Norman Bodden remembers the days when the runway at Owen Roberts International Airport was lit with kerosene lamps for night landings.
Sometimes, he said, a squall of rain would snuff out the flames. Pilots hoping to land, would have to circle the field for 45 minutes or more while the lamps were fired up again. Looking at the progress since those days, said Bodden, a former managing director of Cayman Airways, “boggles the mind”.
Bodden made his comments during a panel discussion at the National Museum Tuesday evening to a group of a dozen people. The event was part of an ongoing speaker series at the museum. Joining Bodden on the panel was Capt. Dave Scott, a pilot who spent 39 years with the airlines before retiring in 2017 as vice president of flight operations.
The panel discussion coincided with the current temporary exhibit at the museum, which chronicles and celebrates the 50th anniversary of the airlines.
Both men shared their memories of the company’s early years, how it developed from a single plane that flew three flights per week from Grand Cayman to Cayman Brac. Prior to 1968, LACSA, the Costa Rican airline now known as Avianca Costa Rica, operated the Brac service. International flights at the time were provided by British World Airways, with service to Miami and Jamaica.
“Cayman Airways was created out of necessity,” Bodden said.
Demand was rising and Caymanians wanted LACSA to provide more flights and more seats on the Brac flights. The airline said it couldn’t help out. Other airlines that were approached also declined to provide service.
In the end, Bodden said, the government partnered with LACSA, taking a 60 percent stake in the operation. A Cessna T-50 Bobcat, which pilots referred to as the ‘Bamboo Bomber’, was acquired for the service and Cayman Airways was born.
“It had to be subsidised,” Bodden said. “Today, we have seven airlines serving us and people say, ‘Why are we spending $20 million to subsidize (the airline)?’”
The subsidy, he argued, is what maintains service to the Brac and Little Cayman.
“Cayman Airways is the only airlines that serves the [Sister] Islands,” he said.
The airline, which has a fleet of seven planes and serves several international destinations, is now wholly government owned. Scott joined the airline in 1978.
Although he’s Caymanian-born, his parents left the Brac for Jamaica so he and his siblings could attend school there. He took flying lessons immediately after high school and initially got a job with Air Jamaica before a spot opened up at Cayman Airways.
In the early years, he said, the Cayman Airways pilots were based in Miami. He eventually became a pilot trainer and emphasised at several points in his talk the quality of the airlines’ pilots.
“We don’t skimp on training,” Scott said. “Because of that, our pilots are thoroughly trained.”
He recounted a few moments when that training came in handy, once when he lost the tread from a tire on takeoff and had to make an emergency landing in Miami. The other incident took place when Bodden was on his plane.
The aircraft lost its No. 2 engine shortly after take off. Attempts get it running again failed, so Scott did a U-turn and landed safely back in Miami. It turned out, he said that the engine had a sheared shaft.
Scott said passengers often ask him why Cayman Airways planes don’t stop as quickly as many other airlines after landing at Owen Roberts, instead using the entire runway to slow down. The practice, he said, makes the brakes last longer.
“You can go through a lot of money really fast,” Scott said, when it comes to airplane brakes. “I own part of Cayman Airways. You own part of Cayman Airways. It’s owned by the people of the Cayman Islands. If we’re (constantly) wearing out the brakes, you’re going to bust the company.”