Three pilots are setting up an airline to bid for the contract to fly to St Helena when its first airport opens in 2016. St Helena Online went to meet the man who dreamed up the project.
Captain Richard Brown first heard about St Helena as a child, when he saw an item on the BBC’s Blue Peter programme.
It stuck in his mind. And for the past seven years, he has been dreaming of flying to the island in his own aircraft, with his own airline.
Or rather, the island’s own airline. Before it can take off for Prosperous Bay Plain, of course, it has to land something even tricker than an aeroplane: the contract.
Atlantic Star Airlines, as the project has become, was born on the floor of Richard’s kitchen, between flights in his job as a training captain at British Airways.
“I got reading about the airport and I thought, wow, what an interesting and challenging concept it would be to try to operate somewhere so remote and with such a limited set of facilities.
“The start of it was getting a map of the world, spreading it out on the kitchen of our old house, getting a ruler out and starting to do some very basic calculations about speed time and distance, and thinking, if I was going to build an operation to service this island, how would I do it?
“That has led beyond basic curiosity to what has become quite a passion for me, and also for the other members of the team that I have put together to create this airline.”
That team includes fellow British Airways pilots Captain Carl Haslam – who’s left to set up his own training company – and Captain Andrew Radford. Richard is the chief executive officer.
They also have a team of business and technical advisers, including Daniel Coe, who has worked with Tesco, Carphone Warehouse and the accountancy giant KPMG in Bermuda.
“What we want to do is to create an airline specifically to serve St Helena,” he said. “Not to do anything else.
“Not to try to become a huge international mega-carrier, but specifically to serve the needs of the island in total.
“So that means the Saints living on the island, the Saints living elsewhere in the world, the businesses on the island that will want to import and export goods, and also the tourism industry.
“We have three potential developments on the island and all three of those are going to want a high quality service to bring their clients to St Helena, and we see a business there that will allow us to meet all the needs of all those people.”
Richard spoke to St Helena Online at his large house he shares with his wife and young children in Hampshire, in southern England. On the wall of his office was a picture of the Boeing 737 he flew in his first job as a pilot. There was also a picture of a World War Two Spitfire. “We’re not going to be flying any of those to St Helena, that’s for sure.”
In the week before our interview, he had flown to Bangalore and Tampa. His next stops would be in Nigeria and Boston, in the United States.
“My job at BA is fantastic, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “At the moment I’m on the 777 and 787 fleets flying worldwide.”
So would he walk away from all that to fly to a tiny, if fascinating, island?
“British Airways have been immensely supportive of my involvement in this project but what I’m looking forward to is going to the chief pilot and saying, ‘Boss, I’m off to set up A-Star.’
“He’s going to say, ‘Rich, that’s fantastic, let us know how it goes.’
“I wouldn’t have given up the last seven years working on this if I didn’t think A-Star could come into being and be a viable and long-term business.
“We are incredibly excited about the potential that St Helena has in all sorts of areas and the way that Atlantic Star can be part of that success story.”
One of the biggest obstacles – for a team of professional pilots – is that they can’t actually fly to the island for another three years. That means that despite having built up an almost obsessive knowledge of St Helena, they haven’t actually been able to visit yet.
“I have done a lot of research, as have the rest of the team, and almost certainly one of us will be out there, if not in 2013 certainly 2014 without a shadow of doubt. We know we need to do that.
“Because of our work commitments and the journey time it is difficult to come and visit right now.
“But we are very minded of the fact that we do need to get onto the island in order to meet people, to talk to the businesses on the island that hopefully we can partner with in launching the airline.
“There are lots of services that we are going to require on St Helena, and we are very much hoping that St Helena companies will be interested in providing those services for us.”
But that’s another story. St Helena Online will be telling it in the coming days.