I recently visited Grenada for vacation and while researching what to do on this island nation, I came across Pearls Airport, and I immediately knew that I had to go visit this site. Pearls Airport is an abandoned airport on the Northeastern side of the island that is today primarily used by locals as a cut-through, drag racing, and for learning to drive. What makes Pearls Airport somewhere worth visiting are the two derelict Soviet Union planes that are pieces of Cold War history that you can touch, climb into and onto.
When Grenada transitioned from being under the United Kingdom on February 7, 1974, to being their own sovereign country, Eric Gairy was elected Prime Minister of Grenada. Gairy was not very popular though and in March 1979 he was overthrown in a bloodless coup-d-etat by the Marxist-Leninist New Jewel Movement; Gairy was out of the country at the time. The New Jewel Movement established the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) with Maurice Bishop as the prime minister.
The new PRG formed relationships with other communist countries, such as the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam, and others. The Soviet Union and Cuba sent millions of dollars' worth of military equipment to Grenada, along with civilian construction workers and members of the military. Cuba was also building what is now the main airport in Grenada, formerly known as Point Salines Airport, but now known as the Maurice Bishop International Airport. The only other operational airport at the time was Pearls Airport, which was half the size of the one being built by the Cubans.
Tensions within the PRG became heated and a feud developed between supporters of Maurice Bishop and another PRG member, Bernard Coard. Then on October 16, 1983, Coard, backed by the Grenadian Army, led a coup and placed Bishop under house arrest. Bishop was popular though and was freed by his supporters and a confrontation occurred between the civilians and soldiers of the Grenadian Army. Bishop surrendered and then on October 19, 1983, Bishop along with seven of his supporters were executed by firing squad at Fort George.
With the tension and struggles occurring within the PRG, the Cubans building an airport that the US feared would provide the Soviet Air Force easier access to Central American, the potential threat to over 600 American medical students on Grenada, and a formal appeal from The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Barbados, and Jamaica, the Reagan Administration decided to intervene.
Ludlow "Kim" Flower, the US chargé d'affaires in Barbados at that time, had the following to say about the building of the Point Salines Airport:
It isn't the airport per se that bothers us. Lots of islands around here have airports of comparable size. It is that the airport in Grenada was primarily financed and built by the Cubans, who tend not to do these things out of a sense of Christian charity….With the completion of the Point Salines Airport next year, and the additional military development in the Calivigny and Egmont harbor areas, there will exist a complex that would make deployment of Cuban and other hostile forces to Latin America and African points easier. Indeed, the complex could be thought of as a stationary aircraft carrier.
Operation Urgent Fury
On October 25, 1983, the United States began Operation Urgent Fury, along with seven Caribbean countries (Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, and Saint Vincent & the Grenadines). This was the launch of the largest US operation since the Vietnam War.
The goal was to remove the Communist government, to protect US students studying in Grenada, and to have the Caribbean countries then act as peacekeepers (Caribbean Peacekeeping Force) until a new government via elections.
I won’t go into details about this operation, but a good resource if you are interested is Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada by Major Mark Adkin. This book provided some of the information provided in this article.
The operation was over in 4 days, on October 29, 1983. Casualties included 19 Americans, 45 Grenadians combatants and 24 Grenadian civilians, and 24 Cubans. In December of 1983, a new government led by Prime Minister Herbert Blaize was elected.
Pearls Airport During the Invasion
Pearls Airport was one of the prime targets for US forces when Operation Urgent Fury began.
Prior to the invasion, on October 20, 1983, the day after Bishop was murdered, a Cessna 402 airplane from Barbados with Lieutenant Commander Peter Tomlin and Major Robert Kearney, both recently retired from the British Air Force, flew around Grenada with binoculars scoping out the situation. They noted no activity at Pearls Airport, but that there was a Russian Antonov An-26 aircraft parked on the apron in front of the terminal.
At 5:30 on October 25, 1983, the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment landed to the south of Pearls Airport using CH-53 Sea Stallion and CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters. They encountered light resistance, including a Soviet DShK heavy machine gun, which is still being used by Ukraine today during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The DShK was destroyed by a Marine AH-1 Cobra and the Marines successfully captured Pearls Airport.
Pearls Airport & Aircraft Today
When the Marines took Pearls, they also took out the before-mentioned Soviet Antonov An-26 passenger aircraft owned by Cubana Airlines and a Soviet An-2R crop-duster bi-plane, which was a gift from the Soviet Union. Those two planes still sit at Pearls today in the spots where they were disabled by American forces.
You can view details and profiles on these two aircraft at the Aviation Safety Network website:
I visited Pearls Airport on October 24, 2022; one day before Grenada’s national holiday, Thanksgiving Day, which commemorates the US Invasion which took place on October 25. This was the highlight of my trip to Grenada.
It is not every day that I get to see a piece of Cold War history, much less to be able to touch it and climb in and out of it. As you can see from the pictures below, these aircraft are in rough shape, and I had to be very careful climbing around inside and on-top of them. I was able to climb inside both aircraft, I even translated some of the Russian into English using Google Translate; those screenshots are below. Inside the An-26 there was a piece of paper taped to the wall which read (pictured right):
SSFT Jon Sabatino
K.I.A. 25 OCT 1983
If you visit Grenada, be sure to make your way to Pearls Airport to get up close and personal with some pieces of Cold War history.
Soviet Antonov An-26
Adkin, M. (1989). Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada (Issues in Low Intensity Conflict) (1st ed.). Lexington Books.
Ranter, H. (n.d.). Incident Antonov An-26 CU-T1254, 25 Oct 1983. https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/277878
Ranter, H. (n.d.-a). Incident Antonov An-2R CCCP-71189, 25 Oct 1983. https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/277877
Wikipedia contributors. (2023, January 11). United States invasion of Grenada. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_invasion_of_Grenada
Wikipedia contributors. (2022, November 6). Pearls Airport. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearls_Airport