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    Categories: Travel

AVIATION PIONEERS OF THE NORTHEASTERN CARIBBEAN PART TWO: JOSE DORMOY

By Eric Mackenzie-Lamb

Much has been written about Jose Dormoy through the years. But no matter how often one reads about this legendary pioneer, his life and career never cease to amaze. His is a unique story. And an integral part of our islands’ aviation history.

Born on the French island of Guadeloupe, Jose Dormoy realized at an early age that he wanted to be a pilot. But the advent of World War II almost extinguished his hopes. Guadeloupe, along with other French Caribbean possessions, was suddenly left with no choice but to become part of mainland France’s new Vichy government, a virtual puppet state whose status was forced upon them by Hitler’s Third Reich. Under German orders, unauthorized locals were strictly prohibited from even approaching any area where airplanes or ships were operating. If they did so, they risked being shot on the spot.

Soon after his sixteenth birthday, Jose hatched a daring plot. Along with two cousins-who were also obsessed with the dream of one day becoming pilots-he would “take possession” of a small sailboat under cover of darkness, then make their way to the neighboring island of Dominica. Dominica was still a British colony and, more importantly to Jose and his cousins, an ally of the French government in exile under Charles deGaulle.

Unfortunately, their voyage to freedom didn’t quite go as planned. Heavy swells capsized their small boat off the coast of Dominica and they were forced to swim the rest of the way. During the process, they lost all their identity papers-vital documents which would have confirmed their names, nationalities, and ages.

In the end, however, Jose turned this unexpected loss to his own advantage. When questioned by the British authorities on Dominica, he added two years to his actual age and told them, without the blink of an eye, that he was eighteen. He then went on to explain that he and his cousins wanted to join the British navy so that they could one day return and help liberate their homeland of Guadeloupe.

Whatever they said, it must have been convincing. Less than a month later, the three young men, all in their teens, were on their way to England.

After making several transatlantic crossings as a crew member of a naval escort convoy, Jose decided that his aviation career was going nowhere and disembarked in England. Finally, in 1943, he was accepted as a recruit by the Royal Air Force and began his training as a pilot.

Within a year, he had his licence. His childhood dream had finally become a reality. I am now a pilot!

During the waning years of the war, Jose flew numerous combat missions, many of them in different types of aircraft, including the famed Spitfire, and somehow managed to survive when so many others did not. After Germany’s surrender in 1945, he joined the French Air Force and was assigned to North Africa.

Jose finally returned home to his native Guadeloupe on his 21st birthday, five years after his daring escape by sea which had almost cost him his life. And, despite his young age, he was already a seasoned aviator. It wasn’t long before he became recognized for his extraordinary talent and coolheadedness under pressure-attributes which would follow him for the rest of his aviation career.

Soon after, he became a pilot for the Compagnie Aerienne Antillaise, or CAA, which had been founded by another regional aviation pioneer, Remy de Haenen. Jose remained with CAA for three more years before returning to Guadeloupe and starting his own flying club. He sometimes juggled numerous jobs at the same time: as flight instructor, air traffic controller, even assistant airport manager. In 1950, he acquired his first airplane, a PJ-16. From that point on, there was no turning back. He was finally working for no one else but himself.

Not long after, Jose was asked to ferry a plane to French Guyana. He accepted the offer and told everyone that he expected to be back in Guadeloupe in about a week.

Instead, it turned out to be ten years.

French Guyana’s gold mine industry was then thriving. But its owners and managers were desperate to find a way to securely transport the precious metal from the country’s isolated hinterland to the capital, Cayenne. From there, the gold nuggets could be processed, marketed, and then shipped onward to just about any destination in the world. Their savior turned out to be Jose Dormoy.

Today, few of us would appreciate the inherent risks of flying over such uncharted
terrain , especially in those days. The few landing strips which existed in the country’s interior were little more than invisible pinpoints in the middle of the jungle, primitive to the extreme and mostly grass, with none of the modern navigational aids which we take for granted today. Swooping in over the trees during final approach, sometimes clearing their tops by as little as three feet-this truly added a new dimension to the expression flying by the seat of one’s pants. Just one small error of judgement, and you really would have lost your pants. And a lot more. The term dead reckoning, in which you fly in a certain direction with only your memory and instincts to guide you (and hopefully reach your intended destination before running out of fuel) is nothing if not appropriate. Even if you were lucky enough to survive an engine failure and a crash landing, it was unlikely that anyone would ever find you-except for, that is, jaguars, pythons, piranhas, electric eels, and other predators. There are still reports, even today, of such disappearances, many of which have never been solved.

On one occasion, while Jose was enroute to Cayenne, a giant anaconda suddenly emerged from an industrial pipe he was transporting in the back of the plane’s cabin. Fortunately, he managed to make an emergency landing at a nearby airstrip, where the twelve foot-long serpent was forcibly removed. Jose, seemingly unfazed, just continued his flight.

At about the same time, hundreds of miles to the north on the Dutch island of St. Maarten, three other aviation pioneers-George Greaux, Hyppolite Ledee, and Chester Wathey-had decided to form a new regional airline which would eventually become the legendary Windward Island Airways, or Winair, as it commonly known today. By mutual agreement, they contacted Jose Dormoy, offered him the position as Winair’s first full time pilot, and Jose accepted.

The rest is history.

When I first met Jose Dormoy in 1976, it was under unplanned circumstances. A friend and I had rented a single engine Cessna 172 from a flight school in St Thomas for two weeks. Since I already possessed a pilot’s licence, we now had the freedom of not relying on commercial airlines to visit some of the smaller, lesser known islands to which we’d never been before. For our first overnight stopover, we chose St Barths.

The landing was tricky, but, fortunately, we made it without any problems. While locking up the plane and getting ready to find a taxi (and, hopefully, a reasonably priced hotel) we noticed a gentleman walking in our direction from the opposite side of the runway. As he drew closer, we noticed his airport employee badge. He introduced himself as Raymond.

“Bonjour, Messieurs” he greeted us politely as we shook hands. “Excusez-moi, but you do have a checkout for St Barths, non?”

Raymond’s command of English wasn’t the best; I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Had he come to collect the landing fee?
“Can we pay with cash?” I asked him naively.

Raymond laughed, then proceeded to explain that, due to its unusually steep approach and short runway, St Barths airport was classified as restricted. Any pilot who wished to land here first had to undergo a flight test and be signed off by an authorized examiner.

“I’m sorry”, I replied. “We didn’t know that. Nobody told us. And there’s nothing mentioned in the charts.”

“The tower at Juliana should have informed you before you started your approach”, Raymond explained. “Maybe they were too busy and forgot.” He shrugged. ” C’est fait. No matter, you are here now. But if you leave, you cannot return without a check ride.”

“How would I get that?” I asked him.

“Captain Pipe can do it.”

I wasn’t sure that I’d heard him correctly. “Captain who?”

“Jose Dormoy. He is the chief pilot for Winair. You will find him in St Maarten, at Juliana airport.”

And that’s how I first met Jose Dormoy.

From the very first moment, I warmed to his friendliness and total lack of pretension. This guy is for real, I told myself. No BS here. As I soon discovered, he also possessed a wry sense of humor which he could deliver with such a deadpan expression that you had to hesitate for a moment to guess whether he was serious or not before bursting into laughter. His distinctive raspy voice, combined with his accent and trademark pipe which never seemed to leave his mouth, made it even funnier. Within a few minutes, I felt as if Jose Dormoy and I had known each other for years. And, if my own instincts were anything to go by, the feeling was mutual.

“Tell me something,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking me straight in the eye. “How did you find the landing in St Barths?”

“It’s an unusual airport, for sure'” I replied. “But no problem at all. In fact, approach and landing weren’t that much different from touching down in a seaplane.”

“You’ve flown seaplanes?”

“Many times.”

“Where?”

“New York City. The East river, mostly. We were only allowed to touch down in a certain area between two major bridges. One of them could have been the Brooklyn bridge, I can’t remember. So a steep descent and then leveling out just above the water-that’s standard procedure.”

Jose nodded thoughtfully for a moment. Then, putting aside his pipe, he opened a desk drawer, pulled out a sheet of paper, and began writing.

“Here you are” he said, handing me the paper. “You’re good to go.”

I looked at what he’d written. To my utter amazement, I was now officially qualified to fly into St Barths!

“What about the check ride?” I asked, confused.

Jose shook his head. “No need. You’ve already done that.”

“I have?”

“You landed in St Barths yesterday, didn’t you? And you’re still in one piece. I’m not worried. You know what you’re doing.”

Over the next few years, after I’d established my own charter airline in St Barths, Jose often invited me to join him in the right seat of one of Winair’s Twin Otters. (Single pilot operations were still allowed in those days). His precision, especially when flying into Saba-which, even today, has the world’s shortest commercial runway-was nothing short of awesome. Yet, to observe him at the controls, you’d think that he was miles away, thinking about something else entirely. But everyone, especially his passengers, knew differently. And that included the Dutch royal family, who always asked about him. Capitaine Pipe was the undisputed master of his chosen profession, a man trusted by one and all to carry them safely to their destinations. Only once during his entire career did he abort a landing attempt and return to base, and that was because of a hurricane.

One November afternoon, several years later and after I’d moved permanently to Nevis, I received an unexpected telephone call from Jose.

“J’ai des bonnes nouvelles, Eric,”he said. “I have some good news. The civil aviation department has finally given you official permission to operate into Saba.”

I was dumbstruck. I’d applied to Curaçao for the same permit numerous times over the previous seven years, but to no avail. And there had never been an explanation as to why it had been refused. Why now? I wondered. Had Jose put in a good word for me? If he had, he never told me.

A few days later, accompanied by Jose in the Piper Aztec’s right seat, I made my first full stop landing at Saba airport.

Jose Dormoy (and pipe) in center.

For long after Jose finally retired from Winair and had moved permanently to St Eustatius, where he lived with his wife of many years, Ellie Delien, Jose still continued to fly as a private pilot. His Piper Aztec was instantly recognizable from the iconic pipe painted on the side of the aircraft’s nose. Even in his later years, he never for a moment lost his wry sense of humor-although, sometimes, it could come from the opposite direction. True to his nature, Jose was never one to take things the wrong way.

Sketches by the author, poking friendly fun at Jose and some of his colleagues, on exhibit at St Eustatius airport.

Sadly, Jose Dormoy passed away in 2007. His loss was mourned not only by his family, but by everyone who had ever had the privilege of knowing him. And there were many.

But his legacy lives on. And nowhere is this reflected more than at Winair, where, even today, Jose serves as an inspiration to its new generation of extraordinarily talented pilots.

As The Pipe would surely have said: never be afraid to reach for the sky and fulfill your dreams.

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