civil aviation, and I brooked no interference from the politicians. Civil aviation is a serious matter and I took it very seriously.”
Mr. Aubrey Alexander was born on July 31, 1937 in Murray Street, Georgetown, to Walter Herman Alexander and Gladys Alexander. He came from a family of high achievers, (his brother Walter Bertram (Jnr), was a Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, and a former Head Master of St Rose’s High School.
His sister, Joan Alexander-Kendall, is a former Matron of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC). His brother, Roy, resides in London.
The young Aubrey Alexander attended the British Guiana Education Trust, where he also wrote his senior Cambridge exams in 1954.
One of his first jobs was at the then Radio Demerara as Assistant Librarian circa 1955. He then worked in Lands and Mines as a class two clerk, before embarking, in 1958, on a career in civil aviation at the then Atkinson Field (Now Cheddi Jagan International Airport). His first job in that department was as Assistant Air Traffic Control Officer.
“I think I was the first African-Guyanese in the civil aviation…but there was no discrimination. Everybody was very nice and helpful to me, especially Claude Yhap, Hugh Chan, David Winter, Ivan Vieira, and my boss, Alec Phillips, who was the Senior Air Traffic Control officer.
He had a narrow escape on August 5, 1959, shortly after being promoted to the position of Assistant Air Traffic Controller. The young Alexander was on duty in the Control Tower at Atkinson Airport, along with his supervisor, Mr. George Hopkinson, when a fire, reportedly started because of poorly stored fuel, broke out in the building.
Fortunately, the Aerodrome Fire Service ranks provided them with a ladder that enabled them to exit the building before the flames engulfed the entire structure.
“I went home to my barracks and gave thanks to God for saving my life. I then proceeded to GAC radio room (3XY) where I used their radio to provide air traffic control to aircraft coming into Atkinson (mainly GAC DC-3s) from the interior. Two radio communication officers were slightly injured while escaping from the lower floor.”
He had his first of many stints of overseas training in 1960, embarking on a six-month course in the US.
Following his participation in the Basic Air Traffic Control Officer Course in 1960/61 at the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) Air Traffic Training Centre at Will Rogers Field, Oklahoma, the young aviation staffer was made an honorary Lieutenant Colonel.
On his return to Guyana in 1961, he was promoted to the position of Air traffic Control officer and continued moving up the ranks. It was in 1969, while holding the position of duty officer in the Flight Information Centre at Timehri that he received a troubling message from Lethem.
“Captain Roland Da Silva alerted the Centre that something serious was happening at Lethem and that the GDF should be alerted.
The ‘trouble’ was the beginning of the so-called Rupununi Uprising, in which armed ranchers had attacked the Police Station at Lethem. Five policemen and one civilian were killed during the attack.
“I passed the information to Sergeant Richmond and Corporal Prince who were security officers and they conveyed the alert to GDF Ayanganna, which was then under the command of Colonel Pope,” Mr. Alexander recalled.
“My scary experiences in civil aviation apart from the Atkinson Airport fire are numerous. For instance, in 1972, while flying a cross country dogleg in a Cessna 150 attached to acquiring my Private Pilot License (my route was Timehri-Linden-Ebini and back to Timehri), I was told that the aircraft fuel gauge was acting up.
“Despite the tanks being full, I could not identify any landmarks on the route. I used the advice given to me to discern the water in the Berbice River changing from black to brown and realised I was heading to New Amsterdam. I then intercepted the coast westward and then headed to Timehri for a landing.”
By 1970, he had risen to the position of Senior Air Traffic Control Officer; two years later, he had been promoted to the post of Aviation Inspector (ag); 1n 1981, Director of Civil Aviation (ag) and 1984, to Deputy Director of Civil Aviation (ag).
But with promotion came great responsibilities. One such challenge came while he was supervising the extension of the Mabaruma airstrip.
“When overseeing the extension of Mabaruma airstrip to 4,400ft we had to demolish Hobo Hill by dynamiting the hill. The dynamite and caps had to be flown in two separate Islander aircraft from Linden to Mabaruma.
“We had to acquire a track rolling drilling machine, and had to defend and justify the enormous cost at Cabinet sub-committee chaired by (former President) Mr. Desmond Hoyte. The machine was transported from Guytrac on a tug-drawn barge to Kumaka.
“On reaching Kumaka the operator had to dock the barge at a 45-degree angle to Kumaka stelling as it was too wide to dock at a right angle.”
During this operation, the costly drill machine was at risk of going overboard, but the skill of the barge operator saved the day.
“When I recounted the incident by telephone from the Mabaruma guest house to the late Mr. Robert Roberts (Director of Civil Aviation) – he commented thus – ‘Alexander you know that if the drill machine had gone overboard you would have had to go behind it”. The drill machine was successfully unloaded the next day.”
There are numerous other achievements of which Mr. Alexander is proud. He was the aviation inspector officer in charge of the domestic air transport programme to build six major aerodromes throughout the Guyana hinterland for the operation of the Hawker Siddley HS748 Aircraft.
As a Senior Air Traffic Control Officer (SATCO), he was the moving force behind the decision in 1974 by the Director of Civil Aviation to seek funding for the construction of the present control tower at Timehri Field, after a communications employee reported that the old World War II tower was swaying precariously.
He assisted Guyana in becoming a signatory to the International Air Transit Agreement whereby Israel and South Africa national airlines were debarred, at that time, from over flying Guyana’s air space.
This was owing to Guyana’s support of the Palestinian cause, and because of this nation’s strong anti-apartheid stance.
He prepared the second and third edition of the Aerodrome Emergency Plan along with installing communication facilities for alerting responding agencies in Georgetown in the event of a major air disaster at Timehri field.
Along with the Director of Civil Aviation of the Caribbean, Mr. Alexander tabled the Community of Interest resolution which enabled the new BWIA to fly to Heathrow UK from Caricom States.
And it was he who made it mandatory that aircraft transporting Government Ministers should be manned by two qualified pilots, in the event that one of the pilots became incapacitated.
Mr. Alexander reminisced that the Guyana Defence Force once had several Islander aircraft, helicopters and motor vessels capable of doing searches and aiding in search and rescue in the country’s economic zone and coastal areas.
And he was not afraid to clash with political officials who attempted to override his expertise.
He once suspended the certificates of almost the entire fleet of GDF Islander aircraft because of ‘technological glitches.’
“The Defence Board never dared to question my decision. I think what has happened (now) is that a ‘small island’ syndrome has come over the (Civil Aviation) Department. In the small islands the Director of Civil Aviation doesn’t wield as much power as under the colonial masters, so they could be overridden.”
Mr. Alexander recalled that he also once demanded and received an apology from a businessman in the timber industry who had verbally abused a senior aviation official in the official’s office.
A stickler for the rules, he also once refused to grant a pilot an air transport pilot licence, because the test for the licence had been conducted by the pilot’s trainer.
Despite his achievements, Mr. Alexander, who retired in 1992, still feels that he could have contributed much more.
Despite ratifying and becoming a signatory to a number of conventions my disappointment was Guyana not giving the force of law to these conventions in its own right as a dependent state.
“My other disappointments were that the suggestion made by me in 1990 to Vice President and Minister of Works Communication Steve Naraine to establish a Caricom body to investigate aircraft accidents in the Caricom territories was ignored. A senior official stated at that time that he didn’t want another agency overlooking his shoulder.”
“My regrets were the inability of certain officials in position of authority to listen to and act on sound professional advice gained from decades of civil aviation all round experience to the extent that in the autumn of years in CAD I was air marked for an craft maintenance three-year course in Romania as a subtle means of banishment.
“I am still amazed that after decades of aviation in Guyana there is not an aerodrome in the hinterland of Guyana to facilitate aircraft night operation. It is to be noted that shortly before pilot George Grandsoult went missing (he was never found) we did an aerial survey between Timehri, Matthew’s Ridge and Kamarang with Thompson CSF officials to investigate the possibility of siting solar navigation aids to assist in hinterland civil aviation flights.
“I was ahead of my time.”