16 Saints Flying From St Helena Airport | Darrin Henry
At 10 minutes, it was probably the shortest flight most of us on board will ever take yet it’s likely to also be the most special; to be on an aeroplane flying out from St Helena and then landing back on the island for the first time has been an amazing, ‘can’t-believe-I-just-did-that’ experience.
As 73 year old Ivy Yon from Longwood, who had never even been on an aeroplane before, let alone flown, told me, “it has changed my life completely.”
At the other end of the age spectrum, 17 year old Prince Andrew School student, Andrea Midwinter, can still remember discussing the airport during Pilling Primary School lessons and therefore “to be here today it has completely blown my mind.”
Before I go any further, raising hopes that scheduled flights to St Helena have started, let’s explain what’s going on.
Today’s flight, two in fact, were kindly laid on by Basil Read, at the request of the island’s Governor, Lisa Phillips, who had ‘suggested’ the idea a few months earlier. Basil Read are the South African contractors who built St Helena Airport; they have been flying an ExecuJet, Bombardier Challenger 300 in from South Africa on a monthly basis for personnel involved in final airport related works.
Governor Phillips had suggested the idea of a flight around the island for local people while the aircraft was not in use for a few days. The green light was given just yesterday, so invitations by telephone were quickly arranged. The lucky 16 were selected by the governor for different reasons, including the roles people play in the community. The Challenger 300 could only take eight passengers. Unfortunately for WTSDN only one of us could go, but Sharon was excited for me. That’s what she told me!
Earlier, the day had dawned bright and clear with little wind! Perfect. We assembled at the airport at 10am. A security brief before going through to departures; there was to be no photography from the security scanner area, right through until we were on board the plane.
No pictures on the apron. Man!
I so wanted to shoot the aircraft up close but I understood; having eight people fumbling about with cameras and the risk of something falling out, across the pad was probably not a good idea. After my little ‘encounter’ last month I was just happy to be going airside and determined not to get in trouble!
I had never been on a business jet before, but even that novelty was completely lost on me – I was about to fly from St Helena Airport, a much bigger deal. Whoa!
I had woken at 5am with butterflies this morning, unable to sleep with the anticipation of what was to come. Less than 24 hours earlier I wasn’t even sure if I would fly from St Helena this year, now here I was, buckling myself into this luxurious leather seat, very different to the ‘economy’ I’m used to.
One of the pilots came back to safety brief us and because I was seated closest, showed me how to open the emergency door if that need were to arise. It was going to need some real muscle as it weighed 21kg. For a split second I found myself working out what 21kg feels like, before realising, ‘what the… let’s not get fixated on the emergency door, Darrin!’
A quick taxi to the edge of the cliff – not many people get so say that – a ‘U’ turn and then we took off. We flew anti-clockwise, once around the coast of the island, landing from the southern end, ‘runway 02,’ the one with a tailwind. Ten minutes.
Rather than ramble on, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves now, along with the thoughts of some of the others that flew today who I spoke to afterwards.
Clare, former Deputy Airport Project Director, worked as part of the St Helena Access team for 11 years until September 2016.
“I know it’s been a while that the airport has been operating but for me it was [that moment], it’s actually here and I’m on a plane and taking off from the airport that I’ve worked on for so long.
“The experience was absolutely brilliant, I can’t believe it. Everything just looked so good.”
“It was a lot smoother than I [expected]. It was slightly bumpy at some stages but nothing compared to what I thought it was going to be. Nowhere near to what I thought it was going to be. It was really smooth basically.”
Did any particular memory of your time in the Access Office come to mind during the flight?
“For me it would have to be Sharon [Wainwright]. Sharon did all the hard work before anything even started here and that’s who I was thinking of. I just wished that she could be there as well. But then everyone else in the Access Office as well, they’ve all worked really, really hard over the last five years so, I think everybody deserves a good pat on the back.”
How do you feel right now?
“I just can’t stop smiling.”
Jodie (18) is a presenter at local radio station, Saint FM.
“I think that was absolutely amazing. I was a bit scared at first because I’m still nervous of flying, myself. But after getting up there that was just absolutely amazing, just seeing the island, you know, from up in the air, because you can drive out here but you can’t see it [like that], I think it’s absolutely amazing.
First memories about the airport?
“I can remember coming out here with the school when they had the test flight (2006), they had the tyres and stuff [burning to show alignment], that’s the first thing I recall from before they started the whole project.”
After the last year of ups and downs, did you think today would come?
“Honestly, I think people make it sound worse than what it really is, you know, it’s not that bad.”
Take-off moment, what was that like for you?
“The take-off I felt like my head was going to explode (laughing), and then going up, just getting higher and higher I was thinking, ‘oh my God I’m going to die’ because I’m also very scared of heights, but you know, after we levelled out and went around the island I started to calm down and I enjoyed the whole trip.
“The landing, I was thinking, ‘oh my God, I hope we don’t go over the cliff,’ but no, the landing was very smooth I think. Yes, very smooth touch-down as if you were in an airport elsewhere in the world.
“I think the whole island [was the best part], just seeing it from up in the air is just amazing to me.”
Ivy Yon, MBE
Ivy (73) currently works at Longwood House as a tour guide. Last week it was announced Ivy had been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list for 2017, recognising her many contributions to the St Helena community during her life.
“Yes, it was my first time [to fly] and it was beautiful.
“I was a bit apprehensive but after it started and I was looking at the view, it was so calm I can’t explain. It was too overwhelming to be up in the air and the plane was so comfortable.”
What was going through your mind at take-off?
“Is it really me (laughs), you know, on the plane, but it has made up our mind now, my mind, that when flights start we are not stopping. Before today I wasn’t so sure.”
What were you feelings about an airport on St Helena before today?
“Oh no, I could never fly. Oh, but it was an experience, I can hardly explain it.
What would you say to people who are still sceptical about air travel for St Helena?
“Oh please try it, give it a try. Yes.”
“Yes, [it’s the highlight] the beginning of the new year, it has changed my life completely. With the MBE and in the aeroplane, what else could I ask for!”
Heather was celebrating her 59th birthday today
“It was very nice. I’ve flown before. It wasn’t bumpy like some places we’ve been, it was good.”
Andrea (17) is a student at Prince Andrew School.
“I enjoyed the whole experience, seeing the island from a different perspective, getting to be in an airport again and just seeing how it runs.
“I was a bit surprised when the landing gear came down. I was like, oh, we’re back already.”
How was the landing?
“For me I was a bit scared, because I’ve always been scared of heights and things but other than that it was very good fun to do.
“I have flown before, yes, but that was 11 years ago. So it was like a new experience again.
“My first memories of the airport project: I remember back in Pilling [Primary] School when we did our little voting thing for which option we wanted. Then hearing about it actually being built was probably a good four, five years ago now. Then coming out and gradually seeing the progress it was quite unbelievable that it was actually happening, but to be here today it has completely blown my mind.”
Barbara was also celebrating a birthday last week.
“First time on an executive jet, verrrry comfortable!
“Hardly noticed going up and hardly noticed coming down. It was absolutely wonderful, that was a fabulous experience. Took loads of pictures, not just of what I saw outside the window, but also the expressions of some people inside.
“Best part? I think the whole experience, but being able to see St Helena from [above] places you can’t normally see, and looking down, thoroughly enjoyed it, best birthday present governor.”
Sasha (22) recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Ecology & Conservation Management, from Portsmouth University and now works at the St Helena National Trust.
“It was just like a really good visual experience because it was so interesting to see the island from above, whereas when you drive on it, it is completely different. The cliffs were really nice and I managed to get a picture of the whole island in one snap! I was really pleased with that.
“And we flew over the RMS when it was departing so we got some good shots of that as well.”
“[Taking off] you didn’t even feel it, I was looking for a bit of a rough take-off but it was so smooth. Then when we were landing we came round the corner and we heard the landing gear go down and we were like, oh no, there’s still more island, and then all of a sudden we were on the ground and we didn’t even notice landing.
“It was so smooth. I am a nervous flyer but I was actually really relaxed on that one. It was really good.
So are you looking forward to air travel proper?
“Yes, definitely. That’s a big, big yes to that!”
Simon (33) is a cameraman and TV producer at local media organisation, SAMS.
“The only word to describe it was ‘amazing’ really, and to be one of the first people to take-off from the island, quite a privilege.
“Once you get up and you see something that you haven’t seen before, you know what I mean? St Helena from the sky is a view that only an elite group have seen, so it was pretty amazing.
“Just the scenery really [stands out]. Seeing it from a different angle it sort of blows your mind.”
“[My first memories of the airport project] probably when I was living on the Falklands. I know there was some sort of vote or referendum going around where you had to vote in favour of the airport. That’s my first recollection of it and then always knowing, I think it was early 2000s, that we were due to have an airport. To finally have something here, it’s a good thing.
“My emotions have been pretty up and down [over the last year], like the airport. You hear stuff in the international press and it just makes you angry because they’re not getting the story right. But you know, it will all work out good in the end, we’ve just got to hope for the best.”
Mia left the merchant navy after 17 years, working on board the RMS St Helena. She served as second-mate in her final nine years in the job. She is currently a Health & Safety Officer with Solomon & Company on St Helena.
“It was simply brilliant. Amazing! I still can’t come to terms with what happened today just yet.
“My overwhelming feeling is that I feel so grateful and privileged to have had the opportunity.
“When I got the call yesterday I just excited. By the time I got home from work yesterday afternoon a little nervousness began to set in, I started thinking this might not be such a good idea.
“But you know, it was such a good opportunity that the excitement out-weighed any apprehension.
“By the time I was walking out to the plane today I was just so pleased; there were no thoughts of wind shear at all.”
“During take-off everything felt normal, I thought ‘everything’s going well here.’ But I was also thinking I can’t believe I’m sitting here.
“The flight itself I would describe as surreal. Peaceful is a word I would use.
“One thing that struck me, being able to see the whole island in one go from the air your realise it really is just a rock.
“For me it was really nice to see the coastline from the air and comparing that view to what I know so well from the sea which I’m passionate about.
“Did anything surprise me? Not surprised, but it was just marvellous looking down on Speery Island, Egg Island, the little islands in Sandy Bay, as I know them so well from a boat or from the bridge of the RMS so this was a completely different perspective.
“It was something to know the island is not as green as you see from the ship. It was also a bonus seeing the RMS in the harbour.
“The airport really does have a big impact on my life. When the airport was coming the RMS had to go so I was finishing that career. I had invested in a boat, the ‘Pink Lady’ to run a small tours business, so I want to look at that again now to see if that will work.
“Thank you to the governor for making it possible and inviting me. I will never forget the experience.”
Tessa works as one of the team at the St Helena Access Office.
“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to join today’s scenic flight. I have seen photos taken from the air and seen models of the airport site; however to have a first-hand bird’s eye view of this was spectacular – I was filled with excitement throughout!
Ivy was a member of the early Access/Planning committee back in 2002, right through to her retirement in 2009. She also led the fund raising and organising to restore a steeple on St James Church, a task completed in 2016.
“It was awesome, it really was, a lovely surprise. I’m really excited about it.
“When we took off and I saw the island from the air I was speechless, that’s how it was, I was speechless. It was just wonderful.
“All these years we’ve waited and now it’s happening. The island looked so beautiful from the air.”
“Best part? When we flew past Jamestown, it was quite quick really but I saw up the valley and the church [St James] and steeple. This was something I had wanted to see from the air.
“I’m ever so grateful to be given the privilege to do this.
“I felt quite emotional to begin with – my thoughts went back to being on the Access Committee with Sharon Wainwright and wondered how she would have felt today. I felt extremely proud and honoured to have an input into the project, to have been part of that process. There were long hours trying to get it right, endless meetings and at the time it all seemed a long way away; we wondered will it ever come off.
“So today was a dream come true. I’ve always been very pro-airport. I’ve always felt that whatever prosperity comes to the island needs to be shared prosperity for all.
“I had no worries at all during the flight – there was no time! I was so fascinated by the island, the hills and the greenery. From the air you can see why St Helena has been described as an emerald set in bronze.”
What’s Going On With St Helena Airport?
And to finish – a little reminder of the situation with the St Helena Airport at the start of 2017.
Commercial flights to St Helena are still delayed. The identification of wind shear during a commercial airliner flight test, a British Airways, Boeing 737-800 in April 2016, delayed scheduled flights from the new airport while the problem was investigated. In the meantime small aircraft such as business jets have been able to land from the opposite end of the runway, with a tail wind, thus avoiding the problematic wind shear end.
Subsequent successful test flights of two larger passenger jets at the end of 2016 have raised hopes that a solution might soon be found – an Atlantic Star Airlines, Avro RJ100 in October and a Brazilian Embraer E190 in November.
In December 2016 the St Helena Government invited tenders from aviation organisations interested in providing a scheduled air service. The tender is due to be awarded at the end of May 2017. It is hoped an air service will begin soon after this date.
The island’s ship, the RMS St Helena, which was to be decommissioned in 2016 has been remained in service to ensure access to/from the island until the air service begins.