We are preparing to observe the one hundredth anniversary of aviation in Guyana. The first flight in the world occurred a mere eight years before Guyanese, in 1913, saw the first manned flight. The venue was D’Urban Park where the racecourse was.
The pilot, George Schmidt (Smith) was hopping around the world demonstrating this newfound experience. The reports are that he flew over the city to become the first person to get an aerial view of Georgetown as it existed then.
Schmidt was to crash and die in the United States about eight months later, but the deed had already been done. Flying had come to Guyana. It was still some time before the first aircraft was to come. The engineers were still improving on their designs.
But the importance of that flight today is reflected in what we see and take for granted. Long after that first flight, when people needed to visit another country they had to go by sea. There are numerous jokes about people stowing away in banana boats by painting themselves green only to find that the banana had turned yellow around them.
Forty years later, people were still travelling by sea to go to England, taking weeks but enjoying the sights of other islands. The jets had not arrived in this part of the world, but when they did, Guyanese boarded them as though they were taking a trip to Leguan or Wakenaam.
I saw some of the early planes in the 1960s. I would lie in the backyard and gaze at the skies often wondering if I would ever get a chance to go up in the skies and look down on earth. The common airplane then was the Grumman, an aircraft that had the ability to land on land and water. I would see their skates. For me that was the aircraft to be in.
I remember Forbes Burnham coming to Bartica in one of those. He landed in the river and a boat had to go out and get him. Years later I made my first flight and all I could do was stare out of the window at the ground below and be amazed at how orderly things appear. I saw the canal polder and could not understand how ordinary labourers, slaves, could dig something like that for miles and so straight. That was the first time I appreciated what my ancestors had to go through.
More and more planes came and with each flight people should have remembered George Schmidt. Jets were not as ubiquitous as they are today. I remember the day when the news came that Kit Nascimento’s brother had gone down in an aircraft in Guyana’s interior. At the time there was a political meeting in the run-up to the 1973 elections.
I remember the search parties, but they all came up empty. There were other crashes in Guyana’s hinterland. There was old Grandsoult who seemed to always be flying. He too disappeared. He would have been an old man today, but he would have remarked at the advances in the aircraft industry.
I saw the development of what is now the Cheddi Jagan International Airport. It was the Timehri Airport back then. The new terminal building was constructed and the jets began to arrive in increasing numbers.
There was the Ogle airstrip too. On this anniversary that facility would be commissioned to perform as a regional airport. But Ogle for me was more than what it was then. It was the jump-off point for me to numerous interior locations. I remember coming from Bartica to fly to Kamarang. I marveled that the trip took me less than two hours.
Without aircraft, that trip would have taken days—one day to travel to Bartica, another day to Mahdia and days of walking and boating to get to Kurupung. Then more walking and mountain climbing and boating to get to Kamarang. It would have taken more than a week.
Pilots were mainly men, because back then people like me had little regard for women undertaking such tasks. What I did not know was there was a woman pilot way back then. I hope that she would be around for this anniversary.
But this anniversary is more than people and planes; it is about reducing travel time. The first flight in the world was less than two hundred feet. Today there are planes that can fly around the world. I remember travelling to Japan. On the way back I slept. I remember leaving Tokyo at five in the afternoon. When I arrived in New York it was three the same afternoon.
I did not see a single aircraft in the skies and I thought that the skies were empty. What I did not know was that aircraft were flying at different altitudes. And this brings me to the people who keep those planes safe. Guyana has a corps of flight controllers who are often ignored. They are the people who see the planes and must separate them without visual contact.
Two years back, one of them with whom I spoke couldn’t bring himself to go back to work. Two planes nearly collided on his watch. President Bharrat Jagdeo was on one of those planes. What I did not know was that the planes can also see for themselves, although I knew about radar.
On this occasion an aircraft recognized an approaching plane ten miles away. That sounds like a long way off, but in reality it was a matter of less than a minute. The two aircraft would have reached each other in less than a minute. Their approaching speed would have been about twenty miles a minute. The aircraft that was alerted to the other craft immediately banked away.
In the 100 years, we have lost a few aircraft in the bush, but we have never had a major crash at any of our airports barring the Caribbean Airlines flight in July 2011. I am glad I am part of the celebrations.
Pres. Ali putting water meters on the citizens in Berbice, and not meters on Exxon oil pumps.
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