In 1947 King Parker was still flying his Supermarine Stranraer flying boats to Cayman and Cayman Brac, but he was also operating a Catalina PBY flying boat, a more modern ex-military aircraft. He had acquired this aircraft in June 1947 and renamed his airline from Jamaica Air Transport to Cayman Islands Airways. You can just make out this name behind the cockpit under the wing of the aircraft in the accompanying photo.
In October 1947 King Parker made his first PBY flight to George Town, then to Cayman Brac and on to Kingston. To show that operations were not smooth or regular his next flight was delayed until November. The second flight was delayed by Government red tape and political pressure was applied from Washington, DC, through the major US carriers who did not want competition. He had continuing problems with operations including an engine quitting between Key West and Havana and a brush with a hurricane. This hurricane in September 1947 seriously affected Cayman and Parker had to fly his aircraft from Florida up to Little Rock Arkansas to escape the storm.
Due to financial difficulties, no doubt brought on by the operational difficulties and red tape, King Parker sold his airline to Wing Commander Owen Roberts in December 1947 and Roberts changed the name again to New Caribbean International.
The PBY aircraft that were used by Parker and Roberts were built in the US by the Consolidated Aircraft Company and called PBY’s, the aircraft used in the services to the Cayman Islands were PBY-5’s. The same aircraft were known as Catalinas in the United Kingdom and Cansos in Canada. The aircraft had a huge wingspan, over 100 feet and were designed for long over water patrols hunting for submarines. Their endurance – that is how long they could stay in the air without refuelling – was legendary at 30 hours. The Catalina, which spotted the German battleship Bismarck in the North Sea in 1941 in World War 2, reportedly had been in the air for 17 hours. The Bismarck was sunk in the subsequent sea battle.
Owen Robert’s Catalinas operated out of the North Sound. Passengers were ferried to the planes from a small wood jetty with a thatch palm roof by a motor launch. The launch operator was Mr. Benny Ross; his regular assistant Mr. Bill McTaggart. The story is told that one day they forgot to untie the launch before the plane took off and it was in the air flying behind the plane with Benny and Bill hanging on for dear life before they could cut the line; a pretty exciting ride.
One of Owen Robert’s PBY planes is still at the bottom of the North Sound, as it sunk in 1952 after it took off with water in its hull and the pilot skillfully landed and beached it. The engines were salvaged but the fuselage and wings are still there substantially buried by successive fill operations.
Owen Roberts operated scheduled services from Cayman to Kingston and Tampa from 1947 until 1953 and was very involved in the development and construction of the airfield in Grand Cayman.
Owen Roberts was killed in an aeroplane crash taking off from Kingston in April 1953, his name being commemorated in the naming of Grand Cayman’s International Airport. This flight was the inaugural flight for a new land plane service from Kingston to Cayman and several Caymanians were killed in the crash.
One of the PBY aircraft that operated in Cayman and subsequently in Canada, where it crashed, has been renovated to non-flying condition and is preserved in the Western Atlantic Aviation museum in Halifax Nova Scotia. The aircraft had been operated in Canada and crashed in eastern Canada but was subsequently recovered by the RCAF and donated to the museum. This is the aircraft that was operated by Owen Roberts in Cayman with the registration VP JAU, the sister ship to VP-JAO in the photo in this article.
Most of the information and photos in this article comes from Tom Giraldi, the study group leader of the Cayman Islands for the British Caribbean Philatelic Journal. Mr. Giraldi has been coming to Cayman for almost 40 years.