Pull Quote: “For me the most interesting mission is when I have to rescue somebody…when I see that I have helped to save a life that is what really matters, not the VIPs I have flown around…once I know that a person I rescued is okay, I could sleep with some degree of joy…especially if it is a child, man I’ll go through hell, brimstone or high water, anything to help… I usually get into a different mode when it comes to search and rescue!”
By Sharmain Grainger
A patriot according to the Oxford English Dictionary is one who is devoted and ready to support or
defend his or her country’s freedom and right. But should one consider who the true patriots of this dear land of ours are, perhaps just a few good men and women will come to mind. Among them no doubt is Major Retired Michael Charles, MS, popularly known as ‘Mike Charles’.
His name over the years has become synonymous with expert pilot, dedicated military officer and more recently he has become known for his exquisite flare for photographically capturing the bio-diversity of the hinterland.
At just 49 years of age he has done more intriguing and challenging things than the average man, seen more scenic views than most and has a burgeoning appetite to do so much more in the near future. His dedicated service to this country over the years saw him being bestowed with a Medal of Service last month at the 2011 investiture ceremony for his contribution to Military Aviation and for showcasing Guyana to the world through video and photography.
Charles, who stands at just around 162 centimeters, can be described as a little man with a colossal ambition, aimed at nothing more than helping to have Guyana stand out as one of the better nations of the world. Driven by love for country and respect for life, he is one of the very few who can claim to have stared death in the face, and thanks to the Supreme Being, has been able to time and again defy surrendering to its clutch.
Mike’s many sobering experiences have not in the least deterred him from serving his country in so many ways, that it may boggle the mind of some that he has chosen to remain faithful to Guyana and disregarded the allure of greener pastures. In fact he has premised his existence on the notion that “you must be you; you must do your thing, wherever it leads you that is exactly where you should be.”
From humble beginnings in Soesdyke on the East Bank of Demerara, he has remained unassuming, but yet retains an untainted level of professionalism that has gained him immeasurable respect in the various facets of the society and further afield.
Perhaps it was his association with the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) at a very young age that helped to instill a level of discipline in the young Charles which would remain embedded in his psyche guiding his every endeavour. He reflected during an interview that “I joined the GDF when I was just 18 years old, so all of my adult life has been with the GDF…and if I can say one thing, it is that I really enjoyed serving my country. There were some hard times and there were plenty of good times too, but I can safely say I will not be leaving Guyana to serve another country.”
Born to Edwin and Rosie Charles on June 2nd 1962, Mike was the second of four boys the couple raised in their modest Soesdyke home, where he (Charles) still resides even to this day. The young Charles attended St. Mary’s Anglican School after which he went to Covent Garden Secondary. Joining the army soon after school was inevitable given his adventurous nature.
“Anybody from my era loved to do things like hunting and fishing…we were just very adventurous those days,” he fondly reflected.
In the army, Charles was trained for one year as an Officer Cadet after which he became a Second Lieutenant.
Reminiscing on his military life, Charles said that he was commissioned in 1982 by then Head of State, Forbes Burnham, whom he had previously met when he was just a young boy during a school play. Infantry life followed soon after, with him being sent to the Pirai Battalion which was based at Long Creek on the Soesdyke/Linden Highway. He was soon dispatched to the interior and served two stints – one at Kamarang and the other on the border at Eteringbang, in 1982 and 1984 respectively.
But though he was swiftly scaling the ranks, Charles’s eyes were set on joining the Air Corps, as his inner passion which lingered since he was a very young boy, was to become a pilot. His home in Soesdyke, he recalled, was the ideal location for him – seeing all of the North American-bound flights as they departed from the International Airport at Timehri. “Since I was a kid I knew every aircraft operating here by name and I learned how fast they were too…I even started learning every helicopter by name…I shared this kind of details with my school friends ….I knew the times when an aircraft took off from the airport… I usually would open my little louvre window and watch out at about five minutes to eleven every night to see the Pan American Boeing 707 turning to land at the then Timehri International Airport…that was built into me…I was fully in tune with what happened at the airport.”
Whenever I heard a helicopter I could tell people whether it was a single engine or twin engine and even what type it was due to the sound of the blades because all blades are designed differently…” he explained.
So enthused was the young Charles that viewing the aircraft from the distance of his home was not enough, thus he would hop on his bicycle and head for the airport regularly to get a closer look in order to satisfy his fascination. At the time, the airport had no perimeter fence, thus allowing for close and easy visual access from some areas.
So joining the GDF with the ulterior motive of becoming a pilot was no surprise to those who knew Mike Charles. Expectedly, after serving his stint on the border, he was transferred to the Air Corps, and immediately started flying as a student pilot. He would spend just over a year in training before he was selected for flight school overseas.
Initially, he along with five others were bound for Russia, but following the death of President Burnham, all compasses were diverted to the United States, where Charles was exposed to flight training at Flight Safety International, one of the finest Aviation Institutions in the world.
“I think it was so good of Guyana to turn to the West, because it was a different training altogether…I was really surprised that we were sent to the top flight school in America, no doubt about it.”
The first year he completed airplane training which prepared him to become an airplane pilot and the following year he completed helicopter training.
Upon his return to Guyana he was well equipped with the necessary skills to manoeuvre helicopters such as the Bell 412 and MI8s which Government had a few years earlier procured. Having chalked up years of flying experience, among them dignitary excursions and numerous search and rescue missions, Charles has been able to make a name for himself as an outstanding pilot, although this was not without incident. He has however gained much experience and knowledge, and today, is more than willing to render his expertise to the country.
“For me the most interesting mission is when I have to rescue somebody…when I see that I have helped to save a life that is what really matters, not the VIPs I have flown around…once I know that a person I rescued is okay, I could sleep with some degree of joy…especially if it is a child, man I’ll go through hell, brimstone or high water, anything to help… I usually get into a different mode when it comes to search and rescue!” he stated emphatically.
His familiarity with the various terrains has caused him to become the “go-to” person if a plane is lost, so much so that government officials have repeatedly called upon him to render his expertise in rescue scenarios. His compassionate side has frequently broken through to the surface during mercy missions causing him to be more than a rescue pilot, but a friend to those he has been tasked with rescuing.
Although he retired from the army last year, he was re-employed by the government to fly the Bell 412, or simply put to do what he has been faithfully doing for years.
He has also been volunteering his expertise to the Bird Strike Committee which was set up with a view of raising awareness about the dangers that birds can pose to aircraft in flight.
And it was even as he embraced his destiny many years ago as a pilot, Charles had started to nurture yet another passion. This time it was his love for photography, evoked by the many picturesque views his eyes witnessed as he flew across Guyana during his various missions.
“I have travelled to lots of places; I have seen lots of tourist destinations like Jamaica and Costa Rica, but when I looked around right here in Guyana I realized that this place is also incredibly wonderful and bio-diverse. I then started to capture these things with my camera.”
He is confident that bio-diversity is one of the avenues that will be used to ensure that Guyana remains on the map as a leading tourist destination, even as he alludes to Guyana’s Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS).
“The biggest jump that Guyana recently made in promoting itself was introducing our LCDS to the world. We are the only country in the world with such an advanced model. Our model promises preservation of our 16 million hectares of intact rainforest, which ensures that our vast eco systems are safeguarded therein”.
As part of his own effort to help put Guyana on the map, Charles has been collaborating with the Ministry of Tourism to highlight the bio-diversity through ‘Guyana Yours to Discover’, a DVD series of photography and videos of Guyana’s people, animals, places and events. In fact, he has evidence to prove that his handiwork has touched down on every continent, perhaps with the exception of Antarctica, suggesting that the local bio-diversity has been helping to show-off Guyana in a new and improved light.
Charles has since expanded his vision to include postcards displaying the vast bio-diversity, a move which has also been endorsed by the Tourism Ministry. His 2011Postcard Series will be launched at the International Conference Centre by the Tourism Minister on Wednesday, November 16.
With a sustained commitment to devote his energies towards his homeland, Charles revealed that he will continue to do what must be done, even without the blessings of others, adding that “you have got to believe in you, your ideas and your thoughts have got to be yours and you must not fashion it after somebody else.”
“It is imperative that individuals must have their own convictions and know their worth. Believe in yourself and you can do whatever you want to do and become whatever you want to be,” our ‘Special Person’ assures.
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