The British Virgin Islands (BVI although technically just the Virgin Islands) are one of fourteen remaining British Overseas Territories (and one of six in the Caribbean). They are situated at the northern end of the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, in the West Indies, and consist of over 50 islands, of which about 16 are inhabited. The Virgin Islands, as a whole, is an archipelago consisting of three distinct areas: the BVI, the United States Virgin Islands and the Spanish Virgin Islands (the latter are actually part of Puerto Rico).
The BVI territories are only about 100km away from Puerto Rico itself so it little surprise that the most important air route for the islands is between San Juan and the BVI capital Road Town on the island of Tortola. The majority of the BVI’s citizens call Tortola home also (in 2010 this was 23,500 of the 28,000-total population).
In keeping with several of the wealthier Caribbean islands the BVI is something of a tax haven and, for example, in 2000 45% of the world’s offshore companies had been formed there. Tourism is also an important industry and together these two business areas account for almost the entire island state's GDP. Interestingly the BVI are also dependent on migrant workers with only 37% of the entire population having been born in the BVI.
These factors together: many islands, migrant workers, money from financial services and the importance of tourism, naturally make air transport important to the islands. The main airport is located on Beef Island just off the eastern tip of Tortola. Nowadays known as Terrance B. Lettsome International it was formerly just Beef Island Airport and for just over twenty years the most important airline serving it was the British Virgin Islands ‘flag carrier’ Air BVI.
Air BVI had been formed in June 1971 and initially limited itself to inter-island services with Britten Norman Islanders. Scheduled services commenced in July 1972 and San Juan became an important route. By 1975 it was served four times daily with the Islanders. Towards the end of that year the fleet was expanded with the addition of the first of at least four C-47s and one real DC-3. The latter was an ex-American Airlines aircraft originally delivered in July 1937! The four C-47s were relative spring chickens in comparison having been built in 1942/43.
In 1980 the DC-3s were flying seven daily round trips to San Juan plus a twice weekly Antigua-Tortola-San Juan service. Islanders still plied the route between Beef Island and the BVI’s third largest (but second most populous) island of Virgin Gorda (home in 2010 to just 3,930 people).
By the 1980s the C-47/DC-3s were in need of replacement and Air BVI turned towards the motherland and Dan Air London who operated a substantial fleet of Hawker Siddeley HS748s. The HS748 was one of the many types marketed as a potential DC-3 replacement in the 1950s and it certainly had proven itself rugged and capable with excellent short-field performance. It says something of the DC-3 that it would be another 21 years until the Budgie (as the HS748 became known) replaced the DC-3 in Air BVI service.
Air BVI initially tested out the HS748 with a short-term lease of G-ATMI between December 1981 and April 1982. This lease was interestingly celebrated in a tenth anniversary stamp. The aircraft itself had had something of a nomadic history and was no stranger to the Caribbean having served with LIAT several times during the early 1970s until sale to Dan Air in May 1975.
Another stamp was produced in 1983 but by this time the aircraft was no longer with Air BVI. However, another Dan Air aircraft was leased in its place. G-ARMX became VP-LVN and was joined by a pair of BWIA HS748s. Together these allowed the retirement all the DC-3s aside from VP-LVM. It seems the DC-3s weren't done though and they went on to serve with Aero Virgin Islands - see here for more details.
The BWIA HS748s wore the basic livery of TTAS ‘Trinidad & Tobago Air Service’, which had been the name of the government airline that ran the connecting services between Trinidad and Tobago, but with Air BVI titles. See here for a photo of one in Air BVI service. After their return to BWIA, who had taken over TTAS In 1980, they wore BWIA Airbridge titles but still kept the old TTAS scheme.
The Trindadian HS748s were returned in 1985 and a second Dan Air example joined. This time G-ARMW became VP-LVO. The two Dan Air aircraft were renamed ‘BVI Perseverance’ and ‘BVI Hope’ respectively. The Islanders and DC-3s had worn a rather plain dark blue scheme but the HS748s kept their Dan Air colours albeit with a new tail logo showing the British Virgin Islands crest in place of the Dan Air compass logo.
Interestingly during 1986 a new airline, named British Caribbean Airways, began service between Miami and Tortola, via Turks & Caicos, using a single BAE 146-100. This was the only time that Tortola had jet service, but the airline lasted less than a year. The livery was quite nice - here's aphoto of the British Caribbean BAE 146 N246SS.
A third HS748 joined Air BVI in 1988 and became VP-LVQ. This aircraft seemingly replaced the final DC-3. LVQ was painted into the Dan Air style livery but as far as I can tell had never seen service with Dan Air itself. It appears to have originally been delivered to Air Malawi as 7Q-YKA.
By 1989 Air BVI was using the HS748s for up to 7 roundtrips between Tortola and San Juan plus a six day a week service to La Romana in the Dominican Republic. Three of four Islanders were still in active service also operating between the islands and a direct service between Virgin Gorda and San Juan.
Nonetheless, business was not booming for Air BVI. Increased competition was having a negative impact on the airline and it went bankrupt in the summer of 1991. It appears the HS748s all left the fleet but interestingly this apparently didn’t signal the end of operations and the airline continued to fly for nearly two and half years, although the date of the end of operations is unknown (to me at least).
As a footnote a new airline named Atlantic Air BVI started operations in 1992 with a single Shorts 330 (VP-LVR). This airline took up the old Air BVI trunk route flying between Tortola and San Juan 5 times daily with the Shorts. Unfortunately, the operation was short-lived as the aircraft was written off on May 6, 1993 when it aborted a take-off and overran the runway at Tortola. It ended up in the water and was eventually towed around to the other side of the island and sunk as an artificial reef. It s unclear whether this airline had any association with Air BVI.
There have been several other attempts to run a successful airline registered in the BVI since this but carrier such as BVI Airways, which used Jetstreams, have not had any sustained success. They had wante to fly the old Miami-Tortola route again using Avro RJS but even though they acquired the aircraft the service never began (see here).
Presently the main trunk route is served primarily by InterCaribbean Airways (formerly Air Turks & Caicos), with Embraer Brasilias, and the Fort Lauderdale and Puerto Rico based Air Sunshine, which uses Saab 340s and Beech 1900s. It is highly likely that the latter was a key element in the demise of the original Air BVI as it began operations in 1982.
Air BVI. Wikipedia
Terrance B. Lettsome Intnl Airport. Wikipedia
Air BVI. AeroBernies
HS748. Dan Air Remembered
1987. World Airline Colours 3: The Aviation Data Centre. Browcom Publishing Ltd
1988. Airlines. The Aviation Hobby Shop
1995. Magnusson, M. Latin Glory: Airlines of Latin America. Airlife Publishing
21/12/2020 01:36:38 pm
Thank you for the article. I flew on Air BVI as a kid and my father visited many times from the USA. I recently converted some of his old slides showing both the DC-3's and Islanders. Also some shots of both old Beef Island airports before the current Terrance Lettsome. One more note, I just watched Sam Chui's video on the BOAC 747-400. I dawned on me that the livery may very well have been carried over to the original Air BVI fleet from BOAC. Stay Safe!
10/1/2021 03:53:26 am
Great article. I worked as an aircraft mechanic for Air BVI from 1982 to 1984 working on the Islanders,DC3's and HS 748. What an experience. Unfortunately I have never returned to BVI but hope to do so in the next few years.Hard work at the time but so rewarding.
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I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: