Photos by Hersh Acharya
Interview by Yashas Mitta
Title designed by Eureka Alphonso
It was an absolutely crazy idea to build a plane on a mountain!
Rainstar Luke is from the Kalinago Indian tribe in the Caribbean Islands. Despite being from a family of fishermen and artists and limited opportunities in the mountains of Dominica, he had a dream to take to the skies after he went plane spotting with his parents. In his early age of 13 along with a retired Swedish pilot, Rainstar built a plane in the mountains of Dominica that was displayed at a prestigious aero design show in the USA and had a German filmmaker document the whole project.
Now 27, Rainstar is on his way to complete his dream of finally obtaining his commercial pilot license. We talk to him about his exceptional journey, the challenges he has and continues to face and how he overcomes them on a daily basis.
He is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to complete his education and become a professional pilot. You can support him here.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Rainstar Luke (Yes it really is!) and I am from the Kalinago tribe. We are the first original inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands. We are from what is now modern day Venezuela in Cayenne in South America. There are only two islands we are found on -- the island of Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I was born in the Northeastern town of Salybia which is basically the capital of the Kalinago Indian reservation. There are roughly over 2000 Kalinago Indians that live in that reservation.
What was it like to grow up in Dominica and how has your family shaped you?
Dominica is a very interesting place to grow up in. It's a Caribbean Island but it's very different from the others. For example in Dominica there are no white sand beaches and it's mostly an ecotourism destination. A natural delight - infinite mountains and trees. I grew up on a small mushroom farm of two acres that my family owns (we are one of the very few mushroom growers in the Caribbean) and it was pretty much working around the farm that brought me my first experience with aviation. It really changes your perspective on life and who you want to be.
I am adopted and hence have two families. My adopted family is filled with artists. My father, Matthew Luke is a reggae artist and my adopted mother was a nurse and then became an artist. So their different lives always made them supportive of our lives as children as well. We were a family of 4 living in the mountains. It was a very quiet existence with just around 10 houses in our area called Pont Casse, which means a broken bridge in French.
My upbringing that way was very very close to nature with birds, Squirrels and other animals joining us for breakfast like a fancy fairytale everyday.
Daniel, an ex Swedish pilot who was 89 at that time and Rainstar who was 13 worked together for four years to build a kit plane in the mountains of Dominica.
How did you meet Daniel and end up working with him on building a plane?
My mother met Daniel, a Swedish man who was an ex pilot on her regular run to get some vegetables. She introduced me to him and explained that I have an interest in aviation. At that time Daniel had just sold an airplane he owned so that he could buy and build a kit plane from scratch. He decided he wanted to complete his lifelong dream of building an airplane and it was a very interesting choice because of where he decided to build it -- Dominica.
The mountains of Dominica are definitely not a place conducive to building an airplane. We had to get all the parts to his garage and we don't have the luxury of super highways to transport the parts and worst of all, not even an airport! So we had to ship them by container in different pieces and eventually put it on the back of a pickup truck and drive up the steep windy roads to his garage. We took 4 years to build the plane.
It was an absolutely crazy idea to build a plane on a mountain! But then, so are all life changing ideas. It was motivating and equally inspiring to see this gentleman who was 89 years old and retired at the time and he was kind enough to ask me to work with him. So we were two people, generations apart who shared the same passion, the same desire for building airplanes and aviation. I was lucky enough to receive the transfer of knowledge and enthusiasm from him. It remains one of my most cherished experiences and is what keeps me going.
To work with someone of that age with that much passion has taught me that there really is nothing called ‘being late’ when it comes to chasing your dream. The only thing that is stopping you to do anything at any age is you-- This is a valuable and firm lesson that I carry to this day.
Rainstar taking lessons from Daniel on top and a photograph of the kit plane being transported to Daniel's garage below.
I learnt that there is nothing called 'being late' when it comes to chasing your dreams.
That is such an amazing story! What are the most amazing stories Daniel shared with you during the project?
He would share his stories from his past and experiences almost everyday. Especially his stories from flying in Africa. Like going crocodile hunting or flying the sheikhs and many other royal families. And you have to remember back then flying was just beginning to develop and especially in a continent like Africa. There were no modern facilities like we have today and to think of how he had to improvise everything and accomplish the tasks he was given. Incredible!
He told me that once he was supposed to land on a strip which was much shorter than what was required to land the plane he was flying. And to make matters worse, it was also on top of a mountain! Somehow he managed to get it in and out. I can’t imagine of doing something like that without the support of modern technologies we have today.
"Celebration Of Flight" - A documentary by Lara Sanders beautifully documents the journey of Daniel and Rainstar through their project. You can watch the full documentary (In German) here | Cover image by Hersh Acharya
Tell us more about your experience building the plane.
We started the project in 1999 when I was 13years old. We started from the very basics. So Daniel started with ground school where he would teach me the concepts of weather and air law and other aspects of flying-- A very hands on experience. It was also quite challenging at times for example this once when we had to modify the front part of the engine because the manufacturer of the aircraft had a particular type of engine they preferred. This is a type of category of aircraft is where you are allowed to make modifications and are allowed to put in a heavier engine. So the entire scale of the plane had to be modified because of the heavier engine we had to use. So it ended up being more than 3000 extra man hours of modification… And there were many such challenges.
Our motivation was to compete in this competition that is held every year in Orlando, Florida. It is held by the Experimental Aircraft Association. The people who participate in this are professional aircraft builders, mostly private, for fun. They display the aircraft and fly it around and it’s quite a gala social event. We wanted to be there in April 2003 because that would be the celebration of the 100th year of powered flight since the Wright brothers took off in Kitty Hawk.
Those experiences have taught me to be adaptable and flexible, not to give up but to find a way because there always is one.
Looking back at the project, how has it impacted your goals?
It had a very positive experience on me. It helped me learn how to focus and deal with any challenges that we face. Whether it was financial or technical constraints. A lot of times we would not have enough money for certain parts and we would get creative and find new solutions to replace that by fabricating it ourselves with different materials. Aviation is a very expensive business! Especially when you live on an island which doesn't have an international airport and everything comes in by sea. That means it becomes more expensive and more time consuming just to get basic parts.
So looking back, those experiences really taught me how to be adaptable and flexible, not to give up but always find a way because there always is one.
Did you have any idea how long it would take when you started off with the project?
When we started building the plane we thought it would take about three years or maybe less. Of course it turned out to be a lot longer. The main reason for that was the funding issue where many a time we couldn’t do anything until we raised the money to get the part and were waiting a long time for it to just get to to us.
So eventually it took four years and we even ended up having a documentary made about us called the Celebration of Flight by the amazing German filmmaker Lara Sanders, which was such a crazy chance encounter. The best part about it is that I can now look back at the whole thing and see it from someone elses perspective.
What really helped us to get to the finish line was the community. We built it in a community called Harlem and they were instrumental to get the plane down from his garage down to the seaport and finally into the containers so it could shipped off to Miami. It was almost like a community project in that sense.
What was the experience at Sun-N-Fun festival in Florida where you were displaying your plane with internationally renowned designers?
We were hoping to get the plane flying for the show but unfortunately were not able to. But it was fun to be around and meet different people and there were many historical aircrafts around and it was nice to see Daniel’s eyes light up when he saw all those airplanes that he flew in the past.. which today are basically considered dinosaurs of the industry from the 30s and 40s. So watching him sit in the cockpit of an airplane that he used to fly so many years ago was the best thing I could have ever asked for.
Daniel was a man who led a very interesting life. He joined the Swedish Air Force as a mechanic during the Second World War and then moved on to become a pilot and eventually fly around Africa. I was very fortunate to see life come full circle for Daniel at such a young age. This was more than either of us really could have expected.
What is your final goal?
Right now I’m really focused on finishing the last part of flying school. I have completed 75% of my requirements for graduation. I currently hold a commercial pilot license with Multi Engine Rating so what I am looking forward to is getting my instrument reading which allows me to fly an airplane without any visual reference. There are two types of flying: visual reference flying and instrument reference flying which allows you to fly through all conditions whether it’s fog or snow and you have no visual reference at all.
I am crowdsourcing the funds from around the world to get that final rating so I can finally achieve my dream of being a commercial pilot.
What does it mean to be a Kalinago today? Especially in the light of quickly diminishing Native American population.
Most First Nations, that’s what we call ourselves, are very small these days. In Dominica we are only around 71,000 and the Kalinago make about between 3,000 to 4,000 of that. Most of which have already moved off the island. So when you ask me what does it mean to be Kalinago, for me it means being an ambassador of my tribe. To promote awareness and what it means to be part of that tribe and portray the accomplishments of it. This is how I want to give back to my community.
I have been lucky that to be able to do that over the years and it’s a great feeling when I meet up with the rest of my family on the reservation. They are very proud of what I have done and that is the best thing I can think of to be as a Kalinago member.
You mentioned First Nations institute in Canada.
Yes! Moving to Canada was really interesting for me. I had an incredible opportunity to study at a really unique institution. I attended the First Nations Technical Institute which is owned and managed the Mohawk community tribe. It was really quite special and moving for me to live amongst other First Nations tribes and hear about their lifestyle and how they grew up as well.
Do you think you'll be doing Sun-N-Fun again sometime soon?
Haha! It is quite a commitment but it is definitely something I want to do in the future. Right now I have a very busy schedule trying to finish flight school while also working part time as a teacher’s assistant with children ages 3-6. So I have a lot of fun entertaining them with stories about airplanes!
What does success mean to you?
Success for me is not about being a successful person but being able to help others through your success. True success is not making millions of dollars or living the high life but being able to transfer knowledge and truly help others too. For me, success is always collective and never isolated.
Success to me is always collective and never isolated. It's about how you're able to transfer knowledge and truly help others.