Early aviation in a nutshell
1884 - First flight with a dirigible
1890 - Otto Lilienthal’s first flights with a glider
1899 - Graf Zeppelin builds dirigible
1903 - Wright Brothers make their first motor flight
1913 - First airplane lands in Trinidad (Frank Boland)
1919 - Dirigible R 38 makes first transatlantic flight
1927 - Charles Lindbergh makes the first transatlantic flight
1929 - Lindbergh and PanAm start to service Trinidad
1931 - Opening of Piarco Airport
1934 - Mikey Cipriani dies in crash
1937 - First direct flight Moscow - USA over the north pole
1944 - Jet airplanes reach a speed of 1000 km/h
1945 - First metal plane built (Junker)
1949 - First non-stop flight around the earth
The magnificient men in their flying machines
From the start of aviation, Trinidad was a part of it. Plenty fuel, fine weather, an ever curious populace - all conditions were optimal for flying demonstrations!
An American called Frank Boland was the first. Ten years after the the Wright Brothers had made their first motor flight, Boland alighted on the Savannah with his little bi-plane in January 1913. A demonstration was scheduled for the 23rd, and hundreds of Trinidadians came out in their Sunday best, the ladies in long skirts, carrying parasols, and the men in elegant hats. Boland took off and most of the spectators saw the wonder of a flying machine in action for the first time! A few minutes later, however, tragedy struck: when Boland attempted to land near the hollows at the western end of the Savannah, where the ‘Magnificient Seven’ stood in brand-new splendour, he lost control of his plane in wind turbulences and crashed into the ground. He died instantly and left the watching crowd in shock.
Trinidad, situated at the southern end of the Caribbean chain of islands, was on the north-south route of the aviation pioneers, who in winter time took to warmer climates for their flying demonstrations. Hopping from island to island in their minuscule wooden planes, avoiding mountainous islands like St. Lucia, because there was no safe landing there, those dare-devil personalities approached flying like circus artistes, touring the world and making money with their novelty showcase.
A month after Boland’s tragic death, Trinidadians were able to witness a more successful flying demonstration: W. Schmidt from the USA droned with his ‘Red Devil’ over the expentantly upturned faces in the Savannah below, and landed safely afterwards.
Doubtlessly, there must have been some boys in the crowd who were bitten by the ‘flying bug’. When World War I broke out a year afterwards, several youngsters lost no time to enlist in the British army, and several of them distinguished themselves in the world of aviation afterwards.
A Tobagonian, Charles M. Pickthorne, for example, qualified as a pilot and shot down the ‘Red Baron’, German legendary flying ace Friedrich Karl von Preussen. Sangre Grande born Edmund R. Lickfold flew BE2c type aircrafts, fighting German columns over East Africa, and later became a flying instructor in Egypt and an ‘aerobatic’ pilot. He was also the one who taught to our legendary pilot Mikey Cipriani.
Past Students of C.I.C. who served in the Royal Air Force in World War I:
Horace Bowen, Flight Commander
George de Boissiere, Lieutenant
Roland de Verteuil, Lieutenant
Marc de Verteuil, Lieutenant
H.A. Hamel-Smith, Lieutenant
Jos. E. Kernahan, Lieutenant
Percy J. Knox, Lieutenant
G.E. Lange, Captain
Raoul Lazzari, Lieutenant
Eugene O’Connor, Lieutenant
Edmund O’Connor, Lieutenant
Cecil O’Connor, Cadet
Robert Quesnel, Lieutenant
José Rodriquez, Cadet
Errol Rooks, Lieutenant
Felix Solis, Lieutenant
Rupert Campbell, Lieutenant
Louis E. Prada, Lieutenant
Carlos A Schjolseth, Lieutenant
Jules Rochemont, Lieutenant
Joseph Herrera, Lieutenant
Henri Maingot, M.C., Lieutenant
Raymond A. Farfan, Lieutenant
André Lange, Lieutenant
William Schoener Miller, Lieutenant
Frank Graham McIntosh (Queen’s Royal Coll.)
Kenneth John Knaggs (Queen’s Royal Coll.)
Phillip CUmmings from Tobago, who received a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)
Desmond Pogson (DFC)
With so many sons of the nation involved in the air war, Trinidadians and Tobagonians raised enough money to buy several planes for the RAF: a BE2c which was emblazoned with ‘Trinidad and Tobago Aeroplane’ and put to service in India, and an FE2b bomber, labelled ‘Trinidad’ at the cockpit, which was flown in Europe. The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce bought two FE2b and three RE8 type aircrafts, all of which carried the name of our country with them into the battle of the skies.
The first Trinidadian to be ever killed in an aircraft crash was Frank Venon Bonyon from San Fernando, whose plane crashed in thick fog while he was flying a mission during the first World War in Belgium.
All in all, 84 Trinidadian and Tobagonian men became involved in aviation between 1914 - 1918. Four of the local war pilots stayed on in military aviation afterwards: Frank Rooks, Horace Bown, Eric Hobson and Claude Vincent, serving the British Empire as far as Iraq, Somaliland and Afghanistan.
The adrenalin-packed war action, the leather helmets and long leather coats, the oil-splashed goggles and the smell of gasoline in the open cockpits: the flying bug was to stay with many of these young pilots forever. Some of the survivors went on to become technicians for aeroplanes, some moved on to become flying instructors and a few remained as pilots when the era of civil aviation began.
After the war ended, aviation came to a standstill in Trinidad. Nobody had any particular interest in it. About once a year or so planes came on infrequent visits to our island. The interest in aviation was only re-kindled in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop transatlantic flight ever. Two years later, the same Lindbergh was sent by PanAm airlines to explore the possibilities of putting Trinidad on their map of destinations. Chaguaramas was chosen as the ideal site for the ‘flying boats’ (amphibian planes that can start and land on water), and on 22nd May 1929, the crowd lined 5 miles of the Chaguaramas waterfront to see the world-famous Lindbergh! It was Lindbergh who personally handed over the first bag of mail to the Post Master General, B.B. Littlepage, and thus inaugurated the era of air mail service to our country. The remainders of the jetty for the sea-planes are still visible in the sea behind the Bayside apartment towers at Cocorite.
In May 1930, PanAm’s competitor airline, New York Rio Buenos Aires Lines (NYRBA), was the first to land in Tobago. The plane was called ‘Port of Spain’, and it landed in the bay off Plymouth. NYRBA started to carve out a niche for themselves in inter-island excursion traffic, but when the much larger PanAm became aware of this, they bought out the small airline and serviced those destinations itself.
With so much water around, it was only natural that PanAm exclusively used amphibious planes to service the Caribbean. The government, however, was anxious to link Trinidad to land plane traffic. In 1930, the Piarco Savannah was chosen to build an airstrip for land planes. Previously, the land plane pilots had used the Queen’s Park Savannah, but the winds there proved treacherous and the mountains too close for comfort. On 8th January 1931, the first plane touched down at Piarco, registered by the French Compagnie Générale Aeropostale, which later became the Linea Aeropostal Venezolana.
The first Trinidadians to ever own a plane were Edmund Lickfold and Mikey Cipriani. Their de Havilland Moth airplane was first tried out on the 19th September 1931, and was christened ‘Humming Bird’. Cipriani and Lickfold did hundreds of joy-flights for passenger who were curious to see parts of Trinidad from above, and they gave flying lessons at Piarco. Mikey and his plane became a familiar sight for Trinidadians, inspiring the imagination of little boys, who upon sighting the ‘Humming Bird’ instantly turned into courageous pilots, flying paper planes and roaring through the clouds in respectable drawing rooms.
From 1932 onwards, the ‘Humming Bird’ also flew to other Caribbean islands. Tobago, however, had no suitable airstrip for Cipriani to land. On the 3rd June 1934, Mikey decided to try Shirvan Park as a suitable landing field in Tobago. In bad weather, he lost his way in the Northern Range and crashed in the forest of El Chiquero.
“A Frenchman, de la Croix by name,
In 1870 built a monoplane,
Then Clement Ader, Frenchman again,
Constructed a contraption name aeroplane.
The Wright brothers then jump in the brew,
To prove they can build flying carpets too,
Then by October 9th, 1890,
One was flying bout like a kisskeedee.”
(Alexander the Great)
“Captain Charles Lindbergh, King of the Air,
Took off in a monoplane without fear.
It was nicknamed ‘Spirit of St. Louis’
And had a horse-power of 220.
T’was 1927, 20th May
When it left the airfield with no delay
And landed in Paris the next day,
33 hourse later, on the 21st of May.”
“Soon, the high authorities received the news,
They published it and had the island confused.
Soon, the high authorities received the news,
They published it and had the island confused.
It was written in the papers that the flyer will be here,
Tomorrow, look for Lindy in the open air,
In his aeroplane
As he arrives in Port of Spain.”
“Aeroplane in the air
Flying ‘bout the place,
Give man a chance, when you hear the case
He will be walking in space.”
(Popular - and prophetic! - calypso in 1919)