Pioneer Air Service Celebrates 50 Years

By Harold W. Briley
(Falkland Islands Newsletter, No. 73, October 1998)

The Falkland Islands air service this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.  What an action-packed half century it has been.  The Falkland Islands Government Air Service, affectionately known as FIGAS, began operations in December, 1948, on the initiative of the Governor, Sir Miles Clifford.

Arriving in 1946, he was appalled by the isolation many of its 2,000 inhabitants, cut off in scattered settlements with no roads outside the capital, no air services, and irregular coastal shipping frequently halted by storms.  He ruled out roads as impracticable and financially unfeasible.  On his first trip to Antarctica in the Falkland Islands vessel "Fitzroy" in a storm, he was inspired by a magazine article about Australia's Flying Doctor Service, which he realised would aptly meet the Falklands' urgent needs.

So was born a pioneer air service, with two second-hand ex-military Auster aircraft bought in Britain for only 700 each.  They were shipped to the Falklands in crates, assembled in a roofless hangar, and on 19 December, 1948, Vic Spencer, a pilot hired in the United Kingdom, made the historic test flight from Stanley racecourse, the only suitable stretch of land for a light aircraft to take-off and land.  Sir Miles recalls sceptics dismissing it as another of "His Excellency's grandiose ideas" and questioned "why the devil does he want two aircraft?"  They immediately proved their worth.

The inaugural operational flight was a matter of life-and-death for a little girl named Sandra Short, seriously ill with peritonitis at North Arm Settlement.  An urgent message to the senior medical officer in Stanley, Stewart Slessor, said she's did without hospital treatment.  With no aviation maps or navigational aids, Vic Spencer landed on a grass strip at North Arm, guided by sheepskins mounted on sticks and a small fire indicating where he should put down and the wind direction.  Within an hour, Sandra was in Stanley hospital for an emergency operation which saved her life.

FIGAS has made many such flights since, with a variety of aircraft, expanding into a vital link to some fifty settlements around the Islands, providing not just an air-ambulance but a passenger air-taxi, a freight and postal service, a flying teacher service to remote farm schools, fisheries patrols, and carrying VIPs such as Princess Anne and the Duke of Edinburgh, and even on occasion a pedigree sheep or a sick penguin.  The postal service has also been a great boon, though sometimes the mail would be dropped out of the plane window if it was not landing passengers!  In its whole first year it had just 28 passengers, only eight of them private individuals, the remainder government officials.  Now it carries thousands every year.  

It's not all been plain flying.  The first Auster, with its pioneer registration identity G-AJCH, overturned at San Carlos when its wheels sank into soft mud.  It had to be shipped back to Britain for repairs and conversion into a float-plane, a more practicable solution with the lack of suitable air-strips and the proximity of water and landing jetties to most farm settlements.  

Sir Miles Clifford went to Canada and bought a Norseman float plane initially for a specific rescue mission in 1959 for evacuation of the British Antarctic base at Marguerite Bay when cut off by heavy ice.  Sir Miles was impressed by a new "Beaver" float-plane which Canada's de Havilland demonstrated for him.  It proved perfect for Falklands' needs and became the workhorse of FIGAS operations from 1953 to 1979, until a ten-seat, two-engined Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, built in Romania and assembled in the Isle of Wight, was introduced, after its reliable, economical performance in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

Before the land-based Islander, if the farmer did not row out to the Beaver, passengers sometimes had to climb down onto the floats and wade ashore chest-deep carrying the mail above their heads.  Thanks again to Governor Miles Clifford, the widespread installation of transceiving radios on FIGAS planes and throughout the settlements removed the isolation barrier, operating on two frequencies, one for the air ambulance service, and the other for inter-farm gossip.  Potential passengers simply radio their requirements, FIGAS arranges the next day's flights accordingly, and Falkland Islands Radio broadcasts the passenger lists and routes.  Stanley Airport came into operation in 1979.

The rugged reliability of FIGAS aircraft has had to contend with extremes of wind and weather, corrosion and wartime depredation.  Three Beaver aircraft capsized and sank - at Douglas Station, New Island, and at Mare Harbour, where a Falkland Island pilot, Ian Campbell, MBE, was drowned in 1976, the only FIGAS fatality.  In the 1982 invasion, the Argentine military took over FIGAS planes, all three of which were destroyed on the ground by air and sea bombardment, as were three Cessna light aircraft, owned by the Governor, Sir Rex Hunt, and two farmers, Bill Luxton and Robin Pitaluga.  A Royal Navy pilot briefly recommenced a service to Islanders after hostilities with a captured Argentine helicopter, nicknamed "Hernandez", and FIGAS began flying again in 1983 with two Islanders and a Beaver.

It is the men as well as the machines which have made FIGAS such an outstanding success, pioneer pilots such as Ian Campbell, Jim Kerr who flew for 26 years, the versatile John Huckle, who was a pilot administrator, Port Stanley harbour master and a communications expert, gifted engineers such as Maurice Smith, Dave Jones and Vernon Steen, and administrators like Gerald Cheek, Director of Aviation.

The most experienced Falklands pilot still flying is Eddie Anderson, a fourth generation Islander whose great grandfather was a Danish sailor shipwrecked in the Falklands in 1864.  He has clocked up more than ten thousand flying hours, on Beaver and Islander aircraft in twenty years flying, making more than twenty-one thousand take-offs and landings - an impressive achievement in the teeth of frequent gales and bad visibility.  He also delivered Governor Hunt's Cessna from the South American mainland to Stanley in 1982 when the delivery pilot declined to risk the flight.  Eddie, now chief pilot, heads a team of six pilots, five of whom are Falkland Islanders.

FIGAS can rejoice in a proud record in its first fifty years.  I wonder what kind of aircraft it will be flying fifty years from now?

This article first appeared in the Falkland Islands Newsletter, Edition 73, October 1998.  The Falkland Islands Association is an independent organisation which brings together those who support the continuing freedom of the people of the Falkland Islands.  Its Constitution states that its objectives are to assist the people of the Falkland Islands to decide their own future for themselves without being subjected to pressure direct or indirect from any quarter.

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