THE FIRST TIME ONLY HAPPENS ONCE | Darrin Henry
On 15 December, 2015, Amanda Leo (46), Kira Stevens (33) and Jayne Thomas (22) wrote themselves into St Helena’s history books as the very first Saints to fly out from and in to St Helena Airport, having been invited at the last minute to join a calibration flight.
Jumping Up and Down For Joy
In a bout of giggles they recall having to help push the small aircraft to begin with, presumably to move it to a suitable ‘engine starting’ position, although neither can tell us for sure what the purpose was.
Both Amanda (or Mandy as she is known) and Kira had flown previously, having worked on the Falkland Islands, but Jayne had never even left St Helena before.
The opportunity to join the calibration flight came as a surprise: “We were all excited, jumping up and down for joy,” laughed Kira, recalling the moment.
The trio are all local employees of Basil Read, the South African contractors who built the airport, working at the Longwood headquarters – Jayne as a wages clerk, Mandy as a tea lady/cleaner and Kira the receptionist.
The Adrenaline of Making History
On that historic Tuesday morning they had gone along to the airport on Prosperous Bay Plain for a site visit, to view the progress of the nearly complete terminal building. The Beechcraft King Air 200, twin prop had been the very first aircraft to land at St Helena Airport, three months earlier. The plane was back for five days carrying out a second round of calibration test flights. The girls had no idea what was about to happen.
“We said ‘yes’ right away,” remembers Jayne, “not nervous, we were more overwhelmed. I think we had so much adrenaline; a one track mind.”
There was no time to tell anyone or even to find a camera. Even as they took their seats, all three said they knew right away the significance of their adventure. “We kept saying, ‘we are actually making history,’” said Jayne.
Mandy remembers saying, “We are the first.”
Take-off “was very smooth, very comfortable.” Jayne recalls being very quiet. “I think I was taking it in, like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ you know.”
Kira was also emotional, telling us, “I was almost time to cry for excitement! Because we were all excited.”
The pilots treated the girls to a low level circle around the island.
Jayne explained what it was like. “We went ‘round the island twice and I think it was on the third time they flew about 100m off the sea level, all the way ‘round. It was amazing.
“Like you could just put your hand out and let it glide through the water. It was just amazing.”
Was There Wind Shear On Landing?
Seeing the island from the air is still, quite a rare experience, for anyone. Mandy and Kira remember being taken by the views of Sandy Bay, while looking down on Jamestown was special for Jayne.
After two hours flight time, doing tests further out to sea, the plane returned to make a smooth landing, no sign of the dreaded wind shear!
“When we touched down, we didn’t even know we were on the ground, honestly,” said Kira. “It was that smooth.”
So did they celebrate after their historic flight?
“No, we had to go home and cook,” laughed Mandy.
Kira’s mum asked her why was she late, thinking maybe the bus had broken down! When she asked where her daughter had been, Kira replied, “up in the air!”
Interestingly both Kira and Mandy were against an airport on St Helena before they started working for Basil Read. Faster medi-vac times have made them change their mind. “I’m really pleased with it now,” said Mandy.
Jayne told us she had voted for the airport. “At first when it [construction] happened I had my doubts, like you wonder whether it will finish on time, will it actually pay off for the island? But, I think by working here, and as the years went on, I am definitely convinced that it will make a huge difference.”
“…something I will never forget.”
Since the ladies flight in December 2015 the island’s airport has achieved international certification but is still not operational due to problems identified with wind shear when landing. The experts seem confident a solution will be found and soon air travel will become normal, but for now the runway is empty and the island continues to wait.
One day Saints will be flying in and out of St Helena and it will be normal, but the first time only happens once. Unlike records of speed, endurance and strength which come and go, the ‘first time’ achievement is an etching that lasts forever.
Jayne certainly picked the moment for her first flight: “It was a personal milestone for me; the experience was so great it will be something I will never forget.”
Joa da Nova discovered the island in 1502. Capt Grant Brighton piloted the first airplane to land on St Helena in 2015. And now three Saint ladies have guaranteed their historical place; Jayne Thomas, Kira Stevens and Amanda Leo, the first Saints ever to fly in and out of St Helena Airport.