Remember When?

Born of Necessity

TCI’s first airline comes to life.

Story & Photos By Bengt Soderqvist

After Fritz Ludington’s Provident Limited kick-started the development of Providenciales in the fall of 1966, a lot of changes occurred. Nothing changed more dramatically than the way people were traveling. Up until that point, the main modes of transportation had been walking and boating.

The sailing sloops were very important and the fact that there were so many sailors affected the way people spoke. If you lived in Blue Hills you walked up to The Bight. (It was upwind.) I recall one time in the early 1970s when I tried to locate Hilly Ewing, who was the building inspector at the time. Before we had telephones, the best way to locate people was to inquire at the airport. On my question if anybody had seen Hilly somebody answered, “He went up this morning.” He had flown to Grand Turk, which is upwind from Providenciales.

One time, at the Third Turtle’s construction site when Alfred Stubbs tried to organize some workers to move a concrete mixer, I heard him saying, “Move the stern.” Alfred had been a sailor all his life, so even a mixer had a bow and a stern. A journey by sloop to Grand Turk from Providenciales was a big event in those days, but all that was soon to change.

The “Downtown Strip” in Grand Turk was a dirt road just north of St. Thomas’s Church.

In the Spring 2021 issue of Times of the Islands, I wrote about the original airstrip on Providenciales. In the beginning, that strip was mostly used by Fritz when he flew to Grand Turk for meetings with the government.In Grand Turk he used what we named the “Downtown Strip,” which was a dirt road just north of St. Thomas Church. According to Dr. Leo Astwood, Frankie Jones from Bermuda, who was the District Commissioner in South Caicos in the 1950s, had a small plane that he used to land there. Dr. Astwood told me, “When I came back home in 1971, Embry was landing there.”

The Downtown Strip was conveniently located within a short walking distance of the TCI Government compound. At the time, the main airport in Grand Turk was controlled by the US Government and it was very complicated to obtain a landing permit. Fritz was always very generous when it came to offering free rides if there was a seat available. One time I heard Fritz saying, “There are so many people who want to go to South Caicos and Grand Turk, we might as well start an airline.” Shortly thereafter, Caicos Airways Ltd. (CAL) was formed.

This was in 1967 and one important factor was that a man named Lew Whinnery had shown up on the scene. Ray Ward and his construction crew were building the Third Turtle Inn on top of the cliff just south of what today is Turtle Cove Marina. One day they saw a small, single engine sea plane circling the construction site before landing close to the beach in front of them. Soon afterwards, Lew walked up to the construction site. He had flown over Providenciales before and this time, noticed that something was different. Lew asked Ray what he was building and if he needed some help. Ray replied that it would be a big help if he could fly to South Caicos and bring back a few cases of Heineken beer because they were running low. That is exactly what Lew did, so we knew right away that he was a man with his heart in the right place!

In 1967, Heineken was the only beer available in Turks & Caicos. I was told, or read somewhere, that Turks & Caicos held the world record in Heineken drinking per capita. Apparently somebody in an office in Holland who was handling shipping documents got curious and wanted to find out more about the country. (This was before you could Google such information, so he probably had to go to a library to educate himself.) He learned that the total population of Turks & Caicos at the time was 6,000 people. Adding up the amount of Heineken that was shipped out to TIMCO in Grand Turk gave Turks & Caicos the world record. 

Lew Whinnery was a very experienced pilot and he expressed interest in sticking around in Turks & Caicos for awhile. Embry Rucker, also a pilot, already worked for Provident Limited. With two pilots available, Fritz, Embry and Lew sat down to figure out how Caicos Airways Ltd. was going to operate.

The Cessna 180 was one of the original planes that comprised Caicos Airways Ltd.

There were two airplanes available. The Cessna 180 that belonged to Kris Ludington carried one pilot and three passengers. There was also a Beechcraft Twin Bonanza with room for one pilot plus five passengers. Embry lived in South Caicos where there was a very good runway. Grand Turk had the downtown strip, Providenciales had the 1,200-foot strip, but there was nowhere to land on North nor Middle Caicos.

Embry and Lew went to work and found some locations that could be used as airstrips. On North Caicos they picked a spot on the tidal flats just south of Kew. Most of the time this strip had a smooth and hard surface, but heavy rain or extremely high tides would make it unusable. On Middle Caicos they picked two places. One was just east of Conch Bar. In those days there was a footpath between Conch Bar and Bambarra named Anderson Road. They arranged to have some bush cut and made one section of the path wider. The second strip was between Bambarra and the beach just north of the settlement. This strip was truly unique because it had a dogleg. As the pilot was gaining speed on takeoff, he had to slightly change direction! 

As soon as CAL was up and running it also became the mail carrier for the government. Earlier, the mail on Providenciales arrived from Grand Turk via the boat Donna Casilda captained by Algernon Dean, who had the contract with the government. According to Algernon Dean’s son (with the same name), the mail was supposed to be delivered every two weeks but sometimes got delayed. The “Post Office” on Providenciales was the living room of the Brown’s house in Blue Hills. This was located just east of the government school, rest house and water tank, which is about where the jetty is today.

At the time, I was using the mail service to correspond with friends and relatives in Sweden, and surprisingly, it functioned very well. I remember standing outside the front door, which was split so the lower part remained closed, while through the open upper half I watched Osley Brown searching through the mail. I only just learned that the postmaster was actually George Brown. The only person I remember seeing there was Osley, who I now understand was actually the daughter.

CAL’s second plane was a Twin Bonanza, shown here on the 700 foot long airstrip in Providenciales.

I recall a public meeting in Blue Hills when one item that was discussed was the mail service. A gentleman, which I now understand must have been George Brown, pointed out all the increase in work and suggested that an increase in pay would be in order. Earlier, Algernon Dean used to deliver the mail bag to the Brown house, but now Osley had to walk to the airport several times a week.

Another incident I recall is when CAL pilot Embry Rucker and his wife Noreen were living in Caicos House in South Caicos. Late one afternoon I was the only passenger flying out of Grand Turk with Embry. As we were climbing above Grand Turk, Embry said, “Lew is almost landing on Providenciales, so I’m not going to waste fuel and fly you over there this evening. You can sleep on the couch at our place. I have to be on Providenciales early tomorrow anyway.” Made sense. I thought it would be nice if I could help out with dinner, since I was crashing their place. I asked Embry if he could get somebody on the radio and, if Lew hadn’t left, have him bring back four steaks. Fritz’s favorite food was New York strip steaks and I knew we had plenty in the freezer. Embry made radio contact and ordered the “steaks.” But when Lew arrived to Caicos House he brought four survey “stakes.” Whoever Embry spoke to on the radio had figured that if I was staying in South Caicos it was because I was doing some survey work. I don’t remember what we had for dinner that evening, but knowing Noreen she would have opened some cans and whipped up something delicious.

As time went on, CAL expanded. More airplanes and pilots were added. Even a DC3 was used on the downtown strip in Grand Turk. By 1971 the main airport on Grand Turk was opened for use. Soon thereafter, air service between the Islands was taken over by other companies, but it had all started in 1967 with Embry and Lew.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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