The First Airstrip

ould you like to know who was the first Mestizo that set foot on Ambergris Caye to make it his permanent home? We have heard several stories and a popular one says that it was one "Ancona" who was the first settler.

Mestizos came from the Bacalar area in Mexico during the. Caste War with the Mayas, and this happened in 1848, over 150 years ago. During the next few weeks we will be learning about the "firsts" of many events, people, places, things, etc.

Do you believe that landing on a grass airstrip is a bumpy landing? Not at all! I have landed countless times on grass fields and the pilots gave me the softest landing you can think of. Old timers in San Pedro remember when they USED TO land at the San Pedro Airstrip with pilots such as John Greif II. Then there was Roballo, Yasin Shoman, Charlie, and Mandy Castillo.

FIRST AIRSTRIPS- the first one on Ambergris Caye was built at Basil Jones on the northern end of our island. In the 1940's and 1950's the government had given an oil exploration company a license to drill for oil as there was evidence that some rich oil veins crossed in this direction between oil veins of Mexico and Guatemala. A very large-scale exploration took place at Basil Jones as heavy equipment was brought to the island for the oil drilling. In fact, oil was found- but not in large commercial quantities.

The heavy equipment came by barge, of course, but the bosses and engineers and experts would not travel by boat, so an airstrip was cleared and leveled at Basil Jones and 4 seater planes landed there regularly transporting personnel of Phillip Petroleum. When the company terminated its operations. weeds took over the airstrip, but at times it was found that the strip was being used for clandestine activities, perhaps to load or unload drugs. No evidence of that ever surfaced, but why would anyone clear that field, and it was not done only for exercise, or to admire it. That field still remains and with no police or immigration in that area, it would be a good idea for the police to keep an eye on it.

The first air strip at San Pedro was cleared around 1964. Mr. John Greif wedded to Celi Nunez was working diligently to establish the first hotel for San Pedro. He had seen the potentials for tourism and also knew that air transportation would facilitate the growth of tourism.

Area Representative Louis “Cuz” Sylvestre at the time was very influential and so was Mr. Jim Blake, who was the owner of the land. That first airstrip was all grass, very narrow, and about one third the length of the present airstrip which has very appropriately been named the John Grief II Airstrip.

Jim Blake had the land and was persuaded. After the land was cleared of bush and coconut trees, it was leveled and grass was allowed to grow on it. Oh yes, it was grass, but folks in San Pedro thought it was the greatest single achievement for our community.and San Pedro's airstrip began to take shape. It was bumpy and grassy, but soon John was making some short landings. In 1965, Holiday Hotel was inaugurated and soon commercial flights were established at the rate of I flight a day.

Just let me insert here my last bit of interesting information and it is that the commercial flights offered by Maya Airways were ONLY seven dollars one way. And in the 1960’s some folks still preferred to travel by the Elsa P Cargo Boat and passenger service for 50 cents to the Capital City of Belize.

Today there are between 75 flights taking off from San. Pedro on peak season on a daily basis and an equal number returning. John Greif's airstrip could one day become international.

FIRST AIRPLANE: The first plane to land on Ambergris Caye had to be one from the Petroleum Exploration Company at Basil Jones up north. However, the first plane to actually land here was a sea plane owned by a young and handsome pilot of Kentucky, Mr. John Greif. The first aqua landing was at the lagoon behind the village and the seaplane docked at a little pier by the football field. The entire village came to see this historic and awesome landing. (I guess we call it a landing) This first sea plane was one of the moving factors behind the Holiday Hotel, the pioneer hotel for San Pedro and owned by John and Celi. From there came the development of the airstrip, local commercial airlines, and the commencement of tourism for San Pedro. This dates back to the 1960's. Today we have the best airstrip in the country, even over the Belize City strip.

The Very First Plane Landing in San Pedro

It was a sunny and quiet Friday morning in the village of San Pedro. Fishermen were out at sea, children were at school right on the beach, and most of the women were wearing red eyes from the smoke in their little kitchens and the fire hearths and trying to finish with the food for midday lunch. In San Pedro the main meal is the midday lunch and this could be anything from several whole fried fish, a pot-full of red beans, either a pot-full of white rice or a stockpile or corn tortillas. Of course there was some ‘curtido de chile’ or a jar of onions and hot peppers. But wait a minute! I am supposed to be talking about airplanes.

The serenity of the day was interrupted with this loud sound, that of a loud engine. When villagers looked up, they surprisingly and perhaps with some fear discovered that it was a plane. It circled around the village once and headed towards the reef. By that time the school children were out of their classes and all gleefully shouting at the beach. The teachers could not contain their emotions and also joined the students at the beach. By the time the airplane approached the village over the sea from the southerly direction, most of the women had abandoned their kitchens ignoring the fires and were rushing towards the beach where apparently this flying monster was attempting to land. One elderly man who was sitting in the outdoor latrine, rushed out with his pants down to his knees either with excitement of the eventful moment or due to fear of whatever was happening. Fortunately, nobody noticed. How could anyone notice! Fishermen who were still out at sea noticed the commotion and started paddling their dories at full speed trying desperately not to miss out on the action or perhaps frantic of what could happen to their women and children.

In a matter of a minute or two, the plane had touched water and was moving forward at great speed, splashing water on both sides as never seen before. Soon it slowed almost to a standstill right in front of the school which was close to the main pier. However it did not go towards the pier like most boats did but headed towards a shallow area at the beach. Soon the two boats on which the plane was floating hit the shallow grass and came to a complete halt. Everyone’s mouth was wide open and all eyes were riveted onto the plane. Smaller kids were clinging from their mother’s loose dresses almost to the point of ripping them. The school children were extremely excited and cheering at being so close to a real airplane. The little door at the front to the left was opened and out stepped this handsome young American Pilot waving is hand at the crowd, actually the entire village. He stepped down in the shallow water which reached half way up his calves. The village chairman greeted the gringo pilot and they along with some other men walked towards Daddy’s Club at the foot of the main pier where supposedly they had a meeting. It was John Greif II who was supposedly looking for a place in the Tropics which he could call home and where he could build a hotel.

Later that afternoon he stepped inside his seaplane once more, cranked up the engine and his plane moved far out down south. Then it sped in a northerly direction and when almost in front of the waving crowd, it lifted and John had his plane tilting its wings from side to side as if saying ‘adios’. There was a sense of sadness even nostalgia as the plane flew away into the distance and finally disappeared in the beautiful blue sky. San Pedro had witnessed with great enthusiasm the landing of the very first plane- an event that would later become an everyday common occurrence. This happened many years ago in San Pedro.

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