Sept. 9, 2007 — The tall, rangy fellow lopes into the post office with his characteristic long-legged gait. Paul Wikander frowns at the long line, then joins in, and strikes up a conversation about — orchids.
This from a legend in the local flying community, an integral part of Virgin Islands history.
Orchids? "Yes, "says Wikander. "We're trying to find out if they grow from spores, and how you get the spores."
The "we" Wikander refers to is himself and Margaret, his wife of 46 years. "We're retired now, you know," he points out, not without a tinge of melancholy.
Wikander, 67, took his last flight in 2005 behind the controls of a nine-seat Cessna 402 from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to Cyril E. King airport. "Everybody was there to meet me, my family, our employees — they did the last salute with the fire trucks spraying water I had to walk under," he says.
The day capped 35 years that Wikander and the former Margaret Greaux owned and ran Air St. Thomas, formerly Virgin Air, the longest operating locally owned carrier in the Virgin Islands. He was forced to change the name in the early nineties in a trade name dispute with the big British carrier Virgin Atlantic.
Wikander can't remember when he wasn't flying or thinking about it. He almost literally learned to fly "by the seat of his pants."
Always open to opportunity, he has been grabbing chances as they come along as far back as he can remember, back in Kansas.
"I was always hanging out at the airport in Wichita," he says. "I'd grab a broom and sweep up in the hangar when I was about 14. One day the boss came through and noticed me. 'Kid, you're doing a good job, I'll give you a raise,' he said. I said, 'Give me a job.' I'd do the work, and use the money to pay for flying lessons: $5 an hour, and $7 for instrument training."
When Wikander was 18, after serving in the Civil Air Patrol, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and was stationed in the Search and Rescue unit in Puerto Rico. It was an assignment that directed the course of his life.
"We'd come to St. Thomas to deliver supplies," he says. On one of these trips the young man met up with his future wife at the old Lucy's Market near the airport.
"We'd had about three dates when I went to the market and proposed. I went up to the checkout counter holding a can of sardines, and got down on my knee, and asked her to marry me."
Though Margaret said yes, that wasn't enough.
"I had to go to her family's house and ask for her hand," he says. (The little house where Margaret and her six siblings grew up was recently donated by the family to the Frenchtown Heritage Museum in a Bastille Day ceremony). She and Paul were married in St. Anne's chapel, next door.
After a few years in the states, they moved back to St. Thomas with a new baby, a suitcase, and about $35. After a variety of jobs on the island, Wikander finally joined Trans Caribbean Airways as a mechanic, where he earned his (first) 15 minutes of fame when Flight 505 crash-landed on the old 4,650-foot Harry S Truman Airport runway.
"I saw him coming," Wikander says. "I was right there. He touched down and bounced about 50 feet in the air. He went up and down again, and on the third landing the wing dragged along the runway. He wanted to go around, but it was too late.
"The aircraft went across the road and into the little hill, and broke into three pieces. I went to help, and got some people out, and then it burst into a big ball of fire. Two passengers died."
Wikander's next action, it's said, is common practice when transportation companies have a mishap, but it got him noticed.
"I grabbed a paint roller and a ladder and started to paint out the company logo on the aircraft tail. The cops came and said I couldn't do that. I told them it was company policy, but they dragged me down and knocked me out, and took me to the old Fort Christian jail," Wikander says.
"Transcarib posted bail, and I went right back to the airport and finished the job."
In 1970, Wikander struck out on his own. "Jack Chapman of All Island Air checked me out," he says. "I had a twin Piper Geronimo he leased for while, and I was doing charters, and carrying some of Jack's overload to Virgin Gorda. But when I asked him for a flying job, he said no, so I started my own airline."
Virgin Air began daily scheduled flights between San Juan and Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Virgin Gorda, St. Barths and the V.I. "At one time in the mid-'70s to the '80s, at the height of my ambitions, I probably had 12 pilots," he says.
The airline grew, holding its own against stiff competition from Prinair, Puerto Rico's major carrier, Aero V.I. and Vieques Air Link.
But it was St. Barths that really became Wikander territory. The airline had the only scheduled flights to the island for years, flying in and out of its famously dicey 1,700-foot airstrip over a 200-foot high hill. (Though the actual flights are history, all is not lost. To make a St. Barths landing with Wikander at the controls, go to youtube.com and search for "St. Barths landing.")
Wikander had more than one run-in with the French government. In 2004 it banned Wikander and five other non-French airlines from landing on the island because of alleged maintenance violations.
"It was all political," Wikander says. "I've had one accident where the pilot ditched in the ocean. No one was hurt, and [there was] a broken nose another time. We've never injured or killed anybody. We have an exceptional safety record."
Wikander couldn't resist from time to time tweaking French officials. "We had a couple DC-3's for cargo," he says, "and they told me I couldn't land one there, so I flew one in just for the hell of it.
"They couldn't take a joke — they pulled my certificate for a while, but it's the largest aircraft to ever land there. I still hold that record."
He's carried celebrities from Randolph Hearst Jr. to Jimmy Buffett and Tony Curtis, whom he once took to San Juan in a DC-3 cargo flight.
As Wikander, now 67, recalls the last three decades, Margaret's name is inseparable with the stories. "She is the backbone; she ran the business all those years and kept it together," he says.
Now they're both members of the local orchid society, of all things. And along with visiting their daughters and their families on the mainland, they stay fit with a daily walk.
"Where do you think?," Wikander says. "Three miles around the airport."
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