Early air travel to Antigua

Pan Am was one of the first commercial airlines to use the Coolidge Airstrip
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By Barbara Arrindell

Last Sunday’s Big Issues discussion with tourism experts Greg Phillip and Hugh Riley about current overcrowding at the VC Bird International Airport and other matters led me to search for information about our aircraft and airport history.

Presumably the passengers aboard the seaplanes that landed in St John’s harbour in the mid 1900s would have cleared immigration and customs at the same location where people arriving via ship would have been processed. They came via air but arrived on the sea.

It didn’t take long for commercial airplanes to find a home at the Villa Airstrip. This was located at the area between Fort Road and Yorks Village, now aptly named “The Old Runway”.

The first commercial flight landed there in March 1943 on a runway which had a compacted clay base and was described as short and covered in grass, making for a difficult, even dangerous, landing when it rained.

Two years before, in 1941, when the first military plane landed at the area now known to us as Coolidge, much of Winthropes Village had been relocated making way for one of two American bases. A landing strip formed part of that base. It was called the Coolidge Airfield, named after Captain Hamilton Coolidge (1895–1918), a US Army Air Service pilot who was killed in World War I.

Coolidge, known to his friends as “Ham”, was the great-great-great grandson of US President Thomas Jefferson and the best friend of Quentin Roosevelt the youngest son of US President Theodore Roosevelt. Ham had dropped out of Harvard to join the war effort.

The Coolidge Airfield accommodated military aircraft throughout the second World War and beyond.

Between November 1941 and November 1942 the 35th Bombardment Squadron would have used the landing strip. The 12th Bombardment Squadron used it between November 23 1943 and March 24 1944. The Antilles Air Command, also known as the fourth Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, would have occupied the strip between May 21 and October 5 1945.

The airstrip remained in the hands of the Americans until 1949 when the Coolidge Air Force Base was closed due to American financial constraints. The area would remain under American control for many years but the airstrip was taken over by the Antiguan/British authorities and a commercial international airport established. In 1985 the airport was renamed the VC Bird International Airport in honour of the nation’s first Prime Minister. 

Not less than three distinct terminal buildings have met the needs of travellers at Coolidge. The most recent became operational on August 26 2015 and was at the time said to be expected to meet the needs of the travelling public for at least 30 years.

Perhaps one of the most historically significant moments for the Coolidge Airport was the landing of a three-seater Piper Apache aircraft in October 1956. The Montserratian-registered Leeward Island Air Transport plane was flown from Montserrat by Captain Frank Delisle who was originally from St Kitts. He was, at that time, LIAT’s only employee.

Within a year he would expand his operations and fly to St Eustatius, St Maarten and St Kitts. A six-seater Beechcraft Twin Bonanza was acquired in 1957, making LIAT a two-aircraft airline. The routes then included Dominica and Barbados.

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