LIAT pilot retires after 44 years

Wade Austin-McDonald with his daughter, Fiona and son, Antoine.
Wade Austin-McDonald

Wade Austin-McDonald was born a small-town boy with big dreams and aspirations that led to a brilliant 44-year career as a pilot.

This reporter grew up in the same Lodge Village community in Guyana, as McDonald, who was focused from age seven after receiving a miniature PanAm toy-jet as a Christmas gift.

“My elder cousin bought me a PanAm toy jet and I still remember cherishing it. I kept it in my toy box for many years,” recalled the former pilot of Antigua’s leading airline, LIAT, who, after completing his education at Charlestown Government Secondary School in Georgetown, attended the prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1976, where he obtained his Commercial/Instruments/Multi-Engine Pilot License.

McDonald was a part of history, training alongside Guyana’s first female pilots Beverly Drake and Cheryl Moore, all who later flew for the Guyana Defence Force. He then joined a Guyana Airways Corporation crew, and later, continued his career with St. Lucia’s WinLin Airlines, where he was promoted to chief pilot, with responsibilities for training of the carrier’s aviators.

A fearless flyer, this accomplished aviator continued his remarkable service at the age of 21, this time, with LIAT, where he was seconded to Monserrat Aviation Services, before being transferred in 1986 to Antigua.

He spent 34 years of his career with this carrier, retiring with the title of captain, and 20 years as check airman and examiner, responsible for the training and flight checking of pilots.

McDonald who said his lasting memories were the challenges he faced flying in the jungle of Guyana with minimum navigation equipment from 2016-2019, and being promoted to chief pilot of LIAT, a title he elected to resign from in order to fly more often, an average of four to five days per week.

Mercy flights (medical evacuation) at nights, and the good old days of being trained by Captain Egbert Fields Col (ret) and Captain Malcolm Chan-A Sue Col (ret), as well as flight training, checking of pilots and interaction with persons from the island chain, are all cherished memories, he recalled.

The captain has logged in excess of 23,000 flight hours, and too many miles to count, he said, that included flights to Canada, the USA, within the islands and Guyana. He also flew to France, Toronto and Bogotá Columbia to perform flight training and checks of pilots. These are incredible achievements that make McDonald one of the greatest Guyanese-born pilots ever to grace the friendly skies.

“Being in the air was my tranquility, my passion,” said the commander who retired last month at 65, the mandatory age as a commercial pilot.

He added that he was never afraid of being in the air, but flying was 99 percent his decision to be correct.

“I remember experiencing an engine flameout just after lift-off at the airport in Mustique Island. We followed the required procedures and landed safely in St. Vincent,” said the skilled aviator, who recalled after disembarking the passengers, realized his adrenaline was in “overdrive,” but his training had kicked in as a priority.

“I enjoyed every second of my career. The good thing is I live overlooking the airport in Antigua so I’ll always be reminded of the fond memories of being a pilot, said the husband, and loving father whose passion is aviation, music, carnival activities and photography.

“I hope that LIAT gets back in the air. It’s one of the safest airline,” he said, praising the carrier for its high standards of training and safety. “This is best for the Caribbean,” he opined, of the carrier that also had employed his wife.

To that little boy or girl, who aspires to be like him? “Follow your dream and wishes. With determination you will be a success,” he urged.

Despite retired, he hopes to continue in the field as a flight operations inspector in authority. Additionally, there is no doubt McDonald will always be high in the clouds, because of daughter, Fiona and son Antoine, both pilots, who will carry on that strong bloodline.

Like McDonald’s endearing late mother who was beside him for much of his career, he carries on that love and devotion to his kids as seen on social media.

In a recent post on Instagram, Fiona who piloted a LIAT jet with her dad, expressed, “Happy birthday and happy retirement daddy, 44 years serving the skies and flying people with the highest standard of safety. It has been an honor to fly with you.”

“You’ve taught us how to work hard for what we want, and passed on so much knowledge to many Caribbean men and women who became great pilots because of trainers like you.”

“If it wasn’t for the retirement age I’m pretty sure you could go for another 15 years but so it is written. Have a great birthday and enjoy your retirement. I wish you many more years of life, good health and great memories,” said Fiona.

“Happy Retirement Spider-man. The skies will miss you greatly. Thank you for all you’ve done for aviation, for so many well trained pilots and for me,” said son Antoine, of his jovial, fun-loving dad.

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