Written December 26/27, 2016–John Glenn circled the earth three times on February 20, 1962 in the Mercury spacecraft conceived, invented and designed by a Belizean-born American scientist/mechanical engineer named Maxime Faget (pronounced Fahzhay). Senator Glenn was an American aviator, engineer and astronaut who died earlier this month at age 95.
Dr. Maxim Faget, who was responsible for the Mercury spacecraft, was born in Dangriga, Stann Creek district on August 26, 1921. To find out how Max Faget was born in Stann Creek we have to go back to World War I. The United Kingdom was fighting the Great War against Germany, Austria and others and suffered tremendous casualties – 876,084 dead and 167,172 wounded. All doctors who were British subjects were needed at the front. There was a British Colonial Service Marine Hospital in New Orleans where Max’s father, Dr. Guy Henry Faget, worked as a tropical disease specialist. He and his wife, Isabelle Le Blance-Faget, answered the call to go to Belize for 5 years. When Dr. Maxime Faget visited Belize some years ago before his death, he brought with him a Belize flag which he had sent to the moon. The flag used to be displayed in the Government House/House of Culture in Belize City.
After Charles Augustus Lindbergh became famous by his historic solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris, France, in 33 ½ hours, there were requests from countries all over the world (including Belize) for him to visit with his “Spirit Of St. Louis”. Pan American Airways also sought his service as they were exploring the possibility of organizing air mail service for the U.S. Post Office across the U.S. and elsewhere. So it was that he was sent on a goodwill tour of Central America and, as a consultant to Pan American, he chose the site for our first international airport, which was known as Stanley Field, named for the British Secretary of State for the colonies in 1940’s and which is now Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport.
In 1927, the Governor of British Honduras, Sir John Burdon, requested his chief information officer, Capt. Monrad Siegfried Metzgen, to make arrangements for Lindbergh to visit the colony. Lindbergh flew from the U.S. down through Mexico then to Guatemala in December 1927. So, if you are reading this in the morning of Friday, December 30th you should know that this same day, date and time exactly 89 years ago, Col. Charles Lindbergh was winging his way from Guatemala City to Belize City in a 2½ hour flight. Let us read Lindbergh’s own account of this trip courtesy of the National Geographic magazine of May 1928.
Some of us who are aviators/pilots are captivated by the exploits of aviators who came before, like Lindbergh, Glenn, Amelia Earhart, and especially the pilots of the Tuskegee 332nd fighter group and the 477th Bombardment group of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen never lost a plane in combat while escorting U.S. bombers over Germany. The story goes that when the German pilots saw those red tail planes they would take off.
THE FIRST PLANE TO FLY OVER BRITISH HONDURAS
I set a compass course straight for Belize. This carried me over much mountainous and uninhabited country. Now and then, however, I saw small grass huts with tiny cultivated patches around them; but on this whole flight I did not see one place where I might have landed without injury to the plane.
As I approached the coast, the country became less mountainous; also, a heavy fog set in and I had to fly about 6,000 feet to clear it.
Two or three times in the last two hours I tried to get under that fog, but it hung close down to the tree tops; so I had to get up again, navigating blindly by instruments.
At last I noticed my position about 25 miles south to Belize. To reach the city, I had to fly low along a beach fringed with coconut palms. I found the polo field and landed. Mine was the first land plane to fly over British Honduras, I was told.
Belize is a British colony and its hospitality to me was of the good old British sort. After a night of festivity – and it was restful to enjoy once more a common language – I was taken for a launch ride up the Belize River.
Looking into the dense growth along the banks, I realized what a forced landing in that region might have entailed. The river on both sides is bordered with mangrove swamps. Even on higher land the vegetation is so dense that weeks might be required to travel any distance, where there were no trails. Several miles up the river we visited the Botanical Gardens, where the Government is experimenting with native trees and plants.
SPLENDID DISCIPLINE AT BELIZE
In the morning the Governor, Sir John Burdon, with a band of music and many people, came to the field to see me start. Perfect order was maintained. With the spectators under control, there was no danger of hitting any of them, for which I was very grateful. It was a fine example of British discipline.
I circled over Belize; then set my course for San Salvador. The rough air joggled the magnetic compass, and without the earth inductor, by which I navigated, it would have been impossible to fly as straight on a course. The line of flight took me along the coast until I entered Guatemala.
The scenery was unusually interesting. There was dense green jungle all over the lowlands, and the Gulf was dotted with tiny keys covered with mangrove and palm trees.
After passing West Saint Ann’s Creek, I left British Honduras, crossed the Gulf of Amatique, and flew between Livingston and Puerto Barrios. Below, over the lowlands, there stretched out for miles the dark-green foliage of banana plantations. Beyond Livingston, I was surprised to see what appeared to be a big gold dredge, which had cut through the jungle, leaving a trail of destruction behind.
The area over which I flew was more inhabited than I found Guatemala, on the way to Belize; yet it was far from thickly settled. Population grew denser after I crossed the frontier into Salvador. In the mountains I saw more of the little grass huts, seemingly lost in the foliage, for I could see no sign of trail or road anywhere near them. Around each hut was an acre or two of cultivated ground. The Indians living here, I was told, use these small patches to grow the corn for their tortillas.
These mountains in Salvador are extremely broken, with a labyrinth of ridges and deep canyons. Most of the valleys were filled with fog or clouds. The map by which I flew was on such a small scale that on it I could cover all of Salvador with two fingers. Navigation was consequently rather difficult.
At a recent reunion of the Tuskegee Airmen, Norman Lear, the famous producer of at least a dozen iconic TV sitcoms, praised the veterans for possibly saving his life during World War II when he was a gunner in a B-17 bomber during a raid over Germany and was escorted by the black fighter pilots. He said, “I am here now because you were there then”.
The “Spirit of St. Louis” had no electronics, not even a radio. It was about 30 years after Lindbergh came to Belize that I was undergoing my training in IFR over the New Mexico desert. If you do instrument training in a simulator and you make mistakes, fuses will blow and circuits will burn. In my case, I flew “under the hood” in the rear cockpit of a trainer, the canopy was completely blocked out, my eyes and brain were glued to the cluster of those six essential instruments which will keep you aloft and alive.
P.S. A replica of the Mercury should be installed either in Dangriga or at the BTL Park in Belize City next to Lindbergh’s SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS for the benefit of our students and visitors.