St Helena Online

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St Helena’s airport: a boon-what? We’re boggled…

It took a week for Donald Trump’s favourite news outlet to get round to reporting on the first commercial flight to St Helena. But when it did so, Fox News introduced an interesting new word for the airport project.

It said it was “condemned last year by British taxpayers as a boondoggle.”

Various online dictionaries define a boondoggle as an American word meaning a pointless, wasteful project. Fox News might (not) like to put that to Governor Lisa Phillips, and see if she has another good word for them.

Urbandictionary.com helpfully gives an example of the correct use of the word:

“You’re such a Boondoggle, all you like to do is drink urine while staring at the dead corpse of your grandma.”

It’s also what American boy scouts use to hold their neckerchiefs in place. British scouts call this a woggle, another term that doesn’t really describe an airport.

The Fox News piece actually offers some good insights into St Helena life and heritage, including the wrangling over whether jury trials can ever work on the island.

It opens by listing some of the quirky place names to be found on St Helena, including The Gates of Chaos (that one’s always seemed apt) and Old Woman’s Valley.

They’re a lot more sensible than “boondoggle”.

If they wanted quirky place names, why no mention of Half Tree Hollow – which isn’t hollow, and doesn’t have half a tree?

(Does anyone know how Half Tree Hollow got its name? Maybe it was the half-tree that was hollow?).

Deal signed for weekly flights to St Helena

A deal has finally been signed for an air service into St Helena’s £285 million airport  – 14 months after it should have opened.

No date has been set for the start of flights by South African operator SA Airlink.

Flights between the island and Johannesburg will include a stop at Windhoek in Namibia to connect with Cape Town.

Saints had been angry that the original, aborted air service would not have served the Cape, where the strong St Helenian community provides a support network for islanders having hospital treatment.

SA Airlink will also operate a monthly flight to Ascension Island, where workers have been virtually stranded for months after the RAF runway was declared unsafe. They’re expected to take place on the second Saturday of each month.

Dangerous winds meant the original operator could not land aircraft on the cliff-top runway.

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee in Westminster found December 2016 that “staggering” errors had been made by unnamed officials.

An investigation has yet to identify those responsible.

 

Until now, most flights into St Helena have been for medical evacuations on small aircraft.

Sixty passengers flew into the island on a “historic” charter flight in May after the island’s supply ship, the RMS St Helena, broke down for several weeks in Cape Town.

The ship, which takes five days to sail to the island, has had to be kept in service well past its due retirement age.

Flights will operate weekly flights between St Helena and OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, with a stop-over at Windhoek in Namibia for a connection to Cape Town.

A proving flight must take place before a licence can be given by the South African Civil Aviation Authority.

St Helena’s British governor, Lisa Phillips, said: “Very soon a trip to South Africa, for St Helenians, will take a matter of hours rather than days.  

“And we will be able to welcome tourists here in larger numbers and improve the economy of the island and offer a better life for those who live here.”

South African firm Comair won the original contract to run weekly flights into St Helena using aircraft with British Airways livery, subsidised by the UK’s Department for International Development.

But its pilot took three attempts to land on a test flight because of severe wind shear on the runway, apparently caused by mountains either side of the runway.

Solutions considered included blasting away the top of one of the mountains, but it was found that some aircraft could land safely with a tail wind, instead of the normal approach into the prevailing wind.

 

All’s well for airport opening says Castle as silence on test flights stirs doubts in UK media

The target opening date for St Helena’s airport remains 21 May 2016, despite “challenges” meeting safety demands, officials in The Castle have insisted.

St Helena Government also said there was “nothing new” in a comment about problems with the island’s terrain, quoted in UK media reports.

The UK’s Independent newspaper quoted project director Janet Lawrence saying: “Due to the unknown nature of building an airport on the island’s uneven terrain, changes in design had to be made to facilitate that.”

One pilots’ forum member said: “Would Ms Lawrence now cease the ‘spin’ and tell everyone just exactly what the nature of the problem is?

“Something of an apparently fundamental nature that would delay opening the airport at this late stage could be seen as the sign of a enormous c**k up.”

The story blew up within days of a formal deadline for Basil Read to complete the construction of the airport – 26 February 2016.

The official opening was put back to St Helena’s Day in May after the first test flight to Prosperous Bay Plain found significant problems with navigation and landing aids.

No announcement has ever been made about extending the hand-over date in Basil Read’s contract.

The first calibration flights resulted in high-tech VHF radio equipment and antennae having to be moved.

Two months have now passed without news of success from a second round of flights to test the relocated landing aids.

The silence prompted questions from members of the Professional Pilots Rumour Network (PPRuNe). Then the Independent newspaper ran its story under the headline, St Helena Airport Open, But Where’s The Planes?

A re-hash of the article then appeared on the Mail Online, the biggest English language news website in the world, visited by more than 14 million browsers in January 2016.

Chris Pickard, the island’s new tourism director, was upbeat about the impact of the media coverage, saying such stories attract the attention of potential tourists (see separate article).

The reports picked up on an open letter from Richard Brown of Atlantic Star airline, saying the “complexity” of remaining work on the airport meant it could not start selling tickets for its first charter flight from the UK to St Helena.

Its first flight had already been put back from Easter to the UK summer.

There has been no word of a start date for weekly flights from Johannesburg by the South African airline Comair.

The question now is how difficult it will be to fix any remaining problems that have been identified – and who will do the work, and who is liable to pay for it.

Janet Lawrence’s comment about uneven terrain has been seen as a suggestion that the problems may involve fencing or equipment close to the steep and fragile cliffs around the airport.

But a statement from The Castle in Jamestown said otherwise:

“The UK Independent report references a conversation with Airport Director Janet Lawrence about the challenges of constructing an airport in such an isolated location and on such difficult terrain.  She used examples such as the Open Channel [diverting water from the filled-in Dry Gut] and Rupert’s Wharf to illustrate the continual design process under this project.

“There is nothing new here, including about terrain, turbulence or the approach.

“Even after all these challenges, we are still aiming for 21 May 2016 for the official opening of St Helena Airport.

“Janet also reported on the Tony Leo show on 13 January that the calibration flights had done ‘just what it says on the box’.”

The statement said that project firm Basil Read had since been preparing paperwork required for the airport to be certified and cleared for commercial flights by the ASSI (Air Safety Support International).

The ASSI says it can take 40 working days to returned detailed findings on tests, “and we are still well within this timeframe,” said the government statement.

“The aviation industry is highly regulated and for obvious reasons. By the time of certification, there will have been hundreds of hours of flight simulations proving that flights into and out of St Helena Airport can be undertaken safely.

“An enormous amount has been achieved. Developing a world class facility for St Helena is a huge and complex project.  We’re now on the home straight and all parties are working flat out to achieve certification and the opening of the airport for commercial flights at the earliest possible opportunity.”

One member of the pilots forum wrote: “If the airport doesn’t open perhaps it could be used as a penal colony for all the civil servants involved in the scheme, to be sent there to break up the concrete etc by hand.”

Test flights ‘blackout’ puts rumour forum into tailspin

Efforts to meet the highest possible safety standards at St Helena Airport may have “come to bite” the construction team, a post on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network has suggested.

“All I can assume is that the engineers planning the airport played it safe and threw in every possible navaid that might be useful,” says a forum member who uses the name Broken Biscuit.

“After all, the navaids were probably quite a small percentage of the £250m of UK taxpayers’ money that went to build it.”

The UK-based writer, picking up on silence about the outcome of a second round of test flights to the airport, goes on to acknowledge the problems posed by the airport’s location.

“Presumably they didn’t want to limit operations in the event of GPS problems – it is in the tropics after all with the higher likelihood of ionospheric effects.

“And they’re starting 1,000 feet closer to the cloudbase with its cliff-top location. Add in the fact that it’s a shortish runway, quite a crosswind most of the year and probably severe turbulence as you approach the cliffs, pilots will need all the help they can to land safely.

“Oh, and I forgot the high terrain all around – you’ll want to remember to turn away from that smartish in the event of a go around!”

The same writer notes that the VHF radio gear [DVOR] and various antennae had to be moved after the first calibration flights in October 2015.

“They no longer illuminate the sea – I suspect that there was severe cancellation of the signals at some distance/height due to reflection off the ocean.

“Another possibility is that the DVOR was located just metres away from Bradley’s Camp – all metal buildings – used for the construction crew but also going to be converted into long term tourist accommodation.

“So the choice of some navaids which may be unnecessary has come to bite them.”

A writer using the name TCAS FAN questions a media quote about “the unknown nature of building an airport on the island’s uneven terrain,” saying surveys should have removed such doubts.

But another forum member, Ddraig Goch, suggests the terrain may actually be causing problems with “nav and landing aids, which because of where St Helena is and the position of the runway require more sophisticated equipment than your bog standard airport.

“I have been asking for the results of the second calibration flights without success for ages. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence with much that happens there.”

In another post, Broken Biscuits says: “I take the deathly silence from the St Helena Government and their contractors Basil Read over the second round of calibration flights to mean the navaids still don’t come up to spec, despite having been relocated.

“You would think that, if the calibrators had found all reasonably good that some sort of positive statement would have been made. Instead they talked about it all having to be analysed in London very carefully…

“There might be big discussions going on about who is liable for the costs of the delayed opening, which may explain the public silence.”

Moving equipment could be the result of “a pretty basic failure of design”, says Broken Biscuit. “We can only speculate given the news blackout from the project team and government.

“There’s now about 90 odd days before the opening ceremony – I wonder if there’ll be a plane on the apron to add some authenticity to the celebrations?”

Read the PPRuNe forum posts on St Helena Airport

 

Airport ‘non-story’ is worth many thousands, says tourism chief

Gloomy stories about St Helena are great news for the island – because they come with beautiful pictures that pull in potential visitors all round the world, writes director of tourism CHRIS PICKARD.

 

The UK’s Independent newspaper recently ran an article suggesting that the first flights to St Helena, and the opening of the airport, had been delayed. The article, subsequently picked up by the Mail, was something of a non-story: a cut-and-paste job that took a series of random quotes, many out of context, and then came up with the result that 2+2=5.

Negative reporting of tourism and infrastructure projects is nothing new for me. But if asked as director of tourism for St Helena if I was happy to see the stories about the airport in print in the UK, I would have to say Yes.

Between them they created hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of positive publicity for St Helena as a destination and brought the island to the attention of many potential visitors, thanks to the images used.

It is very important to take St Helena out of the tourism pages and in to the main news sections of the media. That is what helps to promote and develop a destination.

So while I am delighted with all the positive coverage the island has generated recently in the travel sections of the international media, I am even happier when I see St Helena being covered in the other news pages and sections of the media. But I am experienced enough to know that these will not always be 100% positive.

An example of non-tourism coverage is the recent stories about Jonathan, which generated a lot of interest in people wanting to come to the island, as did reports on new species being found.

While I did not agree with everything he wrote, Matthew Engel’s cover story in the Financial Times’ weekend magazine also generated many hundreds of thousands pounds’ worth of positive publicity.

And not just in the UK: I got feedback from North and South America, Australia, and across Europe from people who, having read the FT piece, wanted to come to St Helena or set up tours to the island.

The result of all this coverage has been that people in the right circles are talking positively about St Helena in terms of helping to contribute to building a sustainable tourism industry.

Sadly for the island, St Helena Tourism is already having to turn away business or put it on hold, but that has nothing to do with the airport or air access and when it starts, but is down to not having a sufficient amount of the right type of accommodation that tour operators demand. But that is something we are working to resolve.

International tour operators, many of which I have worked with over the years, have been contacting us to get information about what St Helena has to offer, and most are now putting together one week packages to the island. They know me well enough to be sure that when St Helena is ready for them, and the flights have started, I will let them know.

We all work on facts, not fiction or speculation.

What people on St Helena will need to understand, however, is that like it or not we are now playing on the global stage, and global tourism is extremely competitive. St Helena – as I know from the conversations I have had with other tourism directors who are jealous of the media attention we have been generating – is firmly on the radar and that means there will be people looking to knock us down.

It also means that the media will be interested in writing news stories about the island, both good and bad, and that is because we are now news and the readers are interested. That is how I like it.

Far more negative is likely to be the coverage on Trip Advisor and other review sites as the visitors themselves – not the media – judge what we have to offer and the service levels behind it. Saints and others working in travel and tourism on the island will have to develop a thick skin.

As crazy as it may seem, my job is to make the St Helena Tourism strapline of “Secret of the South Atlantic” redundant, and if that means putting my hand up and apologising to the Saints who for personal or business reasons wish to keep the island a secret, so be it.

2015 was a record year for St Helena is terms of international visitors, and that is before the airport opens. So there are lots of positive things to look forward to in terms of tourism and what it can bring to the island.

Airport road name honours Sharon’s memory

The memory of Sharon Wainwright, who led the push for air travel to St Helena, is to be honoured in the naming of a section of the airport access road.

Wainwright Way was one of seven winning entries in a competition to find names for sections of the road, originally built to carry construction traffic up from Rupert’s Valley.

Sharon was in London in her role as St Helena Government’s airport project manager when she died suddenly on 15 August 2011, only weeks before it was announced that construction would go ahead.

Governor Andrew Gurr said at the time that people who benefited from the airport would owe gratitude to her memory for decades to come.

A competition was held in July to choose a name for the haul road, once it is opened to the public. In the end, seven names were chosen for different sections.

Councillor Pamela Ward Pearce said: “We liked African Slave Road as this shows the area where the recent excavations uncovered the slave graves. Airbay Road was felt to encompass the flow of the road from the airport to Rupert’s Bay.

“Boer Road and Pipe Ridge Pass were sections near the old roads of those names, while Flagstaff View and Wirebird Way are sections where you have a view of Flagstaff and the wirebird nesting area respectively.

“Finally Wainwright Way was chosen to honour our own Sharon Wainwright, who worked so hard to make the airport a reality but sadly did not live to see it to fruition.”

Wainwright Way was suggested by Jean-Claude George, Keegan Yon and Jacob Williams. Other winning names were put forward by Alexandra Benjamin (Wirebird Way), Keegan Yon, Pascal Walters (Pipe Ridge Pass), Charlize Crowie (Flagstaff View), Victoria Mastna, Joshua O’Bey and Renee Youde (Boer Road), Tyran Henry (Airbay Road), and Colby Richards (African Slave Road).

Click the thumbnails to see larger pictures:

Island crews ‘ready’ for Comair-style crash on runway

Plans are in place to deal with a blocked runway at St Helena’s airport in the event of an incident like the Comair crash at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport on 26 October 2015.

Comair plane by Warren Mann 660Click the pic to read the Comair crash story (picture: Warren Mann)

St Helena Government (SHG) gave the assurance after a 737-400 tilted over on to its wing when landing gear failed.

The incident raised questions about what might happen if the same thing happens once Comair begins flights to St Helena in early 2016.

An obstruction on the runway would close down the airport and leave the island cut off while it was cleared.

Richard Brown of Atlantic Star Airlines – which announced its first UK-St Helena flight the same day – said aviation rules mean only one aircraft would be allowed to be in-bound towards the island at any time, because of the danger of an obstruction preventing a landing.

An SHG spokesman said: “First of all, we are very glad that no-one was injured and that the incident was effectively managed.

“This type of incident is precisely why so much is invested in emergency planning and preparedness at airports – including at St Helena Airport.

“We have a highly trained and qualified Rescue & Fire Fighting Service, supported by our regular local emergency services – and  the public will already be aware of the emergency exercises conducted as part of our airport certification programme.

“As part of this, a Disabled Aircraft Removal Plan (DARP) has been drawn up for St Helena Airport. Appropriate equipment to deliver the DARP will be in place before we begin airport operations, and staff are currently being trained in its use.”

The major incident exercise on Friday, 23 October 2015 saw the airport emergency services working alongside “local” crews for the first time, tackling a simulated emergency.

Chief of police Trevor Botting said: “This exercise was challenging and whilst there are a number of points that will help us to improve the way we work, it demonstrated that the emergency teams from the airport and from St Helena more generally can work together in an operational context.”

Aerodrome manager Nigel Spackman said: “These exercises are an essential part of the airport certification process and are designed to give the regulator confidence in our ability to operate the airport safely and to identify areas for improvement. 

“It was clearly proven that SHG emergency services and the airport teams can work together effectively, albeit that there are – as expected – areas where we can improve.”

Comair plane collapse highlights St Helena safety needs

Fire crews stood by after a Comair plane collapsed after landing. Click the image to see Warren Mann's picture in full.
Fire crews stood by after a Comair plane collapsed after landing. Click the image to see Warren Mann’s picture in full.

An aircraft operated by Comair collapsed on to its side after landing at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

The operator – which is due to commence flights to St Helena in early 2016 – reports that all 94 passengers and six crew were safely disembarked with no injuries after one of the plane’s front landing wheels gave way.

The main runway had to be shut down with flights diverted to an alternative – raising questions about what would happen if a similar incident occurred at St Helena’s airport, with its single runway.

The Comair plane rests on one side after collapsing following landing. Picture: Warren Mann
The Comair plane rests on one side after collapsing following landing. Picture: Warren Mann

The Boeing 737-400 had already safely touched down and was performing landing procedures on the runway when crew noticed an unusual vibration. The left landing gear then collapsed and the aircraft came to rest on its wing.

The extent of damage was not clear from pictures.

If a similar incident were to happen on St Helena, removing a plane with a damaged wing would be a major challenge.

Britain’s Daily Express website reported the incident under the sensationalist headline,
BA flight emergency after landing gear collapses and wing ‘BREAKS OFF’ – above a picture showing the wing still clearly attached.

It quoted passenger Warren Mann, who took the pictures on this post, describing sparks coming from the wing as it appeared to come away from the aircraft.

Picture courtesy of Warren Mann, a passenger on the aircraft
Picture courtesy of Warren Mann, a passenger on the aircraft

The airline issued the following statement:

Johannesburg, 26 October 2015: Comair confirms that flight BA6234 a 10:35 departure from Port Elizabeth, with 6 Crew and 94 Passengers on board, was involved in an incident on landing at OR Tambo International Airport today.

We can confirm that all passengers and crew safely disembarked with no reported injuries. Passengers have been taken to the terminal building where staff are currently on hand assisting them and Comair offered all passengers counselling following the incident.

The incident involving a Boeing 737-400, registration ZS-OAA experienced a failure with the landing gear shortly after touching down. The aircraft was on the runway for a short period performing standard landing procedures when the crew noticed an unusual vibration which was followed shortly by the collapse of the left landing gear. ACSA emergency services were dispatched and responded to the scene immediately and assisted passengers and crew to safely disembark.

After the relevant authorities did their preliminary investigation, Comair received clearance to remove the aircraft and will be delivering all baggage to the passengers.

Comair would like to extend an apology to affected passengers for any undue stress and inconvenience. The safety of or passengers and crew is our top priority and Comair and the relevant authorities will be conducting the necessary investigation over the coming days.

Britain’s Express newspaper misreported the incident as a “terrifying” emergency landing:

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 18.26.43

PICTURES: Royal Navy’s Wildcat helicopter on St Helena

Wildcat Prepares for Take-off 660One of the Royal Navy’s new Wildcat helicopters flew several sorties over St Helena during commemorations for the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s arrival on the island in 1815.

On Wednesday 14 October 2015, it became the first helicopter to land at the islands airport – nearly a month after the arrival of the first aircraft ever to land.

The attack helicopter has deployed with HMS Lancaster, which visited the island along with the RFA Gold Rover for the commemorations.

Click on the thumbnails to see larger images, kindly supplied by St Helena Government and the UK Ministry of Defence.

Breakthrough at last on Ascension-St Helena flights

Monthly flights between St Helena and Ascension Island have been negotiated, after months of discontent over the vital link being excluded from the original deal with winning contractor Comair. Each month, of the the airline’s Saturday flights from Johannesburg will land at St Helena and then continue on to Ascension for an overnight stop, before a return flight on the same route. Executive councillor Lawson Henry had led angry calls for a way to be found for Saints working on Ascension and the Falklands to be able to fly home without expensive detours of many thousands of miles. Ascension Island Government acknowledge support from Governor Mark Capes and Enterprise St Helena in applying pressure for the link to be provided.

Read more here.

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