Guyana’s first flight, 1913

Easter Monday, 7am, March 24, 1913 the residents of Georgetown were awakened to the rhythmic purr of a flying machine overhead, as George Schmitt took off from the Bel Air Park (Canon race course field) in a historic five-minute flight – the first ever in British Guiana.

Schmitt, a German national had arrived a few days earlier with his partner to give aerial displays. This was less than ten years after the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. The plane, which was assembled on site was a Baldwin Red Devil Biplane made of steel rods. It weighed 1200 lbs, was 30 feet long and wide, had an 85 hp motor and cost $5700.

George Schmitt (Aerodacious website)

Schmitt was tall and well built, and had taught himself to fly. In 1911 he had crash landed in Connecticut after falling 400 ft when the motor stopped in mid-air. Although he was pinned under his bi-plane, he fortunately had landed in a swamp. him   Picked up unconscious and taken to hospital, he was discharged two days later and resumed his flying activities.

His arrival in Guyana was part of a Caribbean tour, and he had only recently before put on aerial displays above the Queen’s Park Savannah, Trinidad. In Guyana, there were to be displays on Saturday and Sunday over the Easter weekend. Since there was so much interest locally, special trips were scheduled by Demerara Railways, steamer excursions by Sprostons, and extra runs by the city’s electric tram.

Unfortunately the initial flights had to be aborted when one of the eight motor cylinders malfunctioned, and the flights had to be re-scheduled for Easter Monday.

The Daily Argosy in March 1963 featured the following anniversary report:

The Bel Air Park race course around 1922

“The initial 7am flight was a test run and by 9am, huge crowds flocked to the Bel Air Course and its immediate vicinity. A brief shower of rain delayed the start of the second flight, but at nine o‘clock, in the presence of the Governor and a fair number of spectators inside the enclosure and a considerably larger number outside, Schmitt took off into a refreshing breeze to attain a height of 1200 feet.  After making a circle over the Park he made a wide detour, accelerating in the thirty mile per hour wind with a graceful turn toward the town. A little coterie of carrion crows circling in effortless unison rose to investigate the sonorous invader of their dominion. The plane rolled into and over them, and as they fell in its wake, the propeller blast sent them staggering. Some of the bolder ones followed at a respectful distance – probably saying ‘kites and bullets we know,  but what are ye?

“Circling round, the Aviator throttled down his engine and commenced a long spiral descent, disappearing behind the line of trees to the south of the Grandstand of the Canon Race Course. Silhouetted against the bright morning sky the bi-plane crept over the treetops, rocking and dipping in the gusts of wind which caught it at this treacherous corner, proceeding over the carriageway and the heads of the close-packed cheering crowds excited on the rails. The motor accelerated stridently for a hundred yards of level flight before the final dip into the centre of the course for a pin point landing on the sanded strip marked by white fluttering flags. What an exceptional exciting display, marking a historical moment in our history.

“In his ‘encore’ flights at 5:30 pm that afternoon, Schmitt encircled the course three times at 700ft and released a handful of envelopes at the bottom end of the course which fanned by a gentle breeze floated lazily down to earth to be scrambled for, by the eager mob as souvenirs. His final flight on Tuesday 25th, was   at the reduced price of two or one shilling for the grandstand and annexe respectively. Towards the end of March he and his companion left BG on the S S ‘Ocanno’ of the Pickford and Black line for the USA.“

George Schmitt was killed in a plane crash in Vermont in 1913, and his passenger was seriously injured.

George Schmitt with a passenger in his biplane in Vermont (Aerodacious website)

I hunted ground doves and pigeons at age 9 with my new Red Ryder Air Rifle in the open antidesma pasture of the Canon race course, before the Bel Air Park residential houses were built. The Demerara Tobacco Co was built in 1948, together with the Argosy premises (later the Graphic and now the Chronicle) east of the current service stations. The rifle was my reward for selling locally packaged vegetable seeds (to my grandfather for his vegetable garden to supply the US Seabees building the Air Base in 1941). This marketing promotion was advertised at the back of the popular Classic Comics at that time. I had a choice of selecting the Dick Tracy walkie talkie two-way wrist watch, but smartly chose the rifle to hunt meat and poultry. Man, this cook-shop fly was a Buffalo Bill before attaining his teenage years.

I must thank Dr Vibert Cambridge, current President of the Guyana Cultural Association for supplying me with the ‘nylon’ re the first aviation flight as reported in the Argosy – compliments of the Alden Library, Ohio Univer-sity. Vibert and I grew up in First Street, Albertown. Ten years ago, we were both founding organizers of the GuyFolkfest annual Guyana Cultural Celebration in Brooklyn, which was an outstanding success recently over the Labour Day weekend there. Ten years ago we both set out on our personal crusade to promote, propagate, and perpetuate Guyana’s social and cultural history. Our crusade continues. Indeed Vibert first conceived the Cultural Festival in 1982 with Terry Holder.

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