On Twitter, Niall O’Keeffe joked that golfers on St Helena now had a new excuse for a badly-played shot: being distracted by the noise of an aeroplane.
The crew of the first aircraft ever to land on the island went on to stage another dozen or so flights over ten days in September 2015, to allow calibration of the navigation and communication systems at the island’s new airport.
When all the flights were completed, Governor Mark Capes held a reception for the team from the UK and South Africa who carried out the flights.
He said: “Tuesday 15 September 2015 will always be a special day to remember on St Helena. For this entire community it was an exciting day and for some an emotional one.”
Captain Grant Brighton, one of the pilots who were at the controls for the first landing, said: “We didn’t know what we were coming to but the runway was very good, solid and conditions were great.
“When we were first approaching the runway and experienced the turbulence you realise that no one has ever experienced that turbulence before. We probably did a dozen landings over the last nine days.
“The island itself far exceeded our expectations. The people are incredible and there’s so much history here which you don’t understand until you research it or are here to see for yourself.”
The results of the flights would not be known for some time.
Click the picture above to watch the first-ever aircraft landing on St Helena, as the pilots saw it. St Helena Government has released cockpit footage shot by the crew of the Beechcraft King Air 200 that touched down at the island’s first airport on 15 September 2015.
Clicking on any of the images here will take you to footage shot on the day by onlookers watching from vantage points above Prosperous Bay Plain.
One was shot from close to the runway; another shows the drama of the landscape that will greet passengers on future commercial flights as they come in to land alongside the King and Queen Rocks.
The last, posted on Facebook, was captured on a GoPro camera placed alongside the runway.
The tiny Beechcraft plane flew the 1,100 miles from Angola with a crew of five in order to carry out a series of calibration flights to allow the configuring of the navigation and communication systems at the new airport.
Bruce Salt, Giselle Richards and Andrea Louise Benjamin have kindly agreed to share some of their pictures of the arrival of the first aircraft ever to fly to St Helena. St Helena Government has also shared some images. Bruce was covering the event professionally for the St Helena Independent and had a close-up view. Giselle and Andrea photographed the event at the people saw it, from vantage points overlooking the airport. More pictures may be added later: please come back for updates.
They travelled across St Helena, in poor weather, to witness the first switching-on of the many runway lights at the island’s first airport: another landmark in the progress towards its scheduled completion in February 2016. BRUCE SALT was there and has kindly sent the pictures below.He writes:
“The event was announced on Saint FM and the planned illumination was to be for half an hour, but the station could not have imagined just how many islanders would have manned the high ground at Bradleys and Levelwood to see the inaugural illumination of the island’s airstrip.
“Basil Read bosses were taken back by the public’s curiosity when they witnessed more than 200 vehicles rolling through Longwood through fog and rain to catch a glimpse of
lights, so much so that they extended the illumination time by an hour.”
St Helena Online thanks Bruce, as ever. Click on any other thumbnails to see a gallery of larger images.
Weekly flights between St Helena and Johannesburg will operate every Saturday, the island’s government has confirmed. Comair Ltd has signed a contract to operate the service with a dedicated Boeing 737-800 aircraft in British Airways livery. It will offer both business class and economy seating on the five-hour flight.
Construction of the island’s first airport is due for completion by 26 February 2016.
The Mantis group has also been named as the preferred bidder to run a new hotel being set up by the island government at numbers 1 to 2, Main Street in Jamestown.
St Helena Government has issued the following question-and-answer guide:
Q. Who is Comair?
A. Comair is a commercial airline that has successfully operated in South Africa since 1946. It is best known for operating British Airways flights in the Southern African region, and for its low cost airline, kulula.com.
Q. Why choose this airline?
A. Comair is an established airline with a long and successful history, and was chosen as St Helena’s air service provider following a comprehensive tender process. Comair will provide unparalleled access for Saints to the outside world with links through Johannesburg to London, Paris, Frankfurt, New York, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many more international and regional destinations.
Q. Where are they headquartered?
A. Comair’s headquarters are in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Q. What does the agreement with Comair commit them to?
A. The agreement commits Comair to providing a weekly service each Saturday from Johannesburg to St Helena and back. The aircraft will be capable of carrying up to 120 passengers and a limited amount of cargo.
Q. What term does the agreement stipulate?
A. The agreement will be for an initial period of three years, with potential for up to two extensions of two years each, giving a maximum term of up to seven years.
Q. When will the air service to St Helena commence?
A. The first scheduled flight from Johannesburg to St Helena is earmarked for late February 2016. Naturally, this date is dependent on the final certification and operational readiness of St Helena Airport.
Q. Which aircraft type will Comair use for St Helena services?
A. Comair proposes to use a brand new Boeing 737-800 aircraft, fitted out in British Airways livery.
Q. Can Comair carry special needs passengers, including wheelchair customers and stretcher cases?
A. Yes, Comair provides for the carriage of special needs passengers, including but not limited to wheelchairs, unaccompanied minors and customers with other special needs.
Comair will provide for the transportation of Medivac cases, stretcher cases through the certification process, updating its policies for this specific route accordingly.
Q. Does this mean that patients will now be treated in Johannesburg?
A. This is still being considered and it is too early to say at this point. Johannesburg has world class hospitals, and this will need to be weighed against transferring patients on a short connecting flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
Further information will follow.
Q. When will the first Comair test flight take place?
A. Any requirement for test flights will be set by the regulator. Comair will develop a flight simulator for St Helena to assist with pilot training.
Q. Is a visa required to visit St Helena?
A. No, but visitors to St Helena will wish to view the SHG website at www.sainthelena.gov.sh
Q. What will be the Hub?
A. Flights will originate from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. OR Tambo Airport is the main international airport in South Africa and provides much better connections to other destinations than the smaller Cape Town Airport can offer.
Q. How many flights per week?
A. Initially flights will be once a week. Increased frequency will be considered if there is sufficient demand.
Q. Has the flight schedule been finalised?
A. The exact timing of the flight schedule is still under discussion, but there will be an early morning departure from Johannesburg to St Helena, a one hour turnaround time in St Helena and an arrival into Johannesburg in the early evening. This timing will allow seamless connections to a range of international destinations.
Q. What is the flight time between Johannesburg and St Helena?
A. The flight time from Johannesburg to St Helena is estimated at five and a half hours and from St Helena to Johannesburg at four hours and forty five minutes. The difference in times is caused by the normal prevailing winds.
Q. How many passengers can the aircraft accommodate?
A. The aircraft has a full seating capacity of around 162 seats, but the number of passengers on flights to and from St Helena is likely to be limited to around 120, due to weight requirements when landing at St Helena Airport.
Q. How much cargo can the aircraft carry?
A. The aircraft has no palletised cargo capability, but a limited amount of cargo can be loaded by hand. But depending on the number of passengers, the aircraft can carry from around one tonne to around five tonnes of cargo.
Q. What will my baggage allowance be?
A. Club Class (Business) – 2 bags @ up to 23kg each
Traveller Class (Economy) – 1 bag @ up to 23kg
Q. What will be the flight turnaround time at St Helena Airport?
A. It will take approximately one hour to turn around the flight at St Helena Airport and return to Johannesburg.
Q. What day of the week will flights operate?
A. Comair will provide a single weekly return flight on a Saturday.
Q. Will passengers from St Helena be able to catch connecting flights at Johannesburg on the same day?
For inbound flights to St Helena, and depending on passengers’ time of arrival in Johannesburg, overnight accommodation may be necessary. There are a number of hotels within minutes of OR Tambo airport.
Q. When will bookings open for sale and where can I buy my tickets?
A. Bookings will open for sale towards the end of this year, 2015. A ticket can be purchased by a variety of means, including ba.com, Comair’s call centre and international and online travel agencies. Arrangements will also be put in place for purchase on St Helena. Further details on purchase options will be available later this year.
Q. Is there any guidance on the price of a return ticket between Johannesburg and St Helena?
A. SHG, in consultation with Comair, is in the process of determining the final pricing structures. The aim is to provide very competitive prices for Saints and visitors wishing to travel to and from St Helena.
Indicative return ticket prices are estimated to be around £500 to £600. But this is subject to agreement and confirmation following discussions between Comair and SHG. And ticket prices will vary, as is normal, subject to time of booking, demand and seasonal variations.
Q. What if I want to take a particular item on the plane?
A. This will be guided by the conditions of carriage of Comair. We will be publishing general guidance prior to tickets going on sale.
Q. Will there be services to Ascension Island?
A. It is unlikely that Comair will provide services to Ascension Island, due to a combination of reasons, including aircraft availability and the hours that pilots are allowed to fly. The Ascension Island Government is currently looking at options for separate provision of return services from St Helena to Ascension.
More information on this will follow.
Q. Will this mean that Saints on Ascension and the Falklands will need to travel to the UK then to Johannesburg before they can travel to St Helena?
A. This would be the route if anyone on Ascension or the Falkland Islands chose to use the scheduled weekly flight via Johannesburg.
But as stated above, Ascension Island Government is investigating options for the provision of services from Ascension to St Helena.
Note also that the RMS St Helena will serve Ascension and St Helena until June 2016 (4 months after commercial flights to St Helena are due to commence).
Further information will follow.
Q. Will there be direct flights to and from the UK?
A. Flights to the UK will require a change of aircraft at OR Tambo International Airport. There are many airlines operating out of this airport that can provide onward travel to London at very competitive prices, including British Airways, Emirates, Virgin and South African Airways.
Q. What happens if the Comair aircraft has a technical problem?
A. Contingency plans are in place and Comair would, if necessary, provide a backup plane from its fleet.
In addition, Comair will keep a stock of the most commonly required spare parts at St Helena Airport, ensuring that routine repairs can be rectified on St Helena. Comair will have an engineer on each flight capable of carrying out these repairs.
A South African airline operator has been named the favourite to provide an air service for St Helena when its first airport opens early in 2016.
But Comair, which also operates budget flights as kulula.com, will only offer flights to Johannesburg in South Africa – despite strong calls for a direct service to Europe.
Potential tourism operators, including SHELCO, the company behind a planned eco resort on the island, had warned that flights from the UK were vital to their plans.
A rival bidder, Atlantic Star, also said that time-pressured tourists would be likely to holiday in resorts they could reach in a single flight, such as Barbados, rather than change planes to reach St Helena.
St Helena Government has said only that Comair is the preferred bidder. It did not say whether the firm was expected to operate the island route under the kulula brand.
kulula.com was named Best Low Cost Airline in international Airline Excellence Awards run by the website AirLineRatings.com in December 2014.
The site’s editor in chief, Geoffrey Thomas, said: “kulula is a breath of fresh air in the African market, combining safety, technology and humour. That airline brings fun to travel whilst delivering outstanding value.”
The announcement of Comair as preferred bidder was made by St Helena Government and the UK’s Department for International Development in a statement on 16 March 2015.
It said: “Comair is a South African aviation and travel company offering scheduled and non-scheduled airline services within South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands.
“Managed and owned by South Africans through its listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Comair has been operating successfully in South Africa since 1946.
“The company operates under its low-fare airline brand, kulula.com, as well as under the British Airways livery as part of its licence agreement with British Airways.
“Comair is proposing a weekly flight between Johannesburg (O.R. Tambo International Airport, formerly known as Johannesburg International Airport) and St Helena, using a Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
“The flight time from Johannesburg to St Helena will be about four and a half hours.
“Through Comair’s partnerships with numerous international airlines, the St Helena air service will offer connections to the international route network, via Johannesburg, to destinations such as London, Amsterdam, Paris, Sydney and Hong Kong.
“SHG and DFID will be holding detailed discussions with Comair over the next few weeks and will make a formal and more detailed announcement once these have been concluded.
“This marks a very positive step for St Helena in working with an airline that has such a long track record of successful operations, and which provides an excellent gateway to the rest of the world, including the UK.”
Driving a digger back and forth, filling an entire valley with rubble to carry the runway for St Helena’s airport, may not seem the most artistic of jobs.
But you can’t keep the St Helenian creative spirit down, it seems.
Two open days at the airport site have been held on successive weekends in November 2013 to mark a major milestone in the project: reaching the half-way mark in filling Dry Gut.
That means roughly 3,889,623 cubic metres of rock – or 247,466 truckloads.
On the first open day, the figure “50%” was inscribed into the surface of the fill with a 20-tonne roller.
But for workers on such an ambitious project, that clearly wasn’t enough. As Saint FM reported on 24 November 2013:
“The Dry Gut crew wanted something different and more dramatic, and so with a piece of imagination, settled on moulding the shape of a passenger jet out of the rubble – no mean feat in the short time available, what with getting the dimensions into perspective.”
The challenge is to come up with something even more ambitious for September 2014, when the last truckload of rubble is due to be tipped into place in the gut.
In the meantime, work on the airport terminal buildings has now begun, as witnessed by visitors to the opens days; and consultation has ended on plans for a new permanent wharf at Rupert’s Bay.
St Helena Online does not have a picture of the rubble aeroplane, but is happy to share Barbara George’s image of the 50% sign, at the top of this story.
Click on any thumbnail below to see Barbara’s open day pictures.
Flights to Ascension would be economically “do-able” when St Helena’s airport opens, according to the chief executive of the proposed Atlantic Star airline.
Captain Richard Brown said his team was keen to provide a service for Saints working on the island – but it could not be frequent.
He and a team of fellow pilots and business advisers hope to set up Atlantic Star as a dedicated airline for St Helena to meet the highly unusual challenges of flying to the island.
“Ascension we see as do-able,” he said. “We see it as something that we would want to do but it certainly wouldn’t be as frequent as a weekly service, simply because I can’t see enough tourist traffic to sustain it.
“Part of the issue would be that the pilots and cabin crew who’ve just operated out of Europe down to the island would not be rested in order to carry out another service on to Ascension, which means we would have to base pilots and cabin crew on the island.
“However, when you look at a number of Saints, a few tourists, perhaps some military personnel moving backwards and forwards and some cargo, then we see it as a route that could be viable.”
The same was not true for flights between St Helena and the Falkland Islands, he said – despite speculation that it was seen as a strategic alternative to the military route via Ascension Island.
The distance involved would mean the aircraft would have to carry a heavy load of fuel – leaving less room for people and cargo.
Captain Brown said: “We have run a feasibility study and it is possible to operate down to the Falklands; not with a full passenger load because of the length of the runway at St Helena.
“Simply, you can’t lift enough weight off the runway to get down there, but we could do it with a restricted passenger load.
“We see operating from St Helena to the Falklands as potentially challenging, and it’s not easy for us to make a commercial case for it.”
St Helena will lose out to luxury destinations such as The Maldives and Barbados if it does not have direct flights from Europe, one of the men behind a potential airline for the island has warned.
The team setting up Atlantic Star Airlines wants to fly from London to St Helena and on to Cape Town, with a fuelling stop in southern Europe.
But that means widening the airfield currently being built on Prosperous Bay Plain or using a “compromised” aircraft, according to Captain Richard Brown – and there are doubts about whether the British government will agree to the work.
However, there has been unofficial word from the island that the upgrade could be funded from cost savings on other parts of the project.
The alternative is for travellers to fly to South Africa and then catch a connecting flight to the island – but Richard told St Helena Online that wealthy tourists would not do that when other islands could be reached on a single flight.
Richard, co-founder and director of Atlantic Star, said: “In order to build a sustainable economy, ultimately flights from Europe will be needed.
“Our experience within the aviation industry is that very few people will catch two flights to go on vacation.
“Everybody knows how long it takes to get to Cape Town [from Europe]. You add on a minimum of a two-hour turnaround and then another four-and-a-half-hour flight out to the island, and you are only going to have tourists who are particularly determined to visit St Helena.
“The reality is that St Helena will have to compete with other destinations such as the Maldives, such as Mauritius, such as Barbados, such at Antigua, such as St Lucia – which are all fantastic and have their own on-island experiences to offer.
“The thing about all of those destinations is that they are all served directly from London on a single flight.
“So if St Helena is to compete in that market place for the sort of customers that go to those sorts of destinations, St Helena needs to have direct flights.”
Nigel Kirby, who is managing the airport project at the UK’s Department for International Development, did not appear to offer encouragement to the Europe lobby when he spoke to the Friends of St Helena in late 2012.
At the Friends’ annual meeting on 8 June 2013, Ian Mathieson said: “When we had Nigel Kirby here in the autumn he was making it fairly clear that Johannesburg was the front runner.”
Richard Brown said: “We are in interested in operating in and out of South Africa. We see is as part of the A-Star route network that will operate from the UK, down to the island and on to Cape town.
“Secondary to that we can see potential for adding another route to Johannesburg within a relatively short time frame.”
He said the company had a vision of offering wealthy tourists a week on St Helena and a second week in South Africa, with a direct flight back to London.
“People can go from a chilled-out week on the island to something again very exciting and different and unusual on the Western Cape.”
The company wants to use Boeing 757 aircraft, which are no longer manufactured but would still have a long service life.
“At the present time the airfield specification is not sufficiently robust to take a 757 operation, and DfID are currently reviewing whether the airfield will be upgraded to support those 757 operations.
“The shoulders on the sides of the runway will need to be slightly wider and the taxiway will have to be slightly wider.
“You are talking about a relatively small change. But the 757 is the best aircraft out there to provide a European link to the island.
“The Boeing 737 and Airbus A319 would also have this capability but they are far more compromised in terms of having to put extra fuel tanks in the belly of the aeroplane, which removes space for baggage and for cargo.
“We see cargo as a significant part of the operation – potentially to aid island exports, particularly in terms of fisheries.”
Importing some goods by air would also be important, he said. “The airline has to be a viable commercial entity.”
He said London was the ideal departure point. “It’s still Europe’s biggest single economic centre and that means there’s a lot of high-net-worth individuals looking for interesting and exclusive experiences.
“It’s also logical because it’s the destination of choice for Saints.
“They’ll be prepared to put up with flying to Cape Town or Johannesburg and catching a connection flight to get themselves to London.
“They will accept it, and people will do it for business. But people won’t catch two flights to go on vacation.”
Click the pic to see a video on the airport project
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.