Napoleon misses the plane as runway boost delays opening

Artist's impression of runway, with Great Stone Top in background
An artist’s impression of the runway at St Helena’s airport

The first paying passengers will not land at St Helena’s first airport before 2016 – but when it does open, it will be with a much longer runway.

That will allow much larger airport to land in the future.

And the extra runway length is being done at no extra cost by contractor Basil Read, though “a relatively small amount” will be spent on other additional works, to take advantage of having construction equipment on the island.

The delay means a symbolic opportunity will be lost: the original opening date would have been late in 2015, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s arrival on St Helena.

There had been talk of inviting Her Majesty, the Queen and the President of France to visit the island as part of the commemorations, but without an airport in place, a visit from high-power guests is less likely during the anniversary year itself.

Larger aircraft such as the Bombadier C series will not actually be able to land on Prosperous Bay Plain without further work in the future. That will be done if such aircraft become available in the region.

But that would have been ruled out as a possibility if the runway was not extended during the initial construction of the airport.

The runway length was actually reduced as part of the deal to secure funding from the UK. St Helena’s airport, which is costing at least £200 million, is by far the most costly overseas project being paid for by Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Building the runway involves filling part of Dry Gut, a deep gorge, with rock from other parts of Prosperous Bay Plain. Shortening the runway, with an “arresting system” to slow aircraft down”, meant far less rock would have to be used to fill the gut – massively reducing the cost.

Instead, Basil Read offered to add a 240-metre-long runway end safety area (RESA) – meaning a larger amount will be needed.

A news update from the airport project says: “Under the [shorter runway] option, it would be practically impossible ever to extend the runway.

“Once the airport is operational, if we wanted to extend the embankment we would have to bring in huge quantities of rock from another site at a prohibitive cost.”

The contract originally signed with Basil Read in November 2011 was for a landing runway of 1,550m. But the update report says: “At the tender stage, Basil Read offered to construct a full 240m RESA, at no additional cost to their tender price.

This will allow landings by larger Boeing 737-800 or Airbus 320 aircraft, which can carry around 160 passengers. “We therefore accepted Basil Read’s offer.”

The hope is that the work can be done within the existing budget, thanks to savings made because of changes in the value of the British pound and the South African rand, which means the British money stretches further when paying for goods and services in South Africa.

“The additional earthworks and concrete will add 12 weeks to the length of the contract. The revised contractual completion date for the project is now 25 February 2016.”

Read the latest airport update here.

St Helena airport building is cleared for take-off
St Helena votes to invite the Queen

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