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First Airplane Ever Lands On St Helena Island

One second before touch down, first flight to St Helena landing.

One second before touch down, first flight to St Helena landing.

le françaisHISTORIC FIRST FLIGHT | Darrin Henry

With the delicacy of a gentle kiss the tiny twin prop plane touched down on St Helena’s brand new airport today, yet the impact of this event will ripple into the next 500 years of the island’s history, just as Joao da Nova Castella’s landing by ship did half a millennia ago.

Ok, I’m being a bit flowery, but it’s been an incredible day, more than 10 years in the making since the airport was announced and I can’t help myself. This may not sound a big deal to some readers but in St Helenian terms it’s akin to landing on the moon!

History made.

History made. A Beechcraft King Air 200 landing after four and half hour flight from Angola, Africa.

By my camera’s time stamp, touchdown was exactly 13:44:25. Tuesday 15 September, 2015.

Pilot For First Flight To St Helena

Captain Grant Brighton was in command of the specially modified aircraft, having flown all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa, refuelling in Angola before crossing the Atlantic to reach us. It’s now here for a week to carry out airport calibration flights.

“It was amazing, we feel privileged to be part of your project,” Grant told us afterwards. “I’m happy to be here. Runway’s good, conditions are good, you have lovely facilities here; it’s wonderful.”

Hundreds of people turned up to watch the historic event.

Hundreds of people turned up to watch the historic event.

Tiffany Plato: "I had mixed emotions, excitement but a little sad thinking about the people who are not here to see this happen (they've passed away.) But finally our island is moving forward. Although we all love the RMS, the shorter time to leave the island will make it easier for people to go on holiday more often."

Tiffany Plato: “I had mixed emotions, excitement but a little sad thinking about the people who are not here to see this happen (they’ve passed away.) But finally our island is moving forward. Although we all love the RMS St Helena, the shorter time to leave the island will make it easier for people to go on holiday more often.”

Parking on the slope before Bradley's Garage.

Parking on the slope before Bradley’s Garage.

Pat Henry: "It's the moment of truth, certainly a historic for St Helena as we remember all our option A supporters who are no longer with us today their tick helped made it happen."

Pat Henry: “It’s the moment of truth, certainly historic for St Helena as we remember all our option A supporters who are no longer with us today. Their tick helped make it happen.”

Seeing St Helena For The First Time

I was one of the few fortunate photographers stationed around the landing strip and lucky enough to capture the historic moment from a great vantage point.

A small group of officials and island dignitaries were assembled on the hill to my right, overlooking the terminal building. Over my left shoulder, back up at Bradley’s Garage and the Millennium Forest, nearly a mile away perhaps, hundreds of people had gathered to watch, including Sharon. More were sporadically lined along the ridge out to Horse Point. Even the pilots noticed.

First Officer on the plane, Dillan Van Niekerk, said afterwards, “The key part for me was seeing the island; seeing everyone on the mountain watching us.”

Youngsters watching the moment the plane touched down from afar.

Youngsters watching the moment the plane touched down from afar.

The second fly-by before landing.

The second fly-by before landing.

Wrapping up well against the chilly September breeze.

Wrapping up well against the chilly September breeze.

We all wanted to witness it; the moment that many, many (many) people thought would never come; the day the first aeroplane landed on St Helena.

At Bradley’s, people of all ages were there, from babies right up to the island’s oldest resident, Ma Flo, at 101 years old. Winter weather (island winter) meant a fleece jacket and beanie dress code and flasks of tea were preferred over something stronger – for most!

St Helena Plo and Tomato Paste Sandwiches

Some families made a day of it. Tommy and Milly Benjamin from Rupert’s Valley were the first to secure a prime spot at 10:30am, along with their son Colin and grandson Lucas. Milly had cooked plo and made tomato paste sandwiches, two St Helena favourites.

L-R, Millie, Tommy, Colin & Lucas. Colin: "Everybody is excited and it's an interesting day for us because we live in Rupert's Valley, we've seen every piece of plant that has been shipped here for the project. We've got plo in the back, tomato paste sandwiches, tea, coffee, you name it we've got it! We probably have enough food to feed the crew! It's a very special occasion. We're already talking about a trip out of here. We'll have a stepping stone on the plane now to anywhere in the world."

L-R, Milly, Tommy, Colin & Lucas.
Colin: “Everybody is excited and it’s an interesting day for us because we live in Rupert’s Valley, we’ve seen every piece of plant that has been shipped here for the project. We’ve got plo in the back, tomato paste sandwiches, tea, coffee, you name it we’ve got it! We probably have enough food to feed the crew! It’s a very special occasion.
We’re already talking about a trip out of here. We’ll have a stepping stone on the plane now to anywhere in the world.”

Final approach for the landing.

Final approach for the landing.

Many people brought fold out chairs for a comfortable view.

Many people brought fold out chairs for a comfortable view.

A sight that is soon to become normal - a plane landing on St Helena.

A sight that is soon to become normal – a plane landing on St Helena.

How The First Plane Landed On St Helena

The plane, when it did arrive, treated us to two fly-bys before landing. Okay, it wasn’t just as a treat for us on the ground, they were checking for “wind shear” as planned. The first was a high speed pass; the second was slower and a bit lower. And then, the ‘historic’ moment.

First airplane landing on St Helena Island.

First airplane landing on St Helena Island.

On final approach I could see the aircraft moving around quite a bit; the wings dipped first one way, then the other as the pilot made adjustments to find the right alignment. From a long way out I was aware of a bright light on the front of the plane; closer in the undercarriage caught my eye, dangling down reaching for the ground. And then suddenly the plane was over the runway, gliding gently down. The left wheel and the nose wheel touched down first, then the right. The left wheel did the tiniest of bounces, rising up off the runway before settling, and then the plane was fully down. History made.

Lyn Buckley (right): "It feels that from this moment on life is going to change." Rodney Buckley (left): "A brilliant day. I've been waiting 40 years for this! If we stuck with just sea access St Helena would have never done well. Mark my words, now we have an airport, maybe in the next 20, 30, 40 years we'll have airplanes and ships." Lyn Buckley: "It's definitely a plus. On the ship it's always sad to see lots of medivacs. At least I'll know now they'll get the help they need a lot quicker."

L-R Rodney, Reid & Lyn. Lyn Buckley: “It feels that from this moment on life is going to change.”
Rodney Buckley: “A brilliant day. I’ve been waiting 40 years for this! If we stuck with just sea access St Helena would have never done well. Mark my words, now we have an airport, maybe in the next 20, 30, 40 years we’ll have airplanes and ships.”
Lyn Buckley: “It’s definitely a plus. On the ship it’s always sad to see lots of medivacs. At least I’ll know now they’ll get the help they need a lot quicker.”

The aircraft crew comprised Captain Grant Brighton, Co-pilot and First Officer Dillan Van Niekerk, Chief Flight Inspector Nick Whitehouse, FCSL Chief Pilot, Stuart Rawlinson, and Chief Aircraft Engineer, Jeffrey McKenzie.

The aircraft crew comprised Captain Grant Brighton, Co-pilot and First Officer, Dillan Van Niekerk, Chief Flight Inspector Nick Whitehouse, FCSL Chief Pilot, Stuart Rawlinson, and Chief Aircraft Engineer, Jeffrey McKenzie.

South African contractors, Basil Read, have built the airport on St Helena, led by their Island Director, Deon De Jager, who was there with his wife, Chrezelda, to welcome the flight.

South African contractors, Basil Read, have built the airport on St Helena, led by their Island Director, Deon De Jager, who was there with his wife, Chrezelda, to welcome the flight.

The St Helena Access Team (front) posing the with flight crew.

The St Helena Access Team (front) and newly appointed Airport Manager, Nigel Spackman, posing the with flight crew.

Like a lot of Saints, probably most, who have looked forward to this day for so long both Sharon and I were filled with mixed emotions. Sorrow for family and friends who dreamed with us of this day but sadly never lived to see it. But also happiness for the potential of positive change that now lies ahead, especially for the youngsters.

Commercial flights should begin early in 2016 and a 500 year culture of exclusive sea travel to St Helena will come to an end.

An End To Isolation For St Helena

We all have our thoughts on what this now means and how it affects us as residents of St Helena.

Christine Caswell was there to be part of history, together with her family. “Ever since I was in school we used to write essays about the island having an airport. Twenty years later it’s actually happened. Now it should be easier to get to places, faster and for shorter periods. For us now as a family we’ll be able to fly out of here in four hours rather than spending five days on the ship.”

Reigning Miss St Helena, Sinead Green, was part of the welcoming committee to greet the flight crew.

Reigning Miss St Helena, Sinead Green, was part of the welcoming committee to greet the flight crew.

The flight crew with Island Governor, Mark Capes (centre) and Basil Read Island Director, Deon De Jager.

The flight crew with Island Governor, Mark Capes (centre) and Basil Read Island Director, Deon De Jager.

We could go on forever discussing the possibilities that now lie ahead. It’s exciting, stimulating and perhaps just a little bit scary as well.

But what a day it’s been. Just over 500 years ago the island woke up with a ship anchored off Jamestown for the very first time. Tomorrow when the sun peeps up over Prosperous Bay Plain, there will be an aeroplane sitting on the island for the very first time. Incredible.

The new normal. Airplanes on St Helena.

The new normal. Airplanes on St Helena.

For more facts about the St Helena Airport, click here to view FAQs on the St Helena Access website.

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