AIR TRAVEL IS AT ST HELENA’S DOOR | Darrin Henry
Islanders on St Helena starved of information for more than six months concerning the fate of air access, saw despair brushed aside by the heroic, entrepreneurial spirit of Atlantic Star’s commercial airline ambition, when they coolly landed an AVRO RJ100 jet plane at the island’s much maligned airport.
Flying A Big Jet Into St Helena
The four-engine, British made aircraft designed for short take-off and landing operations completed the 700 mile, two hour flight from Ascension Island, landing first time on runway 02, the southern approach with a tail wind of approx 6 knots. The flight is actually being operated by Tronos Aviation Leasing. From the perspective of an untrained eye the landing looked as smooth as you could wish for, confirmed later by Atlantic Star Director, Richard Brown.
“It was pretty straight forward actually. We got visual of the island about 10-15 miles out. …then we had the opportunity to remain over the sea and we could just fly straight round onto the final for runway 02 and it was fine. Nothing much really to say about it.”
Fifteen minutes later, having disembarked most of the 13 non-commercial passengers, the aircraft taxied back out onto the runway, took off, circled round and this time landed from the opposite end, on runway 20, the northern approach which has been plagued by wind shear. In cross winds of approx 18 knots this was also completed without a problem.
“…we were completely on the published profile for the runway and it was fine.”
One witness became quite emotional as we looked on. I completely understood. The gloom that had descended around us over the last six months was suddenly lifted; the dream was on again it seemed.
The Wind Shear Factor
A little over a year ago, islanders had finally dared to believe that air travel was possible when the first ever airplane landed at the brand new St Helena airport; a small, twin prop, Beechcraft King Air 200.
Video of Atlantic Star Avro RJ100 landing on St Helena.
Six months later, barely a month before the official grand opening, a commercial aircraft test flight by a Comair operated British Airways 737-800, dramatically wobbled and bobbled on final approach before aborting the landing just a few feet from the runway. A second attempt was successful; however, the phenomenon of wind shear had raised its ugly head in front of an audience that reached around the world via YouTube.
Everything was put on hold as problem solving began. But islanders who had been urged for years to start businesses and prepare for the age of air travel and an influx of tourists have been left in the dark as to the progress of this problem solving. Wind data was being collected and analysed – that’s been it, just about.
Of course there have been plenty of rumours.
Any suggestion the airport is not open is quickly quashed by the St Helena Government who insist it is indeed, open. However, when Saints and friends of St Helena voted, campaigned and even marched in London for air access, none of us envisioned an “open” airport to be one that none of us could afford to use.
So poor has been the flow of information that during a formal sitting of Legislative Council in July, Councillor, Lawson Henry, delivered a stinging criticism of the government’s failure to communicate honestly with elected members and thus the public. “The morale on the island could not be any worse,” said Mr Henry, in reference to the effects of poor information sharing.
Such has been the ongoing ramifications of wind shear.
But today, 21 October, 2016, hope is alive again following the successful arrival of Atlantic Star and the Avro RJ100 jet.
Who Is Atlantic Star
In 2005 when Captain, Richard Brown, a British Airways pilot, heard about St Helena’s airport ambitions he was intrigued and spread a map on his kitchen table to learn more. The Atlantic Star adventure had begun.
Recruiting like-minded aviation and travel enthusiasts, a team was formed and the idea developed further.
In 2013, Director, Andrew Radford visited St Helena spreading a positive message about the company’s ambitions.
Atlantic Star went on to submit a bid to operate the scheduled air service from the island to Johannesburg but were unsuccessful, losing out to South African airline and British Airways’ franchisee, Comair.
Disappointed but still determined, Atlantic Star pushed on, partnering with TUIfly Airlines to ‘borrow’ a Boeing 737-800 and announcing a set of charter flights to St Helena, direct from UK, with a technical stop (refuelling) along the way. This direct option appealed to many Saints and a lot of bookings were made.
When the Comair, 737-800 test flight in April 2016 encountered severe wind shear, everyone’s plans were dashed, including Atlantic Star’s.
But they didn’t give up. Through contacts and business links, Atlantic Star seized on an opportunity to piggy-back on an Avro RJ100’s delivery flight from Europe to Chile and divert from the route for two days to come to St Helena.
Against all the odds this relentless team have boldly seized the initiative; they’re replaced six months of despondency with hope by parking a large white and red Avro RJ100 outside the airport terminal – twice!
The AVRO RJ100 Landing On St Helena
Two very experienced captains from Atlantic Airways (yes, a similar name) based in the Faroe Islands were at the controls today: Captain, Hjalgrim Magnussen and in the role of first officer for this flight, Hans Christian Petersen. Both are natives of the Faroe Islands giving them a real empathy for St Helena’s isolation.
Captain Magnussen told me although they did notice wind shear today it wasn’t much, it would need to be “more windy conditions” to compare to what they experience back home.
“If you have an airline that is set up for ‘normal’ conditions then they will have criteria that they will have to adhere to which will make the operation into a special place like St Helena a problem for them,” said Captain Magnussen.
He went on to explain that, like the Faroe Islands, St Helena’s airport requires specialist pilots used to flying in windy conditions. “They will be more adaptable, and it would be easier for them to get an operation up and running into a place like St Helena.”
I asked: Would you be confident that, with that type of plane it is possible to provide a good air service.
I also asked Richard Brown about the stopping distance of the Avro RJ100, as it travelled the length of the runway before turning around, albeit at a continually slowing pace.
“I think the rule breaking distance we calculated was 780 metres, against 1550.”
He compared their stop to how we stop a car at a junction, gradually rather than hammering the brakes.
“We feathered the brakes. We could have stopped much quicker than we did, but why would you heat the brakes up that way? So the raw distance was 780 metres, it would be more than that with 50 passengers on board. But bear in mind the aircraft weighs about 20 tons empty.”
Richard ran through a few rough calculations demonstrating the tolerances were very good.
“That’s why this aircraft is great for this. It’s small, it’s rugged, it’s got great braking. It’s got everything you need for this mission.”
What Happens Next?
This particular Avro aircraft is actually being delivered to a buyer in Chile, South America. The owner, Adrian Noskwith, was enthused by the idea of the St Helena project and has supported this little excursion.
At a public meeting at the Consulate Hotel tonight, the visiting team were greeted with applause from a large crowd who came to hear them speak and answer questions.
Although the flight was able to come via Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island, permission was a one-off affair; despite being a British island, the runway is an American military facility and not open to scheduled commercial operations.
Atlantic Star reported an enthusiastic welcome and superb assistance from everyone on Ascension, including from the Americans. However, if our neighbouring island is to become a hub as part of St Helena’s air access solution, a more permanent agreement needs to be reached soon.
In terms of a service schedule, Atlantic Star’s initial proposal is to establish a twice weekly shuttle flight to Ascension Island, carrying approximately 50 of the Avro’s 100 passenger capacity. This reduced number allows good safe margins landing at St Helena in tail winds up to 15 knots. The idea is for connections to be made with the RAF passenger flights to the UK.
This is just a starting point; there would be plenty of scope to then develop the service with more frequent flights and also acquiring a second, modified aircraft for longer range links to both Cape Town and Johannesburg. Increased flights mean more efficient use of the aircraft.
The aircraft would be based on St Helena and therefore available as a 24/7 medevac option if required.
If the go-ahead was given today, Atlantic Star says they could be operational by the (northern hemisphere) spring.
I asked about fares, but the team were reluctant to give a figure at this moment, except to say prices will match market expectations. A multitude of factors make it impossible to nail down a figure this far out.
There is a clear buzz of excitement with people for the first time since that ‘wind shear day’ in April. The demonstration of commitment from Atlantic Star to provide an air service to St Helena has been extremely impressive.
Who Is Paying For The Atlantic Star Flight?
Last week, via email, Atlantic Star had agreed to my request to photograph the interior of the aircraft for our blog. I was excited. But with a couple of days to go, SHG stepped in to put a stop to this on the grounds of security. They had decided, however, they would go on board to take pictures themselves for distribution to the press.
This exertion of control led me to assume SHG had financed the flight. Reporter’s due diligence and all, I asked Richard Brown how much SHG had contributed to the visit.
“Nothing, not a penny,” was the surprising reply. “Not a single penny. We’ve paid full price for the fuel. We haven’t had to pay immigration fees because we’re all crew. But no, it’s completely unsupported… most of it is Adrian. This is us doing it off our own back.”
When Does Air Travel Start For St Helena?
So, the St Helena Airport has reached another juncture in its short but eventful life. There is renewed hope. Seeing really is believing and today the whole island saw possibilities again.
St Helena has been treated to the visit of proactive, aviation enthusiasts, infectious with their belief. These guys have laid their cards on the table – put their money where their mouth is.
It would be really helpful to know if there are any other comparable solutions being considered.
Richard Brown and his Atlantic Star dream have been knocking on St Helena’s door for 11 years now. Is anyone else knocking? Is anyone going to open the door?
I hope it’s not too long before we learn the answers.