Getting to Know

Up, Up and Away!

Embry Rucker was the Islands’ first resident pilot.

By Trish Flanagan ~ Photos Courtesy Embry Rucker

Today, a regular daily air service links the islands of the Turks & Caicos, while international connections bring travellers to and from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Haiti (among other countries). But 50 years ago there were no airports, no flight infrastructure and bush was cleared away to create basic air strips. Embry Rucker was the first resident pilot in the Islands and he has documented the experience in his memoir, Coming in for a Landing—Ten Years Flying in the Islands.

This is Embry Rucker’s memoir about his early days of flying in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Embry Rucker was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1941 and he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. After serving a three year term in the US Army, he attended flight school in Manassas, Virginia in 1965 and obtained his commercial pilot’s license, instrument rating and multi-engine rating.
His first foray into commercial flight in 1966 was on a wing and a prayer, after he met Gray Lang and Rogers Morton, who needed instruction on a new aircraft they had purchased. They asked him to fly it down to the Bahamas. “We went to Delaware to Richard ‘Kip’ DuPont’s place to take delivery of an Aero Commander plane,” Embry says. “Holliday, who was selling the plane, asked ‘How much multi-engine time you got boy?’ And I said ‘Seven hours,’ in a whisper. He said ‘Maybe I’ll ride along on this first trip to make sure everything’s alright.’ And then he looked over his shoulder and winked at me. I thought ‘Thank God!’ because I had looked at the aircraft, and it was a great deal more complicated than I thought!” Embry had never planned to go to the Turks & Caicos, but when he flew down to the Bahamas and looked at the water and the islands, he thought it was wonderful. “I told everyone I saw, if they needed a pilot, I was available.”
Rogers Morton (who later became a congressman and Secretary for the Interior in the US government) and Kip Dupont were two members of the “Seven Dwarfs” of Provident Limited—the company which started the commercial development of Providenciales. The other members were Teddy Roosevelt (grandson of the former US President), Peter Thompson, Tommy Coleman, Fritz Ludington and his mother. At the time there were only 400 residents in Providenciales. Provident purchased 4,000 acres from the British government, and in return they had to build an airport and dock and cut new roads on the island.

The Seven Dwarfs was a freight boat used by Provident Ltd. to carry materials from the US.

They needed a bookkeeper and Embry offered his services, despite having no experience. “I’d never had a real office job, and I never had a need to do any bookkeeping. But then my first job with Provident was as first mate on the ship called the Seven Dwarfs. Fritz Ludington said, ‘Tommy Coleman knows how to run the boat, but he doesn’t know how to navigate. You can navigate the ship from Florida down to TCI.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about navigation,’ and he replied, ‘Don’t you know how to navigate a plane? Well it’s the same thing, just slower!’”
In the days when no work permits were required, Embry became a foreman in the construction of the Third Turtle Inn on Providenciales, which commenced in 1967. Finally, after boating, bookkeeping and building, his flying career took off when Lewis “Lew” Whinnery arrived in the Islands. “Lew had been down in Guyana mining diamonds. He thought he’d start a flight service in Grand Turk and South Caicos. Fritz Ludington sai, ‘You can use my wife’s plane, and this boy has his pilot’s licence.’ That was me!” At that stage Embry had about 300 hours flying time.
South Caicos was then the commercial hub of the Caicos Islands and Embry moved to live there, renting a room from Captain and Mrs. Stanley Malcolm. Captain Malcolm ran the Sea Horse, the government launch between South Caicos and Grand Turk. Sea Horse was known locally as the “Vomit Comet,” taking four hours to travel between the islands, sometimes in very rough seas. By contrast, the new air service between South Caicos and Grand Turk took only 14 minutes.
However, to get airborne there was a lot of groundwork to be done. “There were no roads in North and Middle Caicos,” Embry recalls. “We kept building little airstrips, literally chopping down tall bushes, and starting to fly in there. We had three air strips in Middle, about two minutes apart. You’d be up and down in no time. One bigger settlement we couldn’t get into was Bottle Creek in North Caicos. We were Her Majesty’s official mailman, so we threw the mailbag out the window and hoped we’d hit the post office! We never did figure out how to pick the mail up from Bottle Creek,” he laughs. A short 800 foot airstrip created in Providenciales was called the “Machete Airport,” as that’s what locals used to clear the field.

This Cessna 180 was the first plane Embry used to fly for Caicos Airways.

Resources were limited, and they started with a Cessna 180 four-seater, single engine airplane and a Twin Bonanza, which carried a pilot and two passengers in the front, and three people in the back seat. “We found the remains of a wrecked Cessna and we took the back seat out and put it in the luggage compartment of the twin Bonanza, to get two more passengers in. I was fairly mechanically minded, and did a lot of the work on the planes.”
Without aviation infrastructure, flying conditions could be challenging. When Embry needed to land at night for a medical emergency, a truck or car was pulled onto the runway, shining its lights to guide him. “We had some close shaves. Once, the landing gear collapsed on a take-off in Conch Bar, Middle Caicos. The airplane went straight down, nose first, and we ended up hanging from our seats. We had to walk 10–12 miles to the other end of the island to get a ride home.” Embry recalls, “We tried to avoid landing in downtown Grand Turk at night because there were always donkeys and cows wandering around. The strip was only 1,500 feet long, and you had to be spot-on every time.” The airstrip was, in fact, a local road—Church Folly. Once Embry had cleared the 20 foot high power lines and the prison, he would have to drop quickly to avoid crashing into the cemetery wall.
Self-regulation was the order of the day. “There was no supervision or legal bodies at the time. I don’t think they wanted to know because it was working. We were using US registered airplanes. Most of the pilots were American, Canadians and British, but everyone was really well qualified, and they were very good at what they did. We took Finbar Dempsey, the magistrate and judge, around. It used to take him two weeks to go around the islands by boat, so he wasn’t about to look for legal reasons to shut us down!”

This image shows Embry following a crash near Conch Bar, Middle Caicos. No one was injured.

Residents now had the convenience of shorter trips, with fewer concerns about bad weather and seasickness. The country became more easily accessible, allowing its development as a financial centre and tourist destination. In 1969, Embry was appointed to the first tourist board to promote the Islands. As the aviation industry developed, Embry didn’t fly as much, and he took on a managerial role at Turks & Caicos Airways. The company started regular scheduled runs to Haiti and later ran their internal airline. “I moved down there to set it all up, and lived there for two years. I remember we started flying from Port au Prince to Cap Haitien in 30 minutes, and people were astounded, as it had taken 8 hours by road before.”
Embry was awarded the Turks & Caicos Islands Medal, given to people who were Turks & Caicos government employees. His medal, which he considers a great honour, was for service with distinction in the field of aviation over a 10 year period from 1967 to 1976. He held a Permanent Resident Card—the fourth ever issued—and he was later given Belongership for his significant social and economic contribution to the country.
He says one of the best things about flying in TCI is that he got to know the Islands so well. “Everyone in the Islands knew me—I was the only pilot for a while. I could recognise what village people were from by looking at them. The villages were very isolated and people did look different then. Years later I’d meet people and ask where they were from and I’d tell them I knew their granddaddy, and they’d be really surprised.”
Embry met his late wife, Noreen Smythe, in Grand Turk in 1967. Originally from Ireland, her sister Ann was married to the magistrate and judge, Finbar Dempsey. Embry and Noreen’s children, Síofra and Embry, were born in Grand Turk. The family returned to the US in 1976, but over the years Embry maintained a close connection with the Islands, particularly Grand Turk. He and Noreen had a house on Close Haul Road and later, Pillory Beach, finally selling up in 2008. Embry donated the organ to the Anglican Church and he was one of the original members of the Turks & Caicos National Museum, giving them a property he owned in Middle Caicos. “I had a model of the Seven Dwarfs boat made for the museum, in memory of Tommy Coleman. I also had a model Cessna 180 airplane made in memory of the late Finbar Dempsey, as he was the first government official to fly around in an airplane.”
Embry was conscious of not losing the oral history of the early days of aviation and development. “I thought to myself—all these old friends of mine in the Islands are getting pretty ancient, and their stories are going to be lost. In 2005 I got a recorder and I went around the Islands to record stories from the likes of Speed Gardiner in North Caicos, Oswald Francis in Grand Turk and Cardinal Arthur from Middle Caicos. We had some great conversations. Elsa James in Grand Turk did a great job transcribing the interviews.” The recordings and transcripts were donated to the Museum for its archive.
Even though his own book was published recently, he actually started it in 1986. “I’d dictate some stuff into a tape recorder for my children and grandchildren. Every ten years I’d add a little more. Finally, two years ago, I looked at all the grey hair in the mirror and I thought if I’m ever going to do anything with this I better get on with it.” Harry Rothgerber acted as an editor and writer, and Embry says the more he talked about it, the more came back. Embry’s brother Rudy, a writer and publisher, helped to put it together.
Embry never lost his love of flying. He is co-owner of a 1941 Piper Cub airplane that he takes out once a month in Kentucky, to practise take-offs and landings. He looks back at his pioneering days with some wonder. “It feels a bit unreal. When I came back to Louisville with Noreen and the kids, I’d meet people I knew and who I’d been in school with. They’d say, ‘Where have you been?’ and I’d start to tell some of the stories and I’d get these looks of total disbelief. Everyone else had stayed at home and done perfectly ordinary things. They couldn’t make a connection. It was so far removed from their experience.”
There are near-misses and far-reaching successes in his account of the early years of Turks & Caicos flight. One permanent legacy is his role in assigning some of the unique three letter codes used to identify airports around the world. “Except for Grand Turk (GDT) and South Caicos (XSC), the Turks & Caicos lacked any codes, so I developed additional ones. Those I thought up are still in effect —Providenciales (PLS), North Caicos (NCA), Middle Caicos (MDS) and Salt Cay (SLX).”
Although it’s been over 50 years since Embry first flew in the Islands, he played a crucial role in creating the modern aviation industry in the country, and his influence continues today.

The book Coming in for a Landing – Ten Years Flying in the Islands by Embry Rucker is published by Transreal Books and available on Amazon and Kindle.



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On the Cover

Agile LeVin grew up in the Turks & Caicos Islands and has a keen eye for capturing the country’s natural beauty. This aerial shot depicts kayakers exploring Mangrove Cay, a very well-known kayaking and paddle boarding location near Leeward on Providenciales, part of the Princess Alexandra Nature Reserve. To see more of Agile’s work, go to visittci.com.

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