Armed Forces Overviews
Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad & Tobago Defence Force Air Guard

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By Wim Sonneveld

Republic of Trinidad & Tobago


History
Trinidad was sighted in 1498 by Columbus, who christened it La Isla de la Trinidad for the Holy Trinity. The Spanish who followed enslaved many of the Indian inhabitants, taking them to toil in the new South American colonies. Spain, in its rush for gold, gave only scant attention to the potential of Trinidad's land which lacked precious minerals. It took until 1592 for the Spanish to establish their first settlement, San Josef, just east of the present-day capital of Port of Spain. Over the next two centuries unsuccessful attempts were made by Spanish colonizers to establish tobacco and cacao plantations but crop failures and a lack of support from Spain left the island only lightly settled. As a result, the British took the islands from the Spanish in 1797. Slavery was abolished in the1830s prompting the British to import thousands of indentured workers, mostly from India, to work in the cane fields and service the colony. The indentured labour system remained in place for over 100 years.

Tobago was also sighted by Columbus and claimed by the Spanish but there were no attempts to colonize it. During the 17th century Tobago changed hands numerous times as the English, French and Dutch wrestled for control. In 1704 it was declared a neutral territory which left room for pirates to use the island as a base for raiding ships in the Eastern Caribbean. The British returned to establish a colonial administration on Tobago in 1763 and within two decades 10,000 African slaves were imported to establish the island's sugar, cotton and indigo plantations. Tobago's plantation economy slid into decline after the abolition of slavery but sugar and rum production continued until 1884 when the British firm that controlled finances for the island's plantations went bankrupt. Plantation owners unable to sell their sugar or rum quickly sold or abandoned their land, leaving the economy in shambles but most of the islanders with a plot of land; those who had no money to purchase land simply squatted. In 1889 the British made Tobago which previously had its own independent legislature a ward of neighbouring Trinidad.

The depression of the 1930s led to a series of strikes and riots and the growth of a labour movement on the islands. As a consequence, the British granted universal suffrage in 1946 and took measures to institute self-government. Trinidad and Tobago became independent as one nation in 1962, one of the first states of the Commonwealth Caribbean. Transition to independence was quite smooth. The People's National Movement (PNM), a mainly black, middle-class party with Eric Williams as its leader, came to power in 1956, led the country into independence and remained in office for thirty years. Independent history has been a relatively peaceful continuum broken only in 1970 by Black Power movement riots that threatened the government. There have been regular free, contested elections every five years. An oil boom in the 1970s brought prosperity to the islands but the East Indian community became increasingly isolated from political power, which brought tensions for the next two decades. In July 1990, members of a minority Muslim group attempted a coup. They stormed parliament and took 45 hostages, including prime minister Robinson who was shot in the leg after refusing to resign. Since then, the oil business has taken a downturn and the government has implemented austerity programs while boosting its efforts to promote tourism on the islands.

Trinidad & Tobago Defence Force Air Guard

In early 1973, helicopters were purchased with the intention to operate them from the Chaguaramas Heliport. This resulted in the division of the Air Wing with the fixed wing based at Piarco Airport, Port of Spain, and the helicopter unit based at Heliport Chaguaramas. Apart from these bases, the civil airport at Crown Point (Tobago) is often used for detachments. The old seaplane hangar at Piarco became the first Air Station under the command of Commander Larry McIntosh. The operations at the Helicopter Unit were transferred to civilian control in 1976 when it was renamed the Air Division of the Ministry of National Security.

In 1977 the Air Wing, as is was named by then, became a separate branch of the TTDF and by 1986 it had about fifty personnel, one Cessna 402B, and six Gazelle and Sikorsky S-76 helicopters. The 402B remained the flag bearer of the Air Wing until 1985 when a Cessna 310 was acquired from the defunct Caribbean Aviation Training Institute (CATI).

The Air Division of the Ministry of National Security became the National Helicopter Services Ltd in 1990 and obtained some Bo 105 helicopters the following year. These governmental unit provide services to the Ministery of National Security as well as to other public branches, like the national oil industry and as well as providing medical evacuation services.

The Air Wing saw huge expansion in the late nineties with the donation by the United States of two Piper PA-31Ts and two ex US Air Force C-26B Metros, the most capable aircraft in the current inventory. The aircraft are mainly operated in antinarcotic and maritime patrol roles alongside US forces in the Caribbean, patrolling the important sealanes surrounding the nation. During this period, changes and increases in manpower also took place, resulting in the construction of the current base facilities. The competition for skilled, qualified personnel within the aviation industry continued to affect the unit and resulted in the recruitment of pilots and engineers and an increase in the personnel attached to Air Wing. Recently, the Air Wing was detached from the Coast Guard and became an independent force as the Air Guard. The force is currently being expanded with four armed AW139 helicopters.

To effectively fight crime in the archipelago, the Ministery of National Security formed an independent anti-crime unit as well, named the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT), with several helicopters and an airship being delivered to the unit.

 

Defence Force Air Guard

         

Police Services