Bits & Pieces

October 9, 2009

Paitilla Now and Then

Photos sent from Panama show how Punta Paitilla looks now.  When I was growing up, Paitilla had some nice homes, but was better known for its airport. I recall when I was about 5 or 6 going to this airport to meet my grandmother's sister Clementina, arriving from David in a Trimotor, which I now believe was a Ford Trimotor aircraft. My father and I walked over there from our house on Via Porras, about a mile away, many times to watch the little airplanes take off and land. Our house was located at a point that all aircraft taking off would pass right behind our home and could be easily seen.

During the war, all commercial aircraft were grounded and stored in the main hangar. The U.S. Army took over the field and, for a while, kept some Curtis P-40s there surrounded by sand bags and camouflage netting. As the war moved away the planes were removed, but the airport remained under Army control and was used as a site for target practice. Planes would fly by towing a sleeve at which machine guns and anti-aircraft guns would shoot. Later they used drones. All this I could see clearly from the top of a large mango tree in my back yard. As restrictions eased, the Army removed the guards from the airport and, while still used for target practice, no one would be around when not in use. My father and I would go there and find some empty shells, .30 and .50 caliber, as well as the links that held them together. Once I found four live .50 caliber shells and one live .30. We also found an empty 20 or 40 mm shell, I forget which. I took the live shells home and, with a pair of pliers, removed the heads and emptied the powder (crazy), then replaced them.

When the war ended, commercial planes returned. Since I was (and still am) nuts about airplanes and flying, without my mother's knowledge, my father took me to the airport for my first 10-minute ride. I recall he paid $10 which represented 10 hours of tutoring kids in math athome. The pilot was Marcos Gelabert. I flew two more times with him during the year. Later, the airport was named after him. Although I flew in J-3 Piper Cubs many times while at Texas A&M, I did not get my pilot's license until 1973.

 
Left:Punta Paitilla now. Right: Globe "Swift" at Paitilla airport in 1950

 
Paitilla 1950.
Left: Frank by pre-war Piper J-3 Cub.  Right: Post war Piper "Super Cruiser" 3-place with license Number RX-58.
Note on left background a Republic "Seabee" and on right a Cessna 120.
Photos by LRCelerier, 1950

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas