Monday, 30 September 2013

Characters of the Caribbean -- Jose Dormoy, "Pipe"

José Dormoy, known by one and all as “Pipe”, was an unforgettable character. I first met him on a flight to St. Eustatius (Statia) back in 1964. My husband and I were looking for an island on which to build our dream house.  From the beach on the too large island of St. Maarten, I could see the distant silhouette of Statia on the far horizon, beckoning like Bali Ha’i. On enquiring as to how we could get there, we discovered there were two flights a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays, in a four seater plane, a Piper Apache. Of course we booked the flight, and that’s how I first encountered “Pipe”.

We were met at the small tin shack that was then the St. Maarten Airport, by an extraordinarily attractive man wearing a short sleeved white shirt with a pilot’s insignia, and a pilot’s dark blue hat cocked rakishly to one side. Between his teeth firmly clamped was an unlit pipe. Over the next forty years I never saw him without that pipe except when he was eating. I presume he slept without it but I have no first hand evidence of that. I’ve been told he would fall asleep with that pipe in his mouth, and that he even managed to swim and shower with it just by moving it from right to left in his mouth. 

People who flew with him regularly learned to tell by the position of the pipe in his mouth whether the landing was a piece of cake, or a bit tricky, or one that really required concentration. The pipe would move from right to left to center. Although it was a rare landing that ever seemed difficult with Pipe in the driver’s seat.

I sat beside him, in the co-pilot’s seat, on that first flight. In those early years, the airstrips were indeed chancy.  St. Eustatius had a grass landing strip, and Pipe had to buzz the field to get the goats and cows off it so he could land.

Statia became our home. And it was Pipe who became our conduit to the outside world.

In our part of the Caribbean, the ability to land on a short runway is a necessity. Our closest neighboring island, Saba, still to this day has the shortest commercial airstrip in the world, at just under 1300 feet, and just to make matters more exciting, at each end of the airstrip there is a sharp plunge, a 1200 foot drop, to the sea. On their way to my home on Statia, most flights stopped at Saba. Whenever I saw Pipe in the pilot’s seat, I relaxed, knowing nothing could possibly go wrong. He was a born pilot, with an almost extra-sensory talent for flying. He was able to land a plane on a dime in even the trickiest weather. 

It was only after his death in 2007 that I learned more about the early years of this extraordinary pilot’s life. I sat with his widow, Elly, and looked at old photographs and films and talked about the life of this pioneer of flight in the Caribbean. The story that emerged reads like a novel.

José Dormoy was born on the French Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe and presumably spent a normal childhood there. But during World War II, the Germans occupied the French Caribbean Islands. At the age of sixteen, with two other boys, his cousins, José took a small sailboat out late one night and headed for the English Island of Dominica. Their boat capsized short of the beach and the boys swam ashore. Apprehended by the local police, with no papers of any kind to corroborate their story, the boys insisted they were French, lied about their age, and said they wanted only to go to England so they could join the Free French Air Force.

Delighting In Your Company

They must have been very convincing. They were put on a naval ship where they worked their way to New York, and from there they shipped out on another ship that was part of a convoy traveling between New York and England.  They worked several round trips before they jumped ship in England and presented themselves to the Free French forces to receive training as pilots. 

The log books from this period in José’s life make fascinating reading, telling as they do about his training with such acrobatics as spinning, stalling mid-air, flying sideways, and everything else a pilot in those early days of flight might have to use to evade the enemy. José served in the Air Force, flying Spitfires, as he had hoped to, during the waning days of the war.

After the war, José had little desire to return home. He could not conceive of a life without flying, so he joined the French Air Force and served in North Africa. He came home to Guadeloupe on his 21st birthday. 

In 1946, a fellow pilot, Remy de Haenen, had started a small commercial air operation with a 900 foot runway on the tiny uninhabited island of Tintamarra, (Flat Island) north of St. Maarten in the Antilles. José Dormoy, “Pipe” became one of the small group of pilots flying out of Flat Island to the previously isolated islands Statia, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe and others in the French Caribbean, flying Siskorsky flying boats, Kingfisher amphibs and a Stinson Trimotor landplane.

The pilots were often involved in moving not only passengers, but also contraband, cargos of liquor and tobacco, among the islands. Aviation historian, Jerry Casius, refers to the years that followed as “a wild west in the sky.” There was little or no regulation or oversight in those early days over flights in the Caribbean. The young, adventurous pilots had free range to treat the sky and the islands as their playground.

The F.A.A. closed down the operation after a series of accidents. Then in 1950, a hurricane destroyed all their planes. 

José flew back to Guadeloupe, where for the next five years he was Tower Controller and Assistant Airport Manager for the new airport. From his plane he’d give the weather report to incoming Air France flights and then quickly land so he could greet the crew as they disembarked. It was during this period that he founded the Aero Club Guadelopeen, and served as an instructor in it. He bought his first plane, a Fairchild PT19.

During the next few years, José had a contract to fly into gold mines deep in the jungles of French Guyana, carrying supplies in and gold out of this inhospitable area to the bank in Cayenne. There were no proper landing facilities, just a clearing in the jungle. There was one incident when a boa constrictor hitch hiked a ride in a length of pipe José was carrying back to Satga, only to emerge, mid-air. José made a hurried landing that day and left it to others to sort out the snake. 

Once during these years of jungle flying, José was invited to a party which extended to the full weekend. When he flew back to the mine the next week, the foreman told him the bank had called. “Where is the gold?” he asked. Jose had parked all weekend with the gold in his trunk, completely forgotten. It says something about both the time and the place that the gold was safe.

When José left Cayenne Airlines, they were unable to find another bush pilot who was willing or able to do what he had done. The mines closed down.
In 1961 Windward Island Airways began regular passenger service between Statia, Saba, and St. Maarten, in the Netherland Antilles.  Pipe was its first fully employed pilot. The company wanted José enough to buy him out of the ten year contract he had signed with the mines.

By 1963, José was regularly flying Winair’s Dornier 28 into Statia. It was during these years that, on Statia, Pipe met the love of his life, a beautiful young Dutchwoman, Elizabeth (Elly) Delien, who was living on Statia with her two infant daughters. José Dormoy and Ellie remained together for forty-three years, until his death in 2007.

A minister from Saba reminisced at Pipe’s funeral on the differences between “Hope” and “Faith”. He said that when he saw anyone else in the pilot’s seat he HOPED to land safely, but that when he saw that Pipe was flying the plane, he relaxed. He had FAITH that the plane would land safely.

It says something that the Dutch Royal Family always insisted on being flown by José Dormoy when they visited the islands of the Netherland Antilles.

José was decorated by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in 1988, awarded the Order of Oranje Nassau, and in 2004 he was presented with The Gold Medal for Aeronautics by the Government of France. 

José Dormoy, The Pipe, continued to fly until he was eighty-one. In all he amassed 44,000 flying hours. In an interview later in life he said, `Years ago, pilots had more aviation in mind, flying for love. Now pilots fly more for money than by obligation!'

At José’s funeral his grandson Pascal said, “Pappie was an artist and used the plane as a paint brush in the sky.”

He is a myth in the Caribbean. After his death the “Spirit of José Dormoy” flew as one of Winair’s fleet of planes.

My novel, 'Delighting In Your Company', takes place in the Carribbean, and was inspired by the many tales of the local residents on my favourite island, St. Eustatius.

To purchase one of these books, just click on the book link below and select the vendor of your choice.

 • Delighting In Your Company ~ Delighting In Your Company is a paranormal romance set on an exotic Caribbean island, featuring a handsome ghost and an adventurous heroine who travels back in time to solve a mystery!

"Delighting In Your Company is a unique paranormal romance that brings together island folklore, history, and mystery with an unlikely romance between the past and present that had me going through a torrent of emotions and made it impossible to put down." -- The Romance Reviews

 • The Memory of Roses ~ The story of a secret and how it impacts two generations of the McQuaid family.  It unfolds on the beautiful Greek Island of Corfu and is a tale complete with beautiful and passionate women, handsome and fiery men, and an intriguing mystery.

"The Memory of Roses by Blair McDowell is simply an incredibly lovely story. It’s also a love story, and a story about finding yourself, and about closure. The theme running through the book is “all’s well that ends well.”  --  Marlene, Reading Reality

 • Sonata ~ Sayuri McAllister has just arrived home to Vancouver to find some shocking situations 
~ A robbery has taken place at her family home, and it is being investigated by her old flame;
~ Alyssa James who she barely knows, is about to become her new stepmother; 
~ and Alyssa’s brother, Hugh James, is a charming Irishman who is intent on bedding and wedding the rich and beautiful Sayuri. 

It’s a confusing and difficult time for Sayuri, especially when dangerous accidents happen to her father and herself – or are they accidents?

“I found Sonata to be a charming novel that left me laughing out loud in parts and gnawing nails in others. It was a delight to read.” – Night Owl Reviews

 Abigail's Christmas (short story) ~ An enchanting tale of love and romance, with a magical touch of fantasy.
Abigail's Christmas is a holiday story about Abigail who goes looking for a tree on Christmas Eve, and ends up with the man of her dreams in a sleigh in the Rockies --- with a wedding in the offing! Is it real?  Is she dreaming?  Or is it just Christmas magic?

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Blair McDowell