Anegada by AIR
- June 30th, 2011
- in Yachting
Anegada by AIR
I first visited Anegada in 1966 to try and locate the disbanded NASA tracking station at West End Point. The facility had been built by the US agency to track the early space rockets being fired from Cape Canaveral down the Atlantic firing range in the 1950s and early 1960s. The closest splashdown was just 60 miles north of Anegada by astronaut Scott Carpenter in the Aurora 7 space capsule. They tracked him down from here and directed a helicopter to pick him up and take him to the destroyer USS Farragut that delivered him and the spacecraft to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.
All that remained were a large generator and the remains of two steel frame buildings and some pierced steel planking (PSP), commonly used by the military to provide traction over soft ground. I recognised it from having laid several thousand square feet of it in Borneo two years previously. In this case, a pathway up the beach opposite a gap in the reef that had been blasted out by the underwater demolition team, who also improved the channel into Paraquita Lagoon. It also formed a landing pad for US Navy helicopters that serviced the site when the northerly swells made the reef entrance impassable. A few pieces of PSP and rusty steel beams and outline foundations are all that can be seen today. There was a small, 1,200-foot dirt airstrip behind the Settlement six miles away that single engine Puerto Rican planes landed on to collect shipments of lobsters and vegetables. However, there were only cattle paths between the two places, so the area did not have much use to NASA. Today, the outlines of that airstrip can be seen by the island’s school and government building.
Recently, I read that there was a small airstrip somewhere at the Western end of the island, but I never saw it while searching there later for Norman Fowler’s hut that he built for the shark fishing cooperative that he started and abandoned. Then my next visit was in early 1967, with Col Pip Mitchley, who commanded the Royal Engineers Airfield Construction Regiment. Col Mitchley had come out to survey the Beef Island airstrip, which one of his squadrons would build. He and I had served together in the Malaysian Army Engineers, and he asked me to help him. One task was a look at Anegada to see if the airstrip could be improved and if not to locate a suitable site. The existing site was too close to the Settlement and ran east to west, so not ideal for the prevailing winds. Working off his map, we stumbled a mile northwest over many cattle walls and around fissures in the coral that contained fresh water for the Anegadians cattle and vegetable gardens. He plotted a site that could provide for a 10,000-foot runway suitable for all military aircraft then in use. It ran in a southwest to northwest direction with completely unobstructed approaches and exits and was the only place that a large airstrip could be easily built in all the Virgin Islands. This location was then used by Kenneth Bates to build his 2,500-foot airstrip which has since become the present Augusta George International Airport.
Bates built his airstrip when he got an astonishing 1,999-year lease of most of Anegada in 1967. He tried to get me interested in his project and flew my wife and I to St Croix to visit a remarkable house built in a hangar. We went there in a single engine charter plane flown by a daredevil pilot who went by the name of “Eye-level Neville.” On the way back to Beef Island, he was seen tapping the fuel gauge and was heard muttering over the intercom, “I think we can just make it!” He certainly lived up to his name the following week when he flew us up to Anegada to visit Bates and landed us behind the beach at Pomato Point, close to where Bates and his wife were living in a caravan. Landing between some bushes and on getting out, he pulled a large machete from under his seat and said, “I think I had better widen the strip before we try to take off!” Sad to say (and perhaps not surprisingly) he went missing on a flight down island soon after that. Luckily for me I never struck a deal with Bates as he also not surprisingly lost his too-good-to-be-true deal and the large steel frame building that I was supposed to have built which was to be his supermarket was moved to Beef Island to become its first true terminal building.
Bates’ long term plan for his major resort and financial centre was to have built an airstrip long enough (8,500 feet) to facilitate the recelty launched Concorde supersonic airplane. His idea was that Anegada was to be the Caribbean hub for the Concordes flying through to South America! How different life in Anegada, not to mention the BVI, would have been if he had been able to see his dream through.