When you travel to the Cayman Islands on Cayman Airways Limited (CAL), you arrive at your destination well before your feet touch the ground. And it’s been that way for 50 years.
“My earliest memories of Cayman Airways are actually as a young traveller,” says Kristen “Kris” Bergstrom, an island local and flight captain who’s approaching his 35th anniversary with the company. But before he rose through the ranks at Cayman Airways, Bergstrom was just a kid attending boarding school in England, flying to and from home on the national airline. “When you got on board Cayman Airways, you always felt like you were home, before you even left where you were,” he recalls. “I was travelling as an unaccompanied minor on Cayman Airways back in those days, when they would transfer me over to [my next flight]. I remember the staff would take such good care of me. If we had connection times between flights, they would sit with me in the back office, give me stuff to do, show me interesting things about the job. It was always a trusting thing for me.”
Bergstrom is not alone in his pride for Cayman’s National Flag Carrier. Since 1968, the airline has connected Cayman with the rest of the world through the innovations, perseverance and faith of the Islands’ people.
“It’s our national airline, so there’s a lot of pride,” explains Adrian “Rex” Miller, Cayman Airways’ longest-serving pilot, who’s been with the company since 1979.
Part of that pride comes from knowing how far Cayman Airways has come, and the developments it’s made possible throughout the Cayman Islands. In the 1940s and early ‘50s, before the Islands had their own national carrier, air travel to and from Cayman took place on puddle jumpers and repurposed military aircraft that landed directly in the sea. The first airfield opened in the Islands in 1954, built by enterprising volunteer Caymanians. Before long, Costa Rican airline LACSA launched Cayman Brac Airways, helped by subsidies from the Cayman government. Back then, most travellers were seamen, venturing out to jobs at National Bulk Carriers, a shipping company.
AN AIRLINE’S EVOLUTION
But the Islands’ government took over the subsidiary in 1968, launching a mission to introduce travellers the world over to the unique delights of Cayman. As the company grew, so did its fleet — from a four-passenger aircraft nicknamed the “Bamboo Bomber,” to a six-passenger Aerocommander, to an eight-passenger Beechcraft. By the early ‘70s, Cayman Airways was operating a 28-passenger jet.
“When I started, we had the Boeing 727; we had the DC-8; we had the Norman Trislander; and we had an aircraft called the Short SD3-30,” recalls Bergstrom. “That fleet has all been changed now … I’ve flown basically the same airplane for most of my career, the 737. But to watch the airline add different aircraft to its fleet for the different tasks or jobs that they have is pretty neat.”
And the fleet’s evolution continues. Cayman Airways will welcome brand-new, customised Boeing 737-8 MAX aircraft as its older 737-300s are phased out, with the first of the new planes arriving in late 2018. “To be going into new airplanes again at the end of this year is pretty exciting for us,” Bergstrom says.
Because Cayman was a relatively unknown destination when Cayman Airways launched, the airline had to be a pioneer. Its first international route touched down in Kingston, Jamaica, then soon Montego Bay and Miami were added. In the late ‘70s, the airline opened up a route to George Bush International Airport in Houston. Today, Cayman Airways operates flights to 13 destinations in the United States, Jamaica, Cuba and Honduras.
“We were the airline that started the Houston route,” Bergstrom explains. “We started the New York route. We started the Atlanta route. We started routes to Tampa, Orlando, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Chicago. We started Washington D.C. These are all routes that Cayman Airways and the country started up to bring tourist travellers to the Island. As the major [airlines] have realised that this little airline is doing that, they have also come into those routes, and Cayman Airways has pulled off the routes and gone looking for new markets and new passengers. We have been a trailblazer.”
“I see Cayman Airways as an extension of the country,” he adds. “We are three small Islands, and Cayman Airways is really the bridge that connects those Islands.”
CARING FOR COMMUNITY
But though the airline lands in destinations from New York to Havana to La Ceiba, its focus remains on its own community. Its long-serving pilots say the company treats employees with the same care as it treats customers. Bergstrom, for example, began his career at the Cayman Airways ticket counter in Miami, eventually rising through the ranks to be the VP of Flight Operations, in addition to flying as a pilot. Miller has spent nearly four decades flying for the airline, racking up 24,000 flying hours and counting. Pilots receive training every six months, in addition to special seminars; Bergstrom recalls being sent to tour and train at the Boeing facility in Seattle as one of the highlights of his career. “I think it was around 1989 — I would’ve been a very green pilot, and the company had just bought brand-new airplanes from Boeing. So, we were going through the training at the Boeing facility and flying with instructors on the line. It was very cool.”
But it’s that sense of community that keeps these world-class professionals coming back home. “When I was younger, I did entertain going abroad, to the Middle East or Asia, to see the world,” Miller recalls. “But as you grow older, your priorities change. You get a family; you have children; you just want to come back home. I wanted to finish my career here.”
In fact, Cayman Airways’ dedication to its home Islands has altered the history of these Islands. After Hurricane Ivan, for example, Cayman experienced mass devastation and widespread flooding. “The speed of the recovery of the country can be directly contributed to the contributions that Cayman Airways made, without a shadow of a doubt,” Bergstrom says. “There were no hotel rooms; there was no reason for the other carriers to come here. But Cayman Airways was here day in and day out, bringing supplies, transporting people to assist in the recovery. This is our country, so it was vitally important to us to operate to support the country, to get the country back on its feet.”
For 50 years, CAL has been an extension of the Cayman community, welcoming tourists and locals alike. And though the business continues to expand, that hometown feel remains.
“The Island is a pretty small place,” Miller describes, “so passengers flying want to know who’s in the cockpit. You can hear people asking, ‘Who’s flying?’ and when my name is mentioned, they go, ‘OK, I can go to sleep on this flight,’” he adds with a laugh. “It’s a comfort. It’s been a constant.”
CREATING A LEGACY
Making memories is an easy feat for a CAL pilot. The sky truly is the limit when it comes to dreamy destinations. But whilst some pilots prefer the open air to get away, others prefer some familiar company along for the ride.
“I think that one of the most memorable was that first flight as a captain of the B737-400,” says Captain Joseph “Joey” Jackson. He quickly corrects himself and says, “Also, I think that having the opportunity to operate a flight with my younger son as my first officer definitely topped that. I think this is every pilot’s dream; March 31, 2016, we operated 106/107 as a father/son team.”
And it’s not just Captain Jackson who has enjoyed passing the metaphorical baton on to his son. Many Cayman Airways pilots are giving the legacy of flight to their children.
“Over the years the airline pilot profession has been a male-dominated profession,” notes Captain Gary Hydes. “And I am happy to say that CAL, like many other carriers, are diversifying the talent pool, which now includes female pilots.”
These advancements have a personal tie-in for Hydes, too. “I do have a daughter who is a first officer on the Twin Otter at the moment,” Hydes says. “And I hope that we get to fly together prior to my retirement.”
Author: Ciara Ebanks