By Darrell Lou-Hing
In Jamaica the plane has replaced sugar as king. The island depends on aviation for its economic growth and its daily existence. People and goods fly in and out incessantly, linking Jamaica to the wider Caribbean, North America and the rest of the world.
THE FIRST plane to fly in Jamaican skies was flown by Jesse Seligman, an American aviator, on December 21, 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers made history with the first plane flight the world had ever seen, and it lasted just five minutes. Jesse Seligman decided to demonstrate this technological miracle in Jamaica. In December 1911 Seligman had “been flying for four months”; had “won some fame as an aviator”; held “the record altitude attained on a Moisant machine – 13,943 feet.”
Seligman Arrived in Kingston Dec 14 1911 on the “Altai” from NY; accompanied by Mr E. DeB. Newman, manager of the Moisant International Aviators, Mr Jose de Zelba and a party of French mechanics (including Andre Ruellan); Seligman’s wife. He Brought three machines – one complete, parts for the others. Advertisements promised flying displays on Dec 20 and 21 at the Knutsford Park Race Track.
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According to The Gleaner, It was a hot and windy day but that didn’t stop the crowd of close to 1,000 people from all over Jamaica from gathering at 3 p.m. at the Knutsford Park Race Course (in what is now New Kingston) to see the thrilling aerial exhibition. After a 45-minute delay due to unfavorable 20-mile-an-hour wind and slight rain, 22 year old Seligman, who had only been flying for four months, “in a dark tweed suit, and black leather leggings…the very embodiment of cool, calm confidence” – was determined not to disappoint his audience, as the plane’s engine revved, men who had been hanging on to its framework to maximize its initial speed let go and the flying machine accelerated eastwards down the racecourse and the big bird-like construction of wood, steel wire and silk ran down the ground eastward at increasing speed.
About 60 yards later the plane had gathered enough impetus to take off, “It was a wonderful sight to see the ever-rising machine tearing at terrific speed to the east, and the crowd was too astounded even to cheer,” The Gleaner noted.
The 50-horsepower Moisant monoplane, reaching a dizzying altitude of 200 feet as it slowly circled the racecourse. “It was a marvelous spectacle, and one worth going miles to see,” said the paper. The cheer from the crowd was so loud it almost drowned out the sound of the plane’s engines. Seligman flew northwards and then westwards at a mile-a-minute pace, occasionally straying beyond the Race Course boundaries. The thrill was short-lived, though, as Seligman brought it back to earth after only five minutes, the gutsy American brought the plane to land gracefully within the Race Park lands, ready to fly again the next day and thrill an entirely new crowd. On that occasion the flight apparently lasted 15 minutes and attracted a smaller crowd of 600. A week later, Seligman left Jamaica to fly across the Isthmus of Panama following the course of the Panama Canal and Christmas ads of Santa flying a plane laden with toys appeared
The group left on Dec. 23 for Panama where Seligman hoped to fly across the Isthmus and back following the line of the canal. He promised to fly again in Kingston on his return trip to the USA.There are detailed descriptions of the flights and the appreciative spectators in the Jamaican Daily Gleaner for Dec. 21 and 22, 1911. There is a rather sad postscript to this tale of youthful derring-do. Seligman started experiencing acute and debilitating headaches, caused perhaps by injuries suffered in the course of flying accidents. Fearing for his sanity, Jesse killed himself at home on December 16, 1915, almost four years to the day after his inaugural Jamaica flight. Mary also died that day, probably in a suicide pact. Both were only 27 years old and left a three-year-old daughter. This personal tragedy aside, Seligman’s Jamaica flights ignited a passion for flying in the Caribbean that survives to this day.
Darrell Lou-Hing is a retired pilot and avid aviation history buff
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