Remember When?

The Town Strip in Grand Turk

By Dr. Richard Grainger ~ Images Courtesy Turks & Caicos National Museum Photo Collection

Most people will not know that there were once two airstrips on Grand Turk. Many remember the American Air Force base and of course the present JAGS McCartney International Airport, but will either have forgotten or had never known that there was another landing strip, known as Town Strip. Curiously, it did not seem to feature on contemporary maps of the island.

There were two airlines serving the Islands in the early 1970s. They were affectionately named “Air Chaos” and “Chaos Airways.” Air Caicos were based in Grand Turk whilst Caicos Airways were based in South Caicos. The US Air Force base was used by Air Caicos for their Convair 444 flights from Nassau via Eleuthera into Grand Turk. They also had their Piper Aztec planes based there which served the Islands as far out as “Blue Hills,” as Providenciales was commonly known then. Air Caicos were able to use the US base as they carried sufficient insurance whilst planes not carrying enough insurance had to use the airstrip in the centre of Cockburn Town.

The Town Strip

Town Strip was curious in a number of ways. Most runways have an area at each end to allow for undershooting or overshooting of the landing area. Because of houses on the seaward end of Town Strip there was no undershooting area. The overshoot was unusual, as the runway ended at the cemetery wall and the overshoot was at 90º to the runway and passed parallel to the wall.

This 1965 slide shows an aerial view of the old airstrip running near to St Thomas’s Church in Grand Turk. You can see the salt ponds in the foreground.

A degree of skill was required in order to land at Town Strip. The land surveyor’s house was directly under the flight path, so planes went very close to his roof in order to get down to the start of the runway. Once the land surveyor was working on his roof when a plane approached and came in so close he had to lie down flat on the roof, as he felt in danger.

The Town Strip was also unusual in that there were no facilities apart from the runway itself. There was no air traffic control, so that pilots had to make a visual approach and take off to ensure that the runway was clear. In addition, there was no facility for refuelling. If an aircraft needed fuel it had to be brought to the airstrip or alternatively, the pilot would need to go with a can to the local aviation fuel supplier. At a very simple level that did not appear to be even a windsock or fire extinguisher on site and there were no facilities for passengers as there was no terminal building. 

The Town Strip was not fenced so that there was always a risk of feral donkeys walking across the runway. Donkeys were very common (and still are) as they had been abandoned when the salt industry ceased to function and continued to breed. One instance occurred when a plane was beginning to take off as a donkey wandered onto the runway—fortunately the pilot had got enough lift so that he was able to pop over the donkey, touch down on the other side, and continue his take off run.

Thankfully there was not a lot of rain on Grand Turk as the runway had very poor drainage. There was one instance where a Beechcraft Baron was coming in to land following a heavy rain shower. As the plane was passing along the runway, the wheels hit a deep puddle with soft mud at the bottom, which resulted in the plane going base over apex and was severely damaged. For a long time the damaged plane was at the side of the runway as a warning of the hazards of landing at Town Strip.

Here is another 1965 aerial view of the old airstrip running near to St Thomas’s Church in Grand Turk. The runway ended at the cemetery wall and the overshoot was at 90º to the runway and passed parallel to the wall.

There were a number of aeroplanes landing at Town Strip. There were DC-3 aircraft landing there on a regular basis. Strangely, one of them still had the label Alaskan Airlines written on the fuselage and the wings still had their de-icing boots fitted. (These were rubber attachments to the front of the wings which could be expanded when in the air to prevent ice collecting on the wings!) Most of the planes that came in were Caicos Airways Beechcraft Barons, although a number of private planes also called. One of the small planes was from the Evangelists of the Bible Baptist organisation. Their plane had an accident when they ran out of fuel on the way towards Turks & Caicos when coming from the Bahamas. A number of other small planes were calling mainly as a stopover from places like the Dominican Republic and Colombia. At the time, South Caicos was a major hub for bringing in illegal drugs on their way to the United States. We may only speculate that some of the traffic actually went through Grand Turk rather than South Caicos. 

The DC-3 went on visits to the Dominican Republic to bring back vegetables and other consumables that were difficult to get in the Turks & Caicos Islands. There were occasionally charters for visits to Haiti with calls at the Citadelle Laferrière, a large, early 19th-century fortress situated approximately 17 miles south of Cap-Haïtien. It was commissioned by Emperor Henri Christophe, and built by tens of thousands of former slaves.

My son, Andrew, was very young at the time but loved to watch the planes landing. I was driving up to the hospital late one afternoon with Andrew when we saw a bright light out to the west. I thought it was the light of the plane coming in to land so parked near the government offices to await the plane’s arrival. The light started to get larger but did not come any closer and after a time, a perfectly round cloud started to spread out from the light. I had not experienced this sort of sight before and found it rather eerie and almost threatening. After a time I carried on up to the hospital and told the nurses what I had seen. They were quite relaxed and explained that it was just a second stage rocket from Cape Canaveral, igniting and heading off into outer space.

People of Town Strip

The pilots who flew into Town Strip were an interesting group (and all male to my knowledge). Most of the pilots of single engine planes just had private pilot’s licences and navigated from island to island around the Caribbean. The professional pilots were a very disparate group. There were pilots flying around the Turks & Caicos Islands who were on long term contracts. Other pilots were only there for a very short period of time between their main jobs, for example, as crop sprayers.

This 1963 slide shows a plane landing on the Grand Turk airstrip, with horses in the way!

Once a number of them left the island at short notice to go to West Africa. The Biafran War had just finished but there was still a need for pilots. One pilot explained one of the tricks for getting a DC-3 off a short runway. The plane was manually moved as far back down the runway as possible. Then a number of men sat on at the tail, the brakes were applied, the engines were run up to full speed, and the propeller’s pitch adjusted to give maximum power. At a signal the men leapt off the tail, the brakes were released, and the plane, hopefully, gathered enough speed to take off. 

There was a relaxed view to flying in Turks & Caicos. Once in December, a Christmas tree was brought into the cabin and threaded down between a full plane of seated passengers. I experienced an unusual landing at South Caicos where one plane was landing from one end of the runway whilst another the plane was coming in from the other end. Presumably the pilots were communicating to say which side of the runway they were going to take as they passed in the middle!

There was a rumour that Ultramar, an oil company, was going to develop an oil refuelling station on the northern end of East Caicos. The pilot who I was discussing this with said, “Oh let’s go and have a look at the site.” Although the flight was to go from Grand Turk straight to Blue Hills, he diverted to see the proposed site for the development.

Some of the pilots would have not been out of place as characters in an Ernest Hemingway novel. The Admiral’s Arms hotel in South Caicos was a base and home for many and the idea of limited flying hours, rest periods, and no alcohol around the time of flying were alien concepts at the time. It was not unusual for pilots to fly their hangovers around the Islands!

Many histories do not capture the culture and atmosphere of a community by ignoring the everyday life and times as they existed. Town Strip and its users do deserve to be remembered as they were important for the wellbeing of Grand Turk and epitomised the lifestyle and traditions of the past.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography ( created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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