The arrival of the first aircraft ever to land on St Helena was one of the biggest events on the island since Napoleon stepped ashore 200 years earlier. Click on the links to see video, pictures, stories and social media coverage.
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?
“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.
The first aircraft ever to fly to St Helena is expected to land on the island within days.
St Helena Government has announced that the first test flight is expected to take place between Sunday 13 and Thursday 17 September.
Temporary use of the runway on Prosperous Bay Plain has been granted to allow a series of calibration flights to take place, to test airport equipment such as communications systems.
Traffic controls are being put in place to cope with the large numbers of spectators expected to gather at vantage points such as Woody Ridge. The airport construction side will remain closed to the public.
A Beechcraft King Air 200 aircraft has been leased for the test flights.
It will set off from Lanseria Airport in Johannesburg, fly to Namibia, then to Angola and on to St Helena, taking approximately four hours for the final leg of the journey to the island.
It will remain on the island for around a week, making several flights each day if weather permits.
The aircraft is expected to arrive between mid-morning and early afternoon and approach the northern end of the runway, from the direction of The Barn. It will then carry out an initial low-level pass of the runway before coming in to land.
Efforts will be made to alert the public when the time and date of the plane’s likely arrival is known.
The test flights are required for the airport to be accredited for commercial flights.
They’re used to seeing flying machines at the motocross track beyond Longwood. But Rémi Bruneton’s paraglider was a step up from briefly-airborne motorbikes.
Bikers and spectators all stared as he flew a wide circuit before heading back to Francis Plain.
On an island where aircraft of any kind are rarely seen, it was quite an oddity. As Tony Leo put it on Saint FM, “I can only describe it as a very large overgrown pushchair for twins, one in front and one in the back.”
An engine just behind the pilot’s head turns a large fan that inflates a fabric kite. With the revs up, take-off and ascent are rapid.
Frenchman Rémi had already turned heads by leaping off mountain tops strapped to an unpowered paraglider, drifting over Sandy Bay with just the breeze to keep him aloft. Going anywhere else was a problem.
“I found I could not fly on the north side of the island because the wind always comes from the south-east,” he said, “so I decided to get an engine.”
The wind problem solved, he was then kept grounded by days of October rain, but he’d managed two flights over Alarm Forest and Longwood by the time Tony interviewed him at his hangar.
“I started off in France quite a few years ago without the engine,” said Rémi, who is on the island to work for Halcrow on its airport project. “I took lessons. Then a friend showed me how to do it with an engine on days when there is no wind.
“It takes off very very quickly. I don’t have an altimeter but from experience I would say I was about flying at about 700 metres, the height of Diana’s Peak.”
Rémi is on the island with his partner, Sophy Thorpe, whose father Nick described him as “absolutely fearless.” Rémi was unruffled about the risks of paragliding.
“That’s the main question people usually ask,” he said. “It’s probably safer than riding a bicycle, if you look at the accident figures.”
Yes, but if you fall off a bicycle, you don’t have far to tumble. On the other hand, Rémi takes rather more care than the average cyclist.
“I go all around, check everything, then let it run for a minute or two, let it warm up before I ask for the maximum out of it. I check there’s no leaks and then I take off.
“The most important of the checks is not the engine; the main thing I check is the glider – the kite – because it’s fabric and it’s knitted together basically, and if there was anything wrong with it I would worry.
“On the base there’s a parachute that you pull out if something goes wrong.
“There’s not very much open space area I can land on but from the air you would be surprised how much pasture land there is on St Helena. Over Longwood there is plenty of land – on the field in front of Longwood House would be more than big enough.”
Rémi does need some protection when he flies: for his hearing. The engine is very noisy – “you need a lot of torque to take off” – and it’s only 12 centimetres from his ears.
Landing is quieter: he actually turns the engine off shortly before he hits the ground, and slows to perhaps 20 miles an hour. The 38-square-metre kite brings him down gently.
Could he fly down the valley into Jamestown?
“Technically I could, as long as there’s no aerials. When I drive on the road I tend to have a look and check in advance.
“When I went to fly around Longwood, there’s two quite big aerials for the weather station, so obstacles like that need to be considered. Usually you prefer to get more altitude. The more altitude you have, the more time you have to react if the engine breaks down.”
It’s not a gas guzzler. “The reservoir takes 20 odd litres, and the manufacturer gives fuel consumption of three litres per hour, so I should be able to fly for six hours.”
That doesn’t make it the future of air travel for Saints. As Tony Leo observed: “You can’t get to Ascension.”