British Guiana Airways Limited, just the early years.
This is a preliminary page that I hope to update as time and data become available.
British Guiana Airways was established as a private company in 19381
and proved to be a viable commercial operation until 1955 when it was sold to the colonial government of the time. The origins of the airline in the jungles of Guiana were of course much more than colorful than the “Letters of Incorporation” might imply.
In August of 1934 the Montreal Gazette reported that an Art Wiliams planned to start an Air Service in British Guiana.2 The next year, 1935, Art placed an advertisement in that same paper accompanying an extensive article on British Guiana (Might be interesting to read, from Nov 6, 1935).
My grandfather chartered Art and his Ireland flying boat several times, here are a couple of pics from 1935 taking off from Georgetown and landing on the Potaro river at Homes Landing, proving that Art really was in business despite strange ads in the Montreal gazette.
Harry Wendt joined Art and they operated 3 Ireland flying boats (not sure when Harry joined nor how many aircraft they had)
1939 Began subsidies from the colonial government which lasted until 1955
Art joined US Army during world war II (not sure)
During war 1944 purchased the first Grumman Goose
1946 began operations with purchase of two DC3 Dakotas
1947 Ireland flying boats phased out of operation replaced with purchase of second Goose
1955 BG Airways sold to government but managed by British West Indian Airways (BWIA)
1957 British West Indian Airways BWIA takes control
As a boy growing up in Mackenzie during the 1950’s and 60’s I heard the drone of the Dakotas as they passed on their way further into the interior. I loved that sound and can still recognize it today. Back then it seemed that the Dakotas would fly over Mackenzie even though it wasn’t on the direct flight path. My guess for this was that Mackenzie had an airfield (relic from the second world war) that could serve as an emergency place to land.
GUYANA DEFENDS ITSELF
The Golden Arrow of Courage by Philip Jardim copyright 2004 all rights reserved
Please do not copy
Nearly 100 years ago, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice wrote a wonderfully stirring hymn: “I vow to thee my Country all earthly things above, entire whole and perfect, the service of my love, the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test ———– .”—- and so on. Stirring stuff!
I have to say though that when the call came this was rather far from my mind. It was perhaps more the love of flying and flying aeroplanes to their limits that really interested me! The decision to risk life and limb was spontaneous – I knew that there was a risk and I accepted it – “They’ll never hit me,” I thought !
The background to it all was troubling. Barely had British Guiana become independent, ( May 26th 1966), than two of its neighbours, Venezuela to the west, and Surinam to the east, moved with hostile intent on the territory of the new State. Venezuela claimed some 55,000 square miles west of the Essequibo River. They took over the island of Ankoko in the Cuyuni River and built a large airstrip there. Surinam claimed 6000 square miles in the New River triangle down in the southeast of the country and they were in the process of building an airstrip on a high point on the east bank of the New River which they called Tigri.
Following independence and the resurgent Venezuelan claim, the Guyana Government made a number of unwise moves against the cattle ranchers in the Rupununi, a sparsely populated savannah region to the southwest of the country bordering Brazil. These ranchers had inherited leases to large tracts of land where they raised cattle with some difficulty since the pasture is poor. Hence, they needed these large tracts of land to support and feed their cattle which they rotated around their respective ranches. This meant that at any one time large areas were seemingly unused as they recovered from the intensive grazing.
For reasons I can only ascribe to political vindictiveness, the government sought to terminate the ranchers’ leases on large tracts of savannah which they deemed to be not in proper use. The government itself seemed to have no use for this land. The move was seen by the ranchers as a political payback since they had supported the United Force party in the run up to the pre-independence election. It is not clear whether the ranchers sought the support of hostile and neighbouring Venezuela, or whether the Venezuelans sensed that they had potential support within Guyana, and offered support to the ranchers. Whatever the case, the ranchers received arms training in Venezuela and were given arms by them. The Venezuelans will have delivered the munitions by clandestine flights into the Rupununi, all of which escaped detection. This is hardly surprising since those borders are wide open and never patrolled.
On January 2nd 1969, the simmering rebellion boiled over and the ranchers made their move just as Capt. Roland DaSilva was leaving Lethem in a DC-3 at about 06.30 with a load of beef destined for Georgetown. Roland may have sensed that something was happening because he hastened his departure. He escaped just in time. The rebels took control of Lethem and herded the District Commissioner and his staff into the abattoir. In the process, there was some resistance from the small police detachment, five of whom were killed. In a vain effort to stop the aircraft, a bazooka round was fired at it. Fortunately it missed and Roland sped back to Timehri.
The Rupununi is a large area, and the rebels had not secured nor silenced everyone in it. Hence, news of the uprising found its way to Georgetown by way of a missionary radio. Following this report, attempts by the government to contact the administration at Lethem proved fruitless, since all personnel were detained by the rebels. Roland’s report of the violence which he had seen on his departure all tied in, and the government summoned the Guyana Defence Force. At that time the GDF had no aeroplanes, and even now could not summon the airlift required to mount an operation of the magnitude that was clearly going to be needed.
It was to have been a day off for me, and when the telephone rang at about 12.30pm, I sensed an inexplicable premonition that something was amiss — that funny feeling one gets in the pit of the stomach! The flight dispatcher told me that Capt. DaSilva had had a narrow escape on his departure from Lethem that morning, and that the government was asking me to volunteer to fly troops to Manari, which is just 6 miles from Lethem. He stressed that this was a voluntary request which I could decline! I told him that there was no question, I would fly.
The car was sent for me within half an hour, and Michael Chan-a-Sue and I, and our two F/O’s drove up to Timehri. We were given a briefing by the commander of the mission, who was not able to tell us very much, other than that there had apparently been an insurrection at Lethem, the District Commissioner was being held along with his key staff, and the rebels were heavily armed. As there was no communication with Lethem, the news of the insurrection had come via a missionary radio. Repeated attempts to contact Lethem had yielded nothing. It was unwise to attempt to land at Lethem which was in rebel hands and they had fired on Roland DaSilva that morning as he circled overhead. However, there had been brief contact with Manari-about 6 miles from Lethem —- and that airstrip was still open, although there had been an incident involving the shooting of the tyres on a Cessna 172 which remained disabled on the airstrip.
By this time, it was nearing 15.00 hours. We decided that we would plan to arrive over Manari just after sunset to afford us some cover and a little twilight for the landing. The flight time to Manari is 1hour 25 minutes in the DC-3. Michael Chan-a-Sue’s aircraft was loaded with supplies and about 25 troops, and my aircraft had 50 troops with 5 day rations. This meant that our aircraft were overloaded – my aircraft was 4100lb overweight, and Michael’s was about 2600lb overweight. We had full fuel tanks because we were not going to be back until well after dark and we had no idea what holding or diversions might lie ahead. [The Maximum all-up weight of a civil DC-3 is 26,900LB. My aircraft was at 31000 LB and Michael’s was at 29,500LB, as I remember. During the war DC-3’s flew routinely at 31,000 LB, however, the engine-out performance at this weight is very marginal in tropical temperatures.]The standard of maintenance in Guyana Airways ranked with the best anywhere and I was not unduly concerned about engine problems. We were operating under a dispensation from the DCA for this paramilitary mission.
We took off at about 17.00 hrs, with an ETA of 18.25 over Manari, just about 25 minutes after sunset. There was an arrangement to have a vehicle with its lights on marking the end of the 5000 ft runway. We arrived in loose formation overhead Manari and as Michael’s aircraft was lighter, he agreed to land first. The arranged vehicle appeared and positioned itself at the eastern end of the runway. Michael landed without incident and radioed that all seemed well. Except for the disabled Cessna 172 with its tires shot out at the side of the strip. At about 300 feet on final approach—it was pretty dark now, and we were using no lights – I suddenly saw two red arcs of tracer come together just in front of the DC-3’s nose. The machine guns firing them would have been outside the airfield on either side of the approach path for runway 09. The GDF commander rushed up from the back to advise me that we were under fire. To avoid remaining in range, I had no alternative but to overshoot and attempt landing downwind from the eastern end of the runway. There was the usual easterly 10 to 15 knot wind over the savannahs that evening, and here I was landing an overloaded DC-3 at night, without lights, downwind with a light aircraft obstructing the strip half way down. My short-field training came to the fore that night – I three pointed the DC-3 at the eastern end of Manari, avoided the disabled aeroplane and turned around well before the other end to avoid drawing further fire.
The 50 troops quickly disembarked with their 2 inch mortar, and I bade them farewell and wished them Godspeed. As it happened, my sister and her husband were on holiday in the Rupununi. They had left their eldest son at Manari while on a trip across the border. I flew him to town that night as no one knew what might happen next and we had an uneventful return flight to Timehri.
The GDF encountered little or no resistance on their march to Lethem. The rebels fled swiftly over the border, leaving their years of possessions and property behind. The government in a scorched earth policy razed the ranch houses to the ground, putting a tragic end to many years of blood, sweat and tradition built up by the ranchers and their forefathers over time. The stated reasons were that the government did not want the ranchers to feel that they had anything to come back for. Hence, Pirara, Moreru and other lovely properties were destroyed – A wanton waste. The happy, carefree atmosphere that existed there has gone for all time. Thereafter, the government instituted a strict permit system to visit the interior as though the problem had arisen by infiltration from outside!
The Venezuelans possess the power and capability of taking over Guyana at any time and no travel permit scheme would ever have the slightest effect in countering this. Tensions between the two countries exist to this day and have grown sharper in recent years under the Chavez regime. Venezuela is not likely ever to drop a territorial claim which has been ongoing since the 1890’s. It is only US and international pressure which keeps them from pursuing it.
Meanwhile, during the ensuing months of 1969, activity was evident in the New River Triangle, on the eastern boundary with Surinam, This area was totally uninhabited at the time, save for visiting geologists, the GDF and police expeditions by air. We used to fly them in with the Grumman Goose, landing in the rivers at various points. The Surinamers had floated a D-4 bulldozer up the river and were starting to build an air strip on the Eastern bank of the New River, just upriver from its confluence with the Courantyne. As far as the Surinamers were concerned, what we call the New River is the Courantyne and vice versa. The Courantyne forms the border between Guyana and Surinam, hence, they deem the triangle to be their territory. They named their airstrip Tigri. We would later re-christen it Jaguar.
On fairly frequent flights into and over the area in the Grumman, the Cessna 310 and the Helio Courier, I would observe the progress in the construction of the strip, and the Surinamers would wave to us as we flew over. On our reconnaissance flights over the new strip, I noted the presence of what seemed to be armed observation posts in the trees lining the airstrip. They would naturally be of concern in any assault on the camp. Further, the Surinamers placed oil drums on the completed 1200 foot section of the strip, rendering that section unusable in an assault. They were in the process of extending it by a further 600 feet.
Construction of the strip continued apace as we watched seemingly helplessly from the air. Then, in a private meeting between Roland DaSilva, the Chief Pilot of Guyana Airways and the Prime Minister, Roland was asked what seaplane could deliver 30 troops into the New River area to mount an assault to take back our territory. Roland replied that there was no seaplane available to do that, but in his opinion, we had the aircraft in the country, capable of using the incompleted section of the Tigri airstrip. As I had done almost all of the reconnaissance flying over the area, he asked my opinion one night as we were having dinner with friends. We proceeded to the privacy of a room upstairs and he swore me to secrecy before telling me of his discussion with the PM. He then sought my opinion as to the ability of our Twin Otters to perform the mission: I agreed with him that with training and preparation, we could land at Tigri, subject to a final reconnaissance of the strip to assess the landing surface and distances.
In the 3 weeks leading up to the day we trained almost daily and soon gained absolute confidence in the performance capabilities of the Twin Otter which far outstripped de Havilland Canada’s performance claims for it. We determined that we could land a fully laden Twin Otter and stop within 100 yards – 300 feet !! We could then take off an empty aircraft within 300 to 500 feet. We estimated that we had a distance of 600 feet but the only unknown was the surface bearing strength of the strip. However, the fact that it could support a Caterpillar D-4 bulldozer made us confident that we had nothing to fear – the one real unknown would be braking action.
The landing technique required a short final approach speed very close to the stalling speed of the aircraft, and the selection of full reverse propeller thrust at about 6 feet off the ground, in the flare. Touchdown was almost immediate, and rapid modulated braking would bring the aircraft to a rapid halt.
For the purpose of the mission four new majors were inducted into the GDF: Roland Da Silva, Michael Chan-a-Sue, Anthony Mekdeci and Philip Jardim. We naturally realised the risks we were taking and prevailed upon the PM to undertake to support our families for the rest of their lives, should we die or be incapacitated in the line of duty. He provided us with personal letters, addressed in purple ink and in sealed envelopes. These were to be entrusted to senior members of our families, and returned to him unopened on our successful return from the mission. We never did have a look at the contents of the envelopes, and we trust that the letters stated what they were supposed to say. Given what has happened since we were probably mightily naïve, but at the time “I Vow to thee my Country” won out over doubting L.F.S. Burnham.
In the week preceding the mission, the Commissioner of Police accompanied me on a reconnaissance flight over Tigri. We took photographs and assessed to the best of our ability the state of the runway, the position of the drums they had placed on it and the condition of the uncompleted section at the eastern end. In particular, I assessed the suitability of this section for landing. I judged that we had no more than 600 feet, (200 yards) to play with. The only deduction we could draw about the bearing strength of this area was that if it could support the D-4, then we should be reasonably safe.
On the afternoon of August 18th the mission force was positioned at Apoteri. This is at the confluence of the Rupununi and Essequibo rivers, just 90 miles from Tigri. We chose to mount the operation from Apoteri because of its convenient location, relatively good runway and remoteness from observation.
The one natural obstacle which would put paid to the operation was fog. This is particularly prevalent in the interior over the rivers and adjacent river banks in the early morning. We planned to conduct the raid at dawn which at this time of the year is at about 06.00 hrs. – the prime time for fog ! I therefore decided to do a reconnaissance flight in the Helio Courier. I took off at 05.00, arriving in the vicinity of Tigri at 11,000 feet some 25 minutes later. Our luck was in: That morning was beautifully clear and I returned to Apoteri with the good news.
Roland was flying the long-nosed Twin Otter with Michael Chan-a-Sue. This aircraft had had its nose dome removed and 4 holes cut in the fibreglass bulkhead for a GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun), with the remaining 3 for sighting. W/O Hartley Liverpool – a large man, was seated in the nose with his belt-fed machine gun. I was flying the short-nosed Twin Otter with Tony Mekdeci. We were all armed with Sterling sub-machine guns. The cabin doors of both aircraft had been removed to enable the swift disembarkation of the troops, Roland would make the first approach, as his gunner could clear the potential machine gun nests I had noticed in the trees lining the stripAs soon as he was airborne again, I would land and he would cover me with his machine gunner.
Flying in loose formation, we passed overhead Tigri at 7000 feet at idle power, descending steeply to the east. Roland went in just as the sun was breaking the horizon. I stood off within sight of the strip. It went like clockwork, the only surprise being the presence of thin wooden surveying poles planted on the strip, which we had not noticed from the reconnaissance earlier. These were not a major concern as they were very thin. They did, however crack the fibreglass fairings on the landing gear struts on Roland’s aircraft. He landed, the troops rapidly jumped out of the aircraft and he taxied to the end of the available distance and took off whence he had come, away from the camp area. As Roland circled, I landed and stopped in about half of the 600 feet. My party quickly jumped out, and took their 2 inch mortar with them. I then rolled to the end of the unfinished section of the strip, applied full power, with 30 degrees of flap selected and the aircraft was airborne with barely 35 knots on the airspeed indicator. We easily cleared the 100 foot trees over which we had landed.
In the space of less than 5 minutes the two Twin Otters had deposited 45 troops at Tigri. We returned to Apoteri in loose formation, to collect the follow-up reinforcements for the raiding party. As we refuelled the aircraft, we received the excellent news that our troops had taken Tigri with no bloodshed or casualties. They had taken some 8 prisoners, the rest having fled the camp into their dugouts and down river back to Surinam.
It transpired that there had been about 90 Surinamers in the camp. They were totally unprepared for the assault, and figured that our troops had landed from the river. They thought that the aircraft had come to supply them. Our troops secured the camp and removed the fuel drums and other obstructions from the completed section of the runway, rendering it suitable for our next landings. We ferried the rest of a Company of GDF troops into Tigri; about 90 in all, plus all their rations and other supplies and equipment. At the end of the day, we returned triumphantly to Timehri, with the prisoners on board: they were returned to Paramaribo the next day by a KLM flight!
The name of the camp was changed to Jaguar shortly thereafter, with the Golden Arrowhead flying proudly above it. Using the Surinam D-4 Bulldozer, which we acquired in the raid, the strip was eventually completed, to a length about 2000 feet. There was no further aggression from Surinam and the territory remains intact to this day.
In recognition of what we had done, the government created new honours for Valour and Courage. In the following year, 1970, Roland was awarded the highest honour in Guyana: The Cacique’s Crown of Valour. Michael Chan-a-Sue, Tony Mekdeci and I were awarded The Golden Arrow of Courage. We are probably still the only ones to ever have received these honours. They are rather attractive looking medals, struck by Spink & Co., London. Spink are strikers of the Garter Star and the Victoria Cross, among others. Burnham may have figured they were cheap at the price, given what he just may have saved on those purple ink addressed envelopes.
Our exploits did not end there. Guyana Airways continued to provide paramilitary support to the GDF and even after the formation of the Air Wing of the GDF in 1971. I frequently flew the newly acquired Britten-Norman Islanders for the GDF and the Helio Couriers for the police. There is alot more of interest to be told, but for the time being this is a previously unwritten page of the Country’s history.