Remember When?

The Birth of an Airport

Providenciales’ international airport started out as a handmade runway.

Story & Photos By Bengt Soderqvist

Pre-COVID-19, the Providenciales International Airport was bustling with flights from around the world, especially on weekends during the busy winter/spring months. In 2019, nearly half a million visitors arrived on the 9,199-foot runway and passed through the singular terminal building. International airlines currently serving the Turks & Caicos include American Airlines, Delta, United, jetBlue, Air Canada, West Jet, British Airways and InterCaribbean Airways. Travel is slowly increasing as visitors crave the peaceful, natural beauty the country has to offer. The TCI Assured program helps ensure the health and safety of travellers and residents.

But 60 years ago there were no airports, no flight infrastructure and bush was cleared away to create an airstrip.

In the 1960s before development started on Providenciales, the TCI Government had a work program run by the district constables. This made it possible for some of the residents to earn money. At that time, most families made a living farming the land and fishing the sea, but cash was needed to buy a few staples—flour, oil, sugar, for instance.

In Blue Hills the main work was to build a road in front of the settlement tracing the beach. Rocks were carried from the bush and placed in the sand. Other rocks were broken up into smaller pieces using a hammer, then placed in the voids between the larger rocks. After that, sand was hauled up in buckets from the beach and sprinkled over the rock base to make a smooth surface.

This 1967 photo shows the original airstrip after it had been extended to 1,200 feet.

Another work project had been to build a 700-foot long airstrip located in the valley where Kew Town is today. The bushes were cleared and the largest rocks removed.

In 1966, Fritz Ludington formed Provident Limited and made a lease purchase agreement with the TCI Government to develop 4,000 acres on the eastern part of Providenciales. In October 1966 Fritz, together with his friend Tommy Coleman and me arrived by boat on Providenciales to start the development. The boat was a 65 foot workboat named the Seven Dwarves. I was hired as a surveyor/engineer but the true job description was more like “to do anything that was needed.”

Fritz understood that to have an efficient operation, we needed to be able to come and go in a faster way than by boat. We took a look at the 700 feet that had been cleared and Fritz decided that his wife’s plane could probably be used to land there, even if the surface was pretty rough. Chris Ludington’s plane was a Cessna 180 with US registration number 74C, “74 Charlie” in pilot lingo. Fritz needed to get back to the mainland and a few days later 74 Charlie showed up for the historical landing. (I was told that one or two airplanes had landed on the strip prior to our arrival on Providenciales. I could never get that confirmed so I don’t know if we were watching a “first” landing or not.)

For the next six months we used the air strip quite a lot. I think Chris wound up with the short end of the stick because Provident more and more took over the use of her plane. During this time Fritz hired Embry Rucker as a pilot (among other things). Embry recently published a book, Coming in for a Landing, where he tells about flying in the Islands in the early days. The book is available on Amazon and is also for sale at the Turks & Caicos National Museum. (See https://www.timespub.tc/2019/03/up-up-and-away/).

Fritz Ludington himself was an experienced pilot, as were many others in the Provident group. Aviation was very important in the early development of Providenciales.

Junior Rigby with the heavy equipment used to clear the airport in 1967.

When the heavy equipment arrived in April 1967, the first priority was to improve on the existing airstrip. Provident had chartered Margaret of Exuma, a self propelled barge fully loaded with heavy equipment. The Bahamian captain entered through Sellar’s Cut, then zigzagged between the coral heads up to the beach where the National Park is today. The bow ramp was lowered onto the beach and Provident’s brand new Caterpillar D8 tractor crawled ashore with Billy Dodson at the controls. Fritz had hired Billy to head up Provident’s heavy equipment division.

Once the D8 was ashore, it could drag the rest of the load onto the beach, even if some of it got stuck in the loose sand. With the D8, a grader and a roller available it was time to start improving the airstrip. Billy, with Fritz riding on the armrest, headed west through the bushes with the D8 and made a narrow track all the way down to the airstrip.

While this was going on I was still in Sweden finishing off the topographic map that was needed to properly plan our road system and subdivisions. Only part of that original track became part of the final road system, but it served the purpose of getting the equipment to the airstrip. Billy very quickly added 500 feet to the east, which brought the eastern end of the runway closer to what today is Walkin Marine. With the grader and roller he created an even, compacted surface—1,200 feet and no loose rocks, luxury!

Part of the agreement with government was that Provident construct a 4,500 foot runway with a coral surface and the location should be outside the 4,000 acres that was to be developed by Provident. Since we now had the equipment, we wanted to get going on fulfilling our obligations, so we asked the TCI Government where they wanted us to build the runway. There weren’t that many people in government in those days. We were mostly dealing with the Administrator Tony Golding, Magistrate Finbar Dempsey and Gus Lightbourne, who was the elected representative for Providenciales. Planning and survey departments were still to be formed.

The government suggested that we extend the location where we had the 1,200 feet. As we now had the proper topographic map available, I could show Fritz that we could build a 4,500-foot runway there, but there would be no room for future extension because we would be jammed in between two hills. The map clearly showed that if the runway was moved about half a mile south it would be more suitable, because in that location there was a lot of flat ground.

We were having a lot of discussions about where the best location for the Providenciales airport should be. Both Fritz and I agreed that the ideal location for an east–west runway would be just south of North West Point.The noisy approach and take off areas would be over water. But this was 1967 and North West Point was about as far away as the moon!

South Caicos District Commissioner Ben Bolt came over on behalf of the government to inspect the location for the runway that we were suggesting. First, I showed him on the topo map why this was a good location. Then we walked on the footpath from Blue Hills to Five Cays which was flanked by a stone wall. When we reached the proposed location, we jumped atop the wall to see above the bushes. It was obvious there was a lot of flat, level ground stretching far to the west. Ben Bolt agreed that this looked like a good location, so the decision was made then and there that this was where we were going to build the runway for Providenciales and that’s where we are still landing today!

This 1967 image shows the “new” runway, with only the small, white portion usable at the time.

I marked out the new runway, set up grade stakes and Billy Dodson got to work with the D8 tractor. Billy had also given Junior Rigby on-the-job training, and Junior became an excellent operator, first on the D8 and later on the grader. (In fact, many of the roads we are driving on today were originally built by Junior.) We reserved 1,000 feet in width for the new runway, thinking of possible future taxiways, but we originally only cleared 500 feet in width. Very soon, Billy and Junior made a small area in the northeast corner ready for landings and takeoffs. Once we started operating from there, the original handmade airstrip was never used again.

Even if Provident’s obligation to the government was to build 4,500 feet, we originally cleared 6,000 feet. By the early 1970s, the entire 6,000 feet had been built out with a coral surface. Around 1977 the entire runway was surfaced with a sealcoat.

Starting in 1981, a major upgrade was undertaken by Johnston Construction, financed through a British grant. This was part of Club Med’s deal, which required an airport up to FAA standards. The runway was extended to 8,000 feet. The limestone base was recycled and reinforced through cement stabilization, while the runway was surfaced with a triple sealcoat. A new terminal was built in the present location, replacing the original one that Provident had built further east. In the 1990s, the runway was resurfaced with hotmix asphalt. That work was done during the nights to avoid interruption of operations. The 2011 expansion took the runway to 9,200 feet.

Author’s note: The D8 was a very important piece of equipment and at least one of the guys on my survey crew agreed. In the spring of 1969 there was a lot of talk about the upcoming moon landing. I had told the guys that this was just the beginning. In the future they would shoot rockets from the moon so they would need something like an airport. One of the guys said, “But how are they going to get a D8 up there?” I think we agreed that it would take many trips bringing up a small piece at a time.

In those days we got news via shortwave radio so we knew that the moon landing would be shown live on TV. We didn’t want to miss this event, so when the day came, five or six of us in the Provident group flew to Puerto Rico to watch the landing. Luckily, the Spanish commentator was quiet for a few seconds so we could hear Neil Armstrong’s famous words. A few years back, I was fortunate enough to meet Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. He got a kick out of my story.



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Marta Morton, owner/operator of Harbour Club Villas (www.harbourclubvillas.com) took this photo of the native Turks & Caicos rock iguana on Bay Cay. This endemic animal is being threatened by the invasive green iguana. See article on page 36.

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