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‘World’s most spectacular airport’ makes global news. Mostly good

The Daily Mirror headline read: ‘World’s most useless airport’ finally gets its first commercial flight – and it’s LATE.

Well, it was an irresistable line.

The paper’s report of St Helena’s first commercial flight included a nice quote from tour operator Libby Weir-Breen, who had flown specially from Scotland. “I’ve never felt so emotional in all my life,” she said.

Japan, Germany, New Zealand, America… even the UK: the story pretty much flew round the world.

And people on the island helped tell to tell it. A video of the landing, shot by Geoff Cooper from one of the public vantage points, was re-tweeted to 12 million followers of America’s ABC News.

A picture by Ed Thorpe of the Devil’s Hole Black Rocks, on a part of the island few tourists will ever see, gained international exposure from Associated Press, which told of champagne and chocolates being handed out on the island-bound flight.

The historic flight from Johannesburg made all the BBC’s national radio news bulletins.

Ed Cropley’s piece for Reuters, transmitted to news platforms and print publications worldwide, declared that the airport brought Saints “another step closer to their inclusion in the 21st century.”

Then he spoiled it a bit by saying the island got the internet only 18 months ago – though it was true that the mobile phone network went public just days after the very first aircraft flight arrived from Africa in 2015 (a bit of a nuisance for reporters at the time).

He told how Craig Yon of Into The Blue took a booking from a group of Swedish divers within minutes of them reading online that the first flight had touched down safely.

But he might have been teasing, just a little, when he quoted Craig saying, “Things are really picking up. Before, I’d only check my emails once a day. Now I have to check them in the morning and the afternoon.”

The story in The Times was written by Michael Binyon, who spent several weeks on St Helena as a media adviser and knew what to make of it all. He disclosed that the Embraer aircraft took on enough fuel at Windhoek to allow it to circle the island for two hours if wind shear presented a problem.

The Times’s headline called the flight “nerve-shredding” – but then, Michael was quite candid about feeling nervous when walking in the steeper parts of St Helena. The headline contrasted with the comment made by one American passenger quoted by Michael: “Wind shear – my ass.”

Britain’s Daily Telegraph carried a lengthy preview piece, but noted that its travel team had been able to find unsold tickets for the inaugural flight on ebookers.com at £395 one-way.

Sadly, its piece was accompanied by a picture of St Helena’s Church on the island of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel: not the first time that image has featured in St Helena coverage.

The story turned up in some surprising places. DeathRattleSports.com was unusual in acknowledging the “colossal civil engineering challenge” involved in building the airport, though it didn’t convey the enormous scale of the achievement.

A write-up in Dive Magazine had some complimentary things to say about the island and its surrounding waters, especially the presence of whale sharks, following writer Mark “Crowley” Russell’s visit in early 2017. The magazine is somewhat specialised, but there could be strong interest among its readers in visiting St Helena.

Chris Morris’s opening paragraph for fortune.com might have caused a few disappointed sighs at the St Helena Tourism office.

“Ever wanted to visit the British island of St. Helena?” it ran. “Of course you haven’t. Virtually no one does. But now you can.”

Actually you always could, Chris – and lots of people did.

But then, Chris seems to have been a bit confused about the nature of islands, telling readers that St Helena “is literally in the middle of nowhere, floating in the Atlantic ocean between Brazil and the African coastline.”

Islands don’t actually float, Chris. And “literally” literally means… oh, never mind.

Emma Weaver’s well-researched preview of the flight in The Guardian says travel companies are actually showing interest in St Helena, “in a world where remoteness is seen as a luxury”.

The BBC also got muddled up about its seasons, stating that safety tests happened “in the summer”. Could the piece have been knocked out by a journalist in London who didn’t know that August is winter time in the southern hemisphere? (And this was on the BBC Africa pages!).

Bizarrely, the mistake was then repeated on the Radio New Zealand website, which apparently got it from The Guardian.

The Mail Online carried a lengthy, fact-filled piece alongside two agency reports, detailing the island’s history and attractions but also references to the amount of aid the island receives (the Daily Mail has a thing about overseas aid). Sadly, it blew up in the final few words:

“St Helena is a remote volcanic outpost covering just over 75 miles squared,” it declared.

On an island measuring ten miles by six at the widest points, that would involve a neat bit of land-reclamation, even for Basil Read. And “miles squared” is not the same as square miles: 75 miles squared is, let’s see… 75 times 75… that’s 5,625 square miles.

The website’s multi-level headline also muddled up the flight time and the length of the sea voyage to St Helena:

“The British overseas territory was previously only reachable by a six-hour boat,” it said. At that speed, no wonder the RMS has had propellor problems.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 21.59.44

The BBC said the RMS was “a ship that sailed every three weeks”. So what did it do the rest of the time?

Inevitably, many outlets recycled the “world’s most useless airport” tag, without saying who was being quoted, or where the quote came from. It started appearing in various newspapers in May this year, and keeps cropping up. A parliamentary committee report called the airport “useless”, but “world’s most useless” is a big step up.

Governor Phillips had a firm response to all that. “I’ve seen the headlines about the world’s most useless airport,” she told Reuters, “but for St. Helenians, this has already been the most useful airport. It’s priceless.”

Ed Cropley, who is Africa bureau chief for Reuters, tweeted a departing shot of the runway that bestowed an even more flattering tag: “St Helena airport, certainly world’s most spectacular airport.”

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Prince to open St Helena Airport

Prins Edward, earl av Wessex - version 4
Prince Edward, Duke of Wessex (picture: Wikimedia commons)

Prince Edward, the Queen’s third son, is to perform the official opening ceremony for St Helena Airport – as long as safety inspectors have given clearance for it to become operational.

From St Helena Government:

The historic opening of St Helena Airport is planned for the morning of Saturday 21 May 2016 – St Helena’s National Day.  It will be marked by a public ceremony at the Airport site, with royal guest HRH The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, in attendance.

All members of the public will be invited to attend this special event, ahead of the traditional St Helena’s Day entertainments in Jamestown.

As is usual, New Horizons will be organising the traditional programme of events for St Helena’s Day.  But this year, this will be preceded by the official opening of St Helena Airport at the aerodrome organised by SHG, Enterprise St Helena, New Horizons and Basil Read – subject, of course, to prior certification of the airport.

Preparations for the opening ceremony are ongoing and further details will follow in due course.

Welcome to St Helena Airport…

Airport newsletter number 51: click the link at the bottom of the story to read it
Airport newsletter number 51: click the link at the bottom of the story to read it

St Helena’s airport will officially be known as… St Helena Airport.

So says the 51st Airport Update, reporting the decision by executive councillors. “The name is strongly supported by the aviation industry and has instant recognition for passengers,” it says.

The newsletter also reports on open days at the end of September, at which about 1,600 people – a third of the island population – saw the completed work to fill in Dry Gut and create an extra 400 metres of level ground for the runway.

The structure of the building that will house services such as the air traffic control has also been completed.

And the update tells of Craig Yon’s success in earning a blasting qualification that gives him a key role in setting explosives. An examiner came from Namibia to assess him.

Click to read: Airport Update 51 (.pdf file).

  • There was talk of St Helena’s first and only airport being called St Helena International. But the last word of that name would have been rather superfluous. If it wasn’t not going to be an international airport, then where would the aeroplanes fly to – Francis Plain?

Planes on the plain: runway due to appear in 2014

Open day at airport site, 2013. Picture courtesy of St Helena airport project
Open day at airport site, 2013. Picture courtesy of St Helena airport project

St Helena’s first airport is set to take shape on Prosperous Bay Plain in 2014, with the completion of major parts of the project.

Tasks set to be completed are:

  • The filling-in of Dry Gut, the deep valley that must be crossed by the runway.
  • Runway excavations
  • Construction of the main terminal buildings
  • Paving of the apron and runway

The newly-approved wharf in Rupert’s Bay is also set to be completed before the end of the year brings heavy seas.

Work started before Christmas 2013 on creating an access path to the new wharf area, and on establishing a precast yard in the upper valley. Equipment is due to be installed in January for casting concrete armour and other parts of the wharf.

On the airport site itself, the fill of Dry Gut was 55% complete by Christmas, with the ground level raised by 50 metres.

Roughly 4.3 million cubic metres of material were poured into the valley, weighing 7.2 millions tons – that’s 265,500 truckloads. In all, 266 million litres of water were used in the process.

Vehicles on site were driven 531,000 kilometres: no small achievement on a tiny island.

Click here to read issue 42 of the airport newsletter

Creativity takes flight as airport hits half-way mark

 

The part-filled Dry Gut, as seen by photographer Barbara George
The part-filled Dry Gut, as seen by photographer Barbara George

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.

50 per cent 300On 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.

 

 

 

Two years into airport contract, the Gut is filling nicely

This used to be a valley: infilling of Dry Gut continues. Picture courtesy of Basil Read
This used to be a valley: infilling of Dry Gut continues. Picture courtesy of Basil Read

Anywhere else in the world, to speak of filling a gut would be considered less than polite. Not on St Helena.

It’ll be an international cause for celebration when the eight millionth tonne of rock is tipped into the last dimple of Dry Gut, ready to carry the island’s first airport runway across what was once a deep ravine.

Two years on from the announcement of agreement for Basil Read to build the island’s first airport, on 3 November 2011, the construction team is doggedly getting there, one truckload at a time.

To mark the second anniversary of the signing of the contract, St Helena Online has published an Airport Timeline, charting the 68-year struggle to secure funding and political approval for the project. Start reading it here.

Basil Read has also released three pictures of work in progress on Prosperous Bay Plain. Click on the thumbnails below to see larger versions.

Deon de Jager, the company’s island-based director, noted that all critical milestones to date had been met within a couple of days of the planned dates. The team should reflect on its work with pride, he said.

The filling of Dry Gut is expected to reach the half-way mark in mid November 2013. As the fill has to cover an ever-widening area, so the height reached creeps ever more slowly upwards.

In the meantime, work continues on building the terminal buildings, as well as on the access road and a bulk fuel installation at Rupert’s Valley.

A public consultation is currently under way on new proposals for a permanent wharf in Rupert’s Bay.

But progress has also been made on an “ambitious reform programme” promised by St Helena Government as a condition of UK funding, said policy director Susan O’Bey.

New policies have been brought in for selling off government land and encouraging development, immigration and investment. The benefits system has been reviewed, the Basic Island Pension has been introduced, and a national minimum wage is shortly to be brought it.

St Helena Online has been advised that steps are also being taken to address the “injustice”, as campaigners call it, of Saints being denied pensions on St Helena for the years they worked on Ascension, helping to shore up the economy of their home island.

Housing executive Andy Crowe is understood to be seeking ways to bring down the cost of imported building materials, as part of a drive to build new housing on St Helena – including the first new social housing for many years.

AIRPORT TIMELINE: Click here to read the story of the airport, from the arrival of the first surveyors in 1943 to the historic signing of the construction contract in 2011. The project will be updated and pictures will be added as time allows.

READ MORE: Archive of airport stories on St Helena Online
SEE ALSO: St Helena Airport project website

Airline dream that began with a map on the kitchen floor

maps montage 640Three 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.

A Star tail 300It 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?

Atlantic Star wants to fly London-St Helena-Cape Town
Atlantic Star wants to fly London-St Helena-Cape Town

“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.

Captains Carl Haslam and Andrew Radford
Captains Carl Haslam and Andrew Radford

“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.

LINKS:
Atlantic Star Airlines
St Helena Airport project

Intrepid South Africans playing key role in St Helena airport adventure

The first plane to officially land at St Helena’s new airport – the first airport in the island’s more than 500 years of human habitation – is scheduled to do so in February 2016.

Saints Take To Flight
Saints Take To Flight

Building an Airport by Ship

Jimmy Johnston says the biggest challenge in building St Helena Airport has been creating and maintaining an efficient logistics chain.

There are no capital equipment dealers on St Helena, no cement plants and no brick factories. Almost everything, excluding rock, water and a large portion of the workforce necessary to construct the airport, has to be brought to the island.

To make this happen, Basil Read chartered a 2 500 t ocean-going vessel for a period of three years. However, there was no direct landing infrastructure on the island, and limited mooring facilities at the seafront of the capital, Jamestown.

Read More: Engineering News

Firm wins contract to help pilots land in a St Helena mist

A European company is to supply a safe landing system for St Helena’s airport, reports an industry website.

Thales will provide the airport’s Instrument Landing System (ILS) to provide pilots with reliable and accurate landing information in reduced visibility conditions, says airport-world.com.

It will also supply a Doppler VHF Omni-directional Radio Range system (DVOR) to provide bearing information to pilots.

Marion Broughton, head of Thales UK’s aerospace business, said: “Thales is committed to ensuring that airports such as St Helena’s are fitted with cutting-edge systems to keep their skies safe.”

LINK:
Airport World story

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