November is Aviation History Month and so this is a fitting time to honour the memory of Capt Leonard Maurice Thompson after whom the new Marsh Harbour International Airport is to be named. Leonard Thompson was an astute businessman who built up many businesses in Nassau and Abaco but whose passion was always for flying.
Leonard Thompson was born in Hope Town, Abaco, on 17 June 1917 and in his memoirs he observed that one day as a young boy everyone was given a holiday to watch the first seaplane land in Hope Town Harbour.
It is that day that he attributed to affecting his future life. The plane had been chartered to bring in a doctor to attend the mother of Mr. J.W Roberts who was very sick at the time. The pilot was Captain A. B. Chalk, an early pioneer of aviation in The Bahamas, and the young Leonard Thompson decided that day he would like to become a pilot like Capt. Chalk. Years later that dream did come true as Mr. Thompson went on to earn his wings.
In 1937 Leonard Thompson persuaded his friend, Charlie Collar, a US naval pilot and later the pioneer founder of Bahamas Airways, to take him on as an apprentice pilot. At first his duties consisted of cleaning and washing down two small aircraft; then refueling the aircraft and unloading the luggage whenever a charter came up. However, his dreams would come true whenever there were no passengers on the return flight as he would get the chance to fly the airplane under the supervision of the captain.
When war broke out in Britain, Leonard Thompson felt it his duty to offer his services in the war effort. He travelled to Canada where he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and qualified as an aero engine mechanic. After a while he was posted to Elementary Flying Training School and after months of training, in 1942, he finally earned his wings. He was then posted overseas along with 13 of his classmates of whom, sadly, only three returned at the end of the war. While flying as a bomber pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force, Capt. Thompson was shot down over Germany and detained in a prisoner of war camp for 18 months. Fortunately, he survived the ordeal and was happy to return to Abaco to his new wife and young son whom he had never seen.
Upon his return to Montréal at the end of the war, Leonard Thompson sat an examination for a commercial pilot’s licence which then enabled him to start flying as soon as he arrived back in Nassau. Back home on Abaco, Capt. Thompson rejoined Bahamas Airways in 1945 and became chief pilot, flying to many of the out islands.
After flying for some time with Bahamas Airways, he left and started his own charter company, Skyway Bahamas Ltd.
During the ensuing years Capt. Thompson became involved in many businesses both in Nassau and Abaco which included both the Treasure Cay Resort and the Great Abaco Beach Hotel. Not long after this final move to Abaco, Capt. Thompson formed Abaco Air with friends Gil Hensler, Joe Muller and Jack Albury as partners. However he soon became more and more involved with the Great Abaco Club and finally withdrew from flying altogether.
He entered politics at the age of 32 and was elected to the House of Assembly. He served as representative for Abaco many times until 1968 and until his death remained an ardent supporter of his party.
Air traffic into Marsh Harbour nowadays consists mainly of flights between Nassau and Florida with a couple to Freeport. Over the years there has been no record of longevity and many small carriers such as Locair, Yellow Air Taxi and Twin Air have come and gone. Chalk’s International Airlines, which was synonymous with out Island air service, started flying to Abaco in 2007 but after a short time ceased flying due to loss of its federal operational licence. In mid-July 2008, Vintage Props and Jets, which had actually been one of the long-time carriers of 16 years, filed for bankruptcy.
Island Pass, which started flying here with great hopes a couple of years ago, was gone within eight months and Craig Air (Jacksonville) and Airgate (New Smyna Beach) picked up the slack. In 2011 United and Continental merged to form Gulfstream but that airline suffered problems and has now been replaced by Silver Air which offers service into Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. American Eagle flies into Miami and Twin Air Calypso flies into Fort Lauderdale.
Bahamasair remains the longest serving airline between Abaco, Nassau and Florida, West Palm Beach, with Sky Bahamas now offering service between Abaco, Nassau and Fort Lauderdale. Western Air also flies between Nassau and Marsh Harbour. Regional and Flamingo Air offer service into Freeport.
The present Marsh Harbour airport, which is now the focus of much ire, was built in the late 1980’s. Prior to that date sea planes would land at the Union Jack Dock. In 2007 a new and extended runway was constructed at the Marsh Harbour Airport with the existing runway taking over as a taxi way.
In 2011 work commenced on a new International Airport for Marsh Harbour adjacent to the existing terminal. However, numerous alterations and date changes have occurred leaving everyone anxiously awaiting the opening of the spacious new Captain Leonard M. Thompson Airport now slated for January 2014.