A Brief Story of Aviation in Anguilla

As you walk into the terminal building of Anguilla’s airport you are immediately met by a flurry of signs and billboards advertising scheduled and chartered flights by local airlines to San Juan, to St Barths, to Nevis or Virgin Gorda. That this is Anguilla’s gateway to the outside world is neither surprising nor by any means unique—after all there are always two and only two ways out of most islands: by sea or by air. But as you drive along Wallblake Road, Clayton J Lloyd International Airport tells you a story from the very moment it greets you with a welcome sign.

 

All narratives are structured in one of many possible ways, and the airport’s at Wallblake starts with its history-laden location, which is immediately complemented by the tribute paid by officialdom to Anguilla’s aviation pioneer. As you delve further into this story—as you physically make your way from the parking lot to the terminal building—certain leads point towards the highlights (as well as the incongruence) of this tale: a plaque on the eastern side of the airport commemorates the date—1988—when Wallblake Airport (before it was dedicated to Mr. Lloyd) was upgraded. Another plaque on the western end serves the same purpose, this time celebrating the extension of the runway in 2005.

 

And then there is the row of check-in counters on the west end of the structure, which, like a map, provides a detailed—if not an exhaustive—account of the history of aviation in Anguilla: first you have Liat, and there is an eerie dose of symbolism in this, because in the beginning of aviation in Anguilla there was none other than Liat servicing the island (back in the days of the Federation of the West Indies and beyond) with its distinctive four-engined de Haviland Heron and later on its smaller Britten Norman Islander. And then there is Cape Air, which occupies—both physically and metaphorically—the space left by American Eagle after losing a power struggle with the Government so long ago hardly anyone remembers anymore. And then comes a series of local airlines that populate the check-in counters all the way to the end of the building—Lloyd’s Aviation, Carl Thomas’s Anguilla Air Services, Lincoln Gumbs’s Trans Anguilla Airways, and the late Kirby Hodge’s Rainbow International Airlines.

 

LIATs Heron was emblematic, not only in Anguilla. Photo: colnect.com

All these names and people conspire, almost wilfully, to fling us back in time, to interact with a different era, to walk the line of history and pay tribute to those who came before. In this sense, the airport’s relatively new name takes us all the way to the very start, for no Anguillian soared the skies prior to Clayton Jeremy Lloyd, the man who as a child was mesmerised with the sound of the DC-3 that regularly flew in from Puerto Rico to load up with Anguillian lobster. Encouraged by Jeremiah Gumbs, his uncle, Clayton trained as a pilot in New Jersey, obtained a commercial license and partnered with Uncle Jerry in the creation of Anguilla Airways, the island’s first commercial airline, which was meant to develop over time into a major enterprise comprising commercial, cargo, maintenance and instructional activities. This was in 1965, two years before the defining moment in Anguilla’s recent history: the revolution.

 

Clayton played his part in that too, flying the first batch of disarmed policemen back to St Kitts on May 30th 1967. By then, however, his Piper Aztec carried the name of Valley Air Services (VAS), as he had spun off from Anguilla Airways, partnering with his childhood friend Michael Hughes—Anguilla’s second pilot—and an American by the name of John McClees to found the new airline. During the years of conflict with St Kitts, when Liat and WinAir stopped flying to Anguilla, the value of the service provided by these airlines, as well as by St Thomas Air Taxi, another private enterprise funded by Paul and Vera Randall, was incalculable.

 

While Anguilla Airlines’ ambitious plans stalled, VAS added a second Aztec in ’67 and two Beech Twin Bonanzas in ’69, poaching Maurice Connor from Anguilla Airways that same year and also hiring another Anguillian pilot, Derek Thompson. At the same time, Kenneth Fleming purchased his own plane and started Fleming Air Transport—the fever had caught on. Over the next ten years all three original Anguillian airlines would fold, but they would also be replaced with others which followed quick and steadily on their footsteps.

 

The history of aviation in Anguilla is, of course, also a story of infinite sadness—from the fateful day when VAS’s Beech Twin Bonanza piloted by Clayton Lloyd caught fire in Juliana Airport on Christmas Eve 1977 to the dark early morning in 2012 when Captain Kirby Hodge’s Piper Aztec crashed into the sea during his regular paper run from St Croix to St Thomas; from the tragic day in October 1982 when Carib Air’s Piper Navajo got caught in adverse weather conditions on its way to St Thomas to the stormy summer’s day in 1998 when Air Anguilla’s Cessna 402 encountered difficulties as it approached Melville Hall airport in Dominica.

 

DSC_5934

Two of Trans Anguilla Airways’ BN Islanders

But at the same time the history of aviation in Anguilla is a story of progress, the story of a people’s efforts to meet challenges and to succeed in the face of adversity. It is the story of a small dust strip built in 1943, in the midst of a global war, and of its various stages of development, from the time when only a small section of its west end was paved, to the many years when it welcomed visitors without the need of a control tower, which was only built in 1990. That progress is palpable today, of course, even in the planes parked next to the runway, from Rainbow International Airways’ King Air and Cessna Citation to the myriad jets serviced by David Lloyd’s fixed-base operator business.

 

And yet, the road travelled has not been erased by the achievements of such progress in Anguilla—not at the airport, not anywhere else. At Clayton J Lloyd International Airport the Britten Norman Islanders operated by Anguilla Air Services or Trans Anguilla Airways (and notice the echo of past airlines in these names!) are in constant dialogue with the Learjets or the Gulfstreams arrived from the north, they evoke the days when Liat only flew STOLs into the island, and interact with the past through connections that are less subtle than it might seem: Tyden Air, as Carib Air came to be known after 1984, is still present at Wallblake airport in the figure of some of its former pilots, such as David Lloyd or Carl Thomas; Kirby Hodge, whose face illumes Rainbow’s counter, is somehow in constant conversation with Clayton Lloyd, after whom the airport has been renamed; and so, every time any of us profits from the facilities at Wallblake, we are all contributing a part—perhaps unbeknown to us, and by no means a major part, but a part no less—in the infinite erection of the remarkable story, of the history, of aviation in this island.

 

 

An abridged version of this piece was published in Design Anguilla, Issue 11 (p. 24) in June 2015.

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