Retired pilot David Duff showing off his pilot’s wings from the days when he traversed Caribbean skies at the controls of small aircraft. (Picture by Reco Moore.)
PILOT, MUSICIAN, salesman, David Duff has been all of these. In retirement, the septuagenarian spends his time rekindling memories of his heyday.
“I am a true Barbadian. I love this country,” says Duff, who was born here of a Trinidadian father and Barbadian mother. He is a Ward grandson from the well-known Mount Gay clan and is fortunate to have experienced life at the St Lucy sugar plantation, the home of world famous Mount Gay Rum where he spent his childhood.
Intermediate cricket with Leeward Cricket Club at Foster’s in St Lucy when he was just age 15 remains part of that growing up experience which the former Harrisonian cherishes.
But the VHF radio which is always within hearing range is what truly keeps him in touch with more sustained memories of the days when he crossed the skies of the Caribbean, piloting planes with celebrity passengers.
Aboard the small Tropic Air aircraft with Duff at the controls, were the rich and famous such as Britain’s Princess Margaret, the late sister of Queen Elizabeth II who frequently came here on her way to the Grenadine island of Mustique. The Duke and Duchess of Kent, British singer Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca, British actor Sir Peter Ustinov, Ted Kennedy, brother of United States President John F. Kennedy all flew with Duff.
He has no autographs or pictures with any of these personalities to show and when friends ask why not, his simple answer is: “At the time, you were not thinking about that.”
Knowing that he was the one flying these personalities around is enough for Duff, who says: “Tropic Air was sort of a unique experience in itself.”
He had always dreamed of being a pilot. But his mother wanted him to be a lawyer and when he finished sixth form at Harrison College, it was to the law firm of Carrington and Sealy that he went, working as an articled clerk. The tedious legal searches for information and the mundane groundwork expected of an articled clerk (an assistant to the lawyer carrying out administrative and other legal tasks) was “something that did not really turn me on”.
Though he had never done physics or chemistry, he jumped at the opportunity to go off to flying school in Winnipeg, Canada and spent one year learning what he loved most.
Any day you will find him sitting either on the patio of his Christ Church home, or near his opened front door, his eyes trained on the skies, and his VHF radio in his hand or at his side. He may be long out of the cockpit, but his interest in what goes on there remains, hence he continues to be tuned in to communication between pilots and air traffic controllers at the Grantley Adams International Airport.
He had worked as a BWIA station officer at the airport before eventually securing a job as a pilot.
Speaking about the beginning of his career, Duff explained: “At that time there were no small charter companies. LIAT was the only small airline and BWIA only hired Trinidadians at that point, so it was very difficult to get a job as a pilot although there were not many Barbadians being qualified at the time.”
His first pilot’s job was with Air Calypso, at that time only the second airline to be registered in Barbados, after CARIB West.
Thus he began traversing Caribbean skies, experiencing take-offs and landings in some of the region’s more difficult airports rated by pilots for their tricky approaches and landings.
Air Calypso was a charter company which started day tours to a few neighbouring Caribbean islands. Duff flew the Air Calypso Convair 44 for a few years as a first officer/co-pilot. He admitted he had a lot to learn and laughing, recalled the nickname “Air Callapso” mockingly given to the airline by Barbadians, just as people throughout the Caribbean labelled the defunct British West Indian Airways (BWIA) “Britain’s Worst Investment Abroad” – “But Will It Arrive” – Better Walk If Able”.
Duff’s piloting experience ranges from flying people to freighting all kinds of cargo – vehicles, horses, cows, “you name it”, aboard the planes of Carib West Airlines on the Barbados/Miami route.
He continues to trust the judgement of Caribbean pilots who pin their reputation on their strict adherence to flight safety. “We have very good pilots here in the Caribbean. They know these airports in the islands well, and in the days when I was flying, you knew they did not take chances with those airplanes. If something was wrong, nobody could get them to take that plane up in the air.”
Duff believes he is still the Barbadian with the most airplanes on his licence, since he flew so many different models of small aircraft, and though he makes no boast about his skill and competence, he does have interesting stories to tell about the anxious moments.
For example, there was the time he flew an Air Commander aircraft with a patched-up damaged wing at reduced speed from Barbados to Dallas, over two days of hopping and stopping at San Juan, Puerto Rico, South Caicos, Mobile, Alabama and finally, Love Field Airport, Dallas.
No wonder he was once a training captain.