Thursday, April 11, 2024

Ex-airport boss recalls Cubana crash


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For 23 years Pat Callender managed Barbados’ lone airport. He witnessed the development and expansion of this vital gateway to the island and found himself in the midst of much of the drama and intrigue that will doubtless be recorded in the history of the former Seawell and the successor Grantley Adams International Airport.
Discussing his long association with the airport during a recent interview with the Sunday Sun, Callender reflected on his early days as an air traffic control cadet, back when Seawell Airport could accommodate only two overnighting aircraft.
Those were the days when “we had some of the worst equipment you could imagine. You would listen to the radios and if your ears were not trained like ours were, you could not understand a word”, Callender recalled.
The position of chief was not in sight in the 1960s when he led the air traffic controllers’ strike that resulted in better working conditions for controllers.
He was also the one negotiating on behalf of air traffic controllers seeking compensation for managing the movement of United States aircraft engaged in the 1969 US$30 million BOMEX weather project. Both experiences contributed to his solid grounding in trade unionism, which would later serve him well.
But Callender’s most profound recollections are of the two major incidents which tested Barbados’ aviation management capability – the Cubana airline crash off the island’s West Coast on October 6, 1976, and the Grenada intervention by United States forces in 1983, following a coup and the murder of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop.
The young Callender had just returned to Barbados in September of 1976 after completing studies at Ryerson University and was acting as deputy airport manager, when on the afternoon of October 6, a routine conversation with an air traffic controller was abruptly interrupted with the words “hold on, Cubana is going gown”.
Not fully understanding what he had just heard, Callender said he continued holding on the telephone, only to hear the air traffic controller’s voice on the line again, reporting there had been “an explosion aboard Cubana and the aircraft was trying to get back but it does not look like it is going to make it”.
Yet another call from the air traffic controller confirmed that the aircraft had indeed crashed into the sea west of Bridgetown.
Given his aviation training, Callender immediately sprang into action, taking charge with the consent of the airport manager.
Frantic calls to then Minister of Aviation, the late Sir Harold St John, brought Prime Minister Tom Adams with haste from a House of Assembly sitting to the airport.
“That was the only time I have seen Mr Adams visibly shaken and for an instant appearing a bit unsure of himself,” said Callender.
Callender’s advice, his knowledge of travel patterns and how airports operate was to play a significant role in the quick apprehension in Trinidad of suspects in the Cubana bombing.
And he still shudders at the realisation “that aircraft could easily have crashed in Bridgetown and killed a lot of people”.
Recalling the assistance given in his professional capacity to Prime Minister Tom Adams, Callenderreasoned: “It was a new Government [the BLP Government led by Prime Minister Tom Adams had just taken office] new ministers, and therefore it was tough on them how to resolve an international incident of this magnitude because nowhere in the world had an aircraft been blown up in the air anywhere . . . it had never happened before.”
Seven years later, Callender would again find himself in the middle of a set of intrigue managing an airport.
One day after the March 13, 1979, coup in Grenada, Callender was summoned to a meeting at the airport by Adams.
“He told me then that he wanted no aircraft to overfly Barbados to go into Grenada, neither did he want any aircraft to leave Barbados to go there.”
Callender also related how his efforts, as well as efforts by Adams to encourage People’s Revolutionary government’s minister Unison Whiteman to remain in Barbados for his safety failed. Whiteman returned to Grenada and was executed, along with Maurice Bishop and others.
But one of the retired airport manager’s most enduring memories is his sleepless night of October 24, 1983, the eve of the Grenada intervention by United States forces.
“Adams called me at home and told me he wanted me to go to the airport and take complete charge of the operations; it must be kept completely confidential . . . He said he could not give details, but it could be between five and eight thousand military personnel passing through the airport in the morning”.
Sworn to secrecy, he was forced to remain tight-lipped, even when concerned air traffic controllers were asking what was going on when a mysterious plane popped up on their radar. It was the monitoring aircraft in advance of the Grenada intervention operation.
“Suddenly all hell broke loose and aircraft started calling ‘Air Force this, Air Force that’ all descending on Grantley Adams International Airport, the staging point for the Grenada operation. It was just before daybreak on the morning of October 25, 1983, when the world heard a frantic voice on the Grenada airwaves announcing “United States Forces are invading Grenada”.
The whole experience remains deeply etched in Callender’s memory. It tested his ability and afforded the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best known names in the United States armed forces like Brigadier General Robert Patterson. Some time later, when he was introduced to United States General Norman Schwartzkopf, deputy commander of United States Forces in the Grenada intervention, Callender was surprised when Schwartzkopf congratulated him on his “outstanding role” in Grantley Adams International Airport’s management of the Grenada operation.


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