These days we are used to flying from the Cayman Islands to Jamaica and the United States in air conditioned comfort in a couple of hours or less. But sixty years ago, it was a different story.
There are many records in the Cayman archives regarding Wing Commander Owen Roberts flying his Catalina PBY flying boats to the island, but not so many references to what appears to be the first scheduled air service by a company called “Jamaica Air Transport”.
Jamaica Air Transport was founded by a Canadian named King Parker Jr., and his first recorded flight into Cayman was 23 November, 1946. He operated an aircraft called a Supermarine Vickers Stranraer flying boat, which he appears to have christened a “Stranderry”. Parker had done his war service as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Ferry Command, delivering various aircraft to several theatres of war.
Post war, Parker and a group of colleagues purchased eight of these aircraft from the Canadian government and initially flew them to Tampa, Florida with a view to operating air service to South America.
The Stranraer aircraft was originally designed for coastal patrols, for the Royal Air Force, and was utilised by the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War Two. The Stranraer was designed in 1936 by Reginald Mitchell, the designer of the famous Spitfire fighter of World War Two. It was a sea plane in that it landed on the water and it was a twin-engine aircraft, with two wings and two engines.
The planes carried 17 passengers as well as mail and freight, and as the planes had done hard duty in World War Two, they threw out a considerable amount of oil, so that they became known as the “greasy clippers”. Because of the wires utilised in the design to tension the wings, it was also known to the Canadian crews as the “whistling bird cage”.
It was, however, a rugged design, well-liked by pilots and featuring a cruising speed of about 150 miles per hour.
The aircraft was designed without frills for military service, essentially they were used for searching for submarines. There was no air conditioning and the flights in the Caribbean undoubtedly would have been hot and uncomfortable.
Parker operated from Kingston to both Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac. There is one photograph in the Cayman archives of the Stranraer in the North Sound, it is actually incorrectly titled as a “Panam Flying Boat” visiting the island in 1932 after the hurricane. But the photo is undoubtedly a Stranraer, its elegant end on profile confirming its Reginald Mitchell’s design genius. There is also a Cayman Islands stamp from 1946 showing the Stranraer.
Jamaica Air Transport apparently was a mom and pop operation, as Parker was the pilot and his wife, Carol, was the flight attendant. Air travel for most people in the 1940s and 1950s was restricted by the type of aircraft available and the high cost of operations.
The aircraft were mostly of World War Two military designs and not really suitable for commercial operations. Fares were high, which put them out of reach of most regular people and comforts were virtually nonexistent. Military aircraft were designed for an amazingly short service life and required continuous maintenance.
Many fledgling airlines did not survive more than a year or two and the deficiencies in the equipment and difficulties in maintaining regular service was a fundamental problem. Larger established airlines also contrived to prevent small operators like Parker from getting his foot in the door.
In June 1947, Parker purchased a PBY Catalina flying boat from the Canadian government to replace the Stranraers. He also renamed his company “Cayman Islands Airways”.
By December 1947, apparently in financial straits, he sold the company to Bahamas Airways, represented by Wing Commander Owen Roberts. Various investors in Cayman lost money with Parker and his airline, and his name still raises hackles with some Caymanians. However, he was a pioneer in trying to establish air services to the Cayman Islands.
The author is an avionics buff.