The development of Piarco airport
After the death of Mikey Cipriani in 1934, Piarco Airfield remained abandoned for several years.
But Mucurapo Field offered no prospects of development, indeed, it was considered dangerous for both aircraft and residents by some. In December 1934, the ‘Goodwill Fliers’ - the first fliers of African descent who had ever arrived in Trinidad - crashed when their plane touched a bamboo patch near Mucurapo at take-off. (They later returned to the United States, where "Chief" Anderson went on to become the founding father of the famous Tuskegee Airmen in WWII.)
The Laventille swamps were another site that was taken into consideration for the development of a more suitable landing strip, but this proved to be too expensive. So when the first female pilot, Laura Ingalls, came to Trinidad from Paramaribo in April 1934, Piarco was again used to welcome her. “Pan American Airways were her hosts and they arranged for the grass to be cutlassed at Piarco before her arrival.” reads the ‘The History of Aviation’.
During the 1930s, Pan Am continued to welcome foreign aviators now and then at Piarco. It was the decade when expensive land-planes were developed, slowly replacing the sea-planes in international aviation. More and more people used land-planes for transport instead of ships.
In 1938, KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) arrived in Trinidad. This is the world’s oldest airline which had serviced routes to the Far East before flying to the Caribbean. The first KLM plane to arrive in Piarco was a Fokker FXII Super Trimotor. It was named after aircraft designer Anthony Fokker, and the all-metal plane possessed three BMW engines (the German BMW company was originally specialised in building airplane machines, and their blue and white logo symbolises to this day an airplane propeller in motion).
KLM flew to Barbados four times a week, twice weekly to Curaçao and once to Paramaribo. But conditions at Piarco were deteriorating, and in 1939, flooding caused KLM to suspend their air service for a month.
Piarco, originally built by the French, and maintained in the 1930s by the Americans, now came under the care of the Trinidad government. The foundation and drainage system which had been installed by engineer Maurice Lange was still sound, and Eugene de la Rosa of the Public Works Department started to pave 914.6 metres (3000 feet) of runway. KLM put up a terminal, and the the Light Aeroplane Club (LAC) was formed to operate in Piarco. Lady Young had come with her husband Sir Hubert Young to Trinidad in 1937. She herself was an experienced pilot, and became very active in the LAC.
The LAC’s first management committee was:
Squadron Leader A. Hamel-Smith
Squadron Leader G. Wright
Major Alan Storey, D.F.C.
Captain A. Essex
Frank St. HIlaire
In 1940, two auxiliary runways crossing the main landing strip were built at Piarco. They were used in changing wind conditions and for emergency landings. KLM had by this time suspended its services due to the war in Europe, and the LAC started to inaugurate solo flights from Piarco. The first pilots to fly solo were A.N. Perreira, and the second E.R. Carrington.
The LAC’s facilities also got involved in the war effort, mainly with the training of pilots.
First class of LAC:
L.G. Peyton, DSO and DFC
C.V. Perreira, DFC, Bar
L.G. Smith, DFFC
D.C.A. Smith, DFC
Flight Lieutenant Carroll (Flight Instructor)
Lieutenant R.G. Williams (Assistant Flight Instructor)
Prof. C.Y. Sheppard (Ground Instructor)
Dr. Jolly and Mr. Brown (Assistant Ground Instructors)
In all, more than 200 men from Trinidad and Tobago participated in the air war. Just over a quarter of them never returned home.
On the 2nd August 1940, the first Pan American land-plane touched down at Piarco with 32 passengers. While the four engines of the Strato Clipper were still cooling down, the Battle of Britain was going on, and the Germans destroyed most of the Royal Naval Air Station at Ford in England. The Colonial Office advised Sir Hubert Young that Piarco was to be made ready for 140 aircraft and 900 men in training. In January 1941, Captain R.H. Burton assumed command of the Piarco Naval Air Station.
Also in November 1940, when the first construction work at Piarco was almost finished, British West Indian Airways (BWIA) came into existence. Lowell Yerex, a pilot who had previously single-handedly built up the airline Transportes Aereos Centro Americanos (TACA) in Honduras and who had been invited by the Governor and Lady Young to come to Trinidad, bought a second-hand Lockheed Lodestar in Costa Rica. Yerex, a New Zealander who grew up in America, decided to call the new airline BWIA. The first BWIA flight was on the 23rd November to Tobago, and two days later, to Barbados. The first schedule comprised a daily flight to Barbados and ten weekly flights to Tobago.
Part 3 to follow
Conquering the air route to Tobago
When attempting to fly from Trinidad to Tobago for the first timein 1934, Mikey Cipriani crashed in the Northern Range and died. Three years later, Mikey’s former air mechanic Frank St. Hilaire had become a pilot, and he in turn decided to try the Piarco - Shirvan Park route again.
“On the 3rd June 1938, exactly four years after Mikey’s death, St. Hilaire took off from the deserted Piarco airfield, but experienced engine failure at 91.4 metres (300 feet) and crashed.
After one year of repair work and preparations, St. Hilarie once again attempted to make the Tobago flight on the anniversary of Cipriani’s death. However, bad weather conditions forced a postponement to the following day.
On the 4th June 1939, in good weather, St. Hilaire took off in a VP-TAB plane, and the air route to Tobago was finally conquered. While en route, he dropped a wreath over the valley where Cipriani had crahsed and then landed at Shirvan Park in Tobago.”
(The History of Aviation)