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‘It’s surreal’ – pilot’s comment as he prepares to fly the first plane ever to land on St Helena

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Four hours to go before he was due to begin a journey into St Helena’s history books, and Stuart Rawlinson was sitting in his garden in the UK, getting some rest. He would need it.

He’d landed the job of chief pilot aboard the very first aircraft ever to fly out to the island.

“It’s a bit surreal,” he admitted. “There aren’t many places in the world you can’t fly to. It’s quite exciting to be part of making it happen.”

A large proportion of St Helena’s 4,000-population is expected to line vantage points to see the Beechcraft King Air 200 touch down, some time between Sunday 13 and Thursday 17 September 2015. Special traffic arrangements have been put in place around Longwood.

“Yes, we’ve been told about that,” said Stuart, who flies with Surrey-based Flight Calibration Services Limited. “It’s good.

“It’s a bit special. It’s got challenges because of the remoteness. It’s an excitement.

“When we’ve turned up in other countries there’s been an entourage that turns up. We know it’s important to the people of St Helena. I’m sure we’ll get a good welcome.”

There will be five people on board for the historic first landing, including three pilots and Stuart’s colleague Nick Whitehouse, who will do much of the inspection work.

“As we’re using a local [South African] aircraft out there, we take the crew of the aircraft. There will be one of their pilots and myself at the controls.

The team also includes a flight engineer who can service the plane in St Helena if needed. “If there’s a problem, we can’t just nip down to Halfords for a spare part,” said Stuart.

There’s no saying when they will be able to set out from South Africa for the flight via Namibia and Angola.

“We have to wait for a weather window to get to St Helena, to get in and get out again with a fuel load.

“There may or may not be a wait of a day or so because we are going in just on GPS.”

Though they’re going to test the guidance systems on Prosperous Bay Plane, they won’t be able to rely on them for their own landing – so no using the usual instruments.

“We have weather forecasters from the met office giving us forecasts.

“The network of people behind making this happen is quite wide. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t less than 100 making sure that flight arrives on the island.”

Once on the island, the team will begin a series of calibration flights, testing the navigation and communication systems over several days.

“The homing beacon is probably going to take one to two days to ensure it’s working correctly. Then we have the instrument landing system – a day to two days – and then the lighting system.

“There’s a lot of tech things in the background including the ground communication system, to make sure they’re set up as the engineers want them.

“Whatever we set up for the next week or two is going to be there for the next 20 years so we need to get this right.”

The St Helena job won’t be an entirely unfamiliar experience for Stuart.

“When we calibrate in Portugal we have to fly to the Azores, which isn’t a hugely dissimilar distance.

Stuart is a commercial instructor who’s been making calibration flights for six years. “It requires something different. A sense of humour, mainly.

“We go all round doing this. We’ll go from the Turks and Caicos Islands to Nigeria and Swaziland… we have a crew in UAE [the United Arab Emirates] at the moment.

“One minute you’re at Heathrow and the next minute you’re landing on an island in the middle of the South Atlantic, and then it could be a trip to the desert. I could be anywhere.”

Given the extra challenges of the St Helena job, was he nervous about it?

Read more in the St Helena Independent
Read more in the St Helena Independent

“What’s making people nervous is that we’ve heard the airport supply ship is decommissioned at the end of the month, so it has to work. There is no plan B.

“It will work.”

The 11 September 2015 issue of the St Helena Independent has more information about the flight and the operation behind it, as well as a report on developments on the wharf and training of the island’s new rescue team in Johannesburg. 

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