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 Airlines’ 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 Airlines 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 Airlines’ 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.
The Atlantic Star Airlines Story
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 Airlines 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 Airlines 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.
All exciting stuff what !!!! always new St Helena would fly. (pun intended)
It’s got the “right stuff”
Definitely excitment beginning to build again now, Arthur. Looking like 2017 is going to be the year 🙂 Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Cheers 🙂
I wasn’t surprised to hear of the Faroe Islands pilots. Their airport is remarkably similar to SH. build by churchill’s soldiers in the 1940’s, extended recently with a new arrivals hall, and atlantic airways flying a319’s. I wonder if a319’s could withstand the turbulence and land on SH… all in all, things are happening, a solution in sight and tourists on their way.
Hi Darrin and Sharron. Awesome and encouraging report. I hope I can someday show my husband your beautiful island, but the ship is too long a trip for him (although I LOVED it, completely and thoroughly). This sounds very hopeful.
Hey Susan, it’s looking better and better for flights in 2017 – fingers crossed (as we’ve been saying for months now). Your husband might be touring the island quite soon the way it’s going 🙂 Thanks for the comment.
I’d love to visit St. Helena as soon as the airport is in service, wondering if I could be invited for the inaugural flight to St. Helena to be part of the historical moments, and by the way, which airport will the flight depart from to St. Helena? Cape Town? London?
We’re all waiting for that inaugural (scheduled passenger) flight to take place, Ben. The link was originally going to be Johannesburg, South Africa but not sure whether that will change now – very little information available to go on at the moment. Fingers crossed for good news sooner… Thanks for the comment 🙂
Please do inform me when the first commercial flight takes place, I really want to be part of the inauguration flight, if not at lease on the first 5 flights to St. Helena, I’m really on standby mode to flight to this beautiful island!
What a nice article about the flight to St Helena Airport.
The pilots on the BAE RJ100 aircraft landing on your Island are normally working for Atlanic Airways (FLI/RC) out of the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean. Both of them have thousands of flying hours on that aircraft type.
The runway on the Faroes was only 1.250 meters when the the aircraft type was starting flying from the Faroe Islands back on 28MAR88, some 28-29 years ago.
In 2011 the runway was lenghten to 1.799 meters and we changed over to Airbus319, which fits very well to our demand. Our Aircraft has the strongest engines available for the Airbus 319 and can go as far as from the Faroe Island to Gran Canaria fully loaded with 144 passengers – the distance is some 2.160 NM or 4.000 kilometers.
The Faroes, like your Island, are sometime tricky with cross wind and wind shear. Some time it is more bumpy than other times, but we all feel completely safe, even in estreme turbulance, as we know that the pilots are very well trained and know the challanges inside out. Obviously some days per year, it is not possible to fly to the Faroes due to extreme storms and tricky winds from southerly direction.
We are the only operator in Europe wich are approved to use the Satelite navigation system RNP AR01, which has been very helpful for us and the days of diversions are basically eliminated.
Atlantic Airways has its head quarter, including technical base, on the Faroe Islands.
This is of importance for us islanders, far away from the rest of Europe, as this is “our” airline and the safe bet, if demand for evacuation flights are needed – often during night hours to Copenhagen some two hours away.
It shall be interesting to follow the development at your destination and we will be more than helpful if you should have any operational questions which we might be able to help with.
Network and Charter Manager
As part of the Atlantic Star team I was of course disappointed not to be there myself on this momentous occasion. Nonetheless I was very proud of what we achieved, and the demonstration of our ongoing commitment to providing an air access solution. Credit must go to the pilots as well as the aircraft owners, Tronos. The RJ100 by all accounts performed superbly and is very well suited to this challenging environment.
I’d particulary like to thank the Saints for their magnificent support; Richard and Aiden were overwhelmed by the amazing response on the island.
And thanks to you too Darrin and Sharon for such a professional and positive piece. AStar are ready to take the next steps to bringing a dependable air service to the delightful island and wonderful people of Saint Helena.
Andy Radford, Director AStar.
You can still say you were first though, Andrew! We remember well your visit from 2013.
For Atlantic Star to stay so committed to this venture after all this time and actually bring an aircraft here to demonstrate capability is simply amazing. Still can’t get over how smoothly the Avro landed with the tail wind.
Thanks for the kind comment, much appreciated. Very best of luck for bringing that dependable air service to St Helena, you have a lot of people here and abroad rooting for you. Cheers 🙂
Darrin and Sharon your work always make me feel amazingly proud, Thanks to Atlantic Star for demonstrating and explaining to everyone how doable air travel can be done even if only with a smaller aircraft.
Thanks Borbs, kind comment. The Consulate q&a open to the public was a great idea, gave everyone a chance to interact first hand 🙂
Presumably it was the airport operator, not SHG, that refused an airside pass for you since it is the airside operator who is certificated by ASSI and who is ultimately responsible for safety and security at the airport. Were any other members of the Press on St. Helena allowed airside? If not, I suspect that’s your answer.
You would think, but no, I checked (multiple) and was surprised to learn this was an SHG call. As journalists, albeit photo-journalists, we are always trying to gain access to the ‘story’ wherever that may be and perhaps 40% of the time the answer is no. We’re used to that. Why I was surprised, was to learn SHG had not contributed to this visit and first (visible) solution option yet prevented a private initiative to help publicise this aspect of the visit, especially when AStar had already said yes. From our point of view, just seeing the inside of the aircraft would have been another positive visual for Saints, which can’t be underestimated.
Thanks for the comment Robert, nice to see you on here. Always appreciate your considered input on our FB page as well. Cheers 🙂
SHG could not endorse the visit since they couldn’t be seen to be ‘sponsoring’ or backing the ferry flight under the Open Skies policy. They can facilitate by granting a operator permit, but not actively promote it. Also, it’s not A Star’s call who goes airside – if they said it was, they were wrong and shouldn’t have promised it. It’s not SHG’s call either and again whoever told you that was also wrong. It’s the airport certificate holder who has the final say – and that’s Basil Read; they may have said no but asked SHG to communicate it to you if you were in contact with them. Remember, it’s an operational airport now, so gone are the days that Basil Read could be flexible on this. After all, they’ve recently had an audit from ASSI so it wouldn’t have looked good to grant access to airside for the whole media (if they had said yes to you, they would have had to do the same for the rest of the media). Tough call but that’s the reality…
Hello to Darren and Sharon, what a great acticle you guy have done on this. I have met Richard and Aiden early this year and i knew from the meeting they held with the Saints here in the UK, how committed and determined they were to operate flights to St Helena. It also shows that its not always the big brand carriers like BA / Comiar are the right fit for a specialist type of carrier for an airport like what is on St Helena.
Lets hope this is the first step forward in the right direction so that we can start saying to others come and visit our Island and not have them say how because you got an airport but no plane’s can land there.
I’m sure this have given all the Saints around the world hope that one day they can book a flight to St Helena.
Having finally met them we totally know what you mean. These guys not only talk a good game but they deliver as well. Everyone we spoke to at the airport and at the Consulate were impressed with the Atlantic Star team. Thanks for the comment Jayjay, great to see you on here 🙂
Thank you guys once more for all wonderful pictures Felt really emotional Saee all pictures and video of landing. Can only imagine how you were feeling actually been there. The picture of plane in front of prosprous bay house is awesome . I so want it to hang on my wall brilliant photopraghy . Feeling positive about coming home by plane. . Thumbs up for Atlantic Star X
We got a better picture with Prosperous today as the sun was out when they departed 🙂 Sure we can sort out a print. Thanks for the comment – thumbs up for Atlantic Star from us as well 🙂
Hi Darrin and Sharon, Once again thank you for a very informative report. Well done Atlantic Star for not giving up on St Helena. We wish you all the best in your commitment in securing an air service to the island and for giving us “Saints” the hope that one day we will have a viable Airport which will benefit everyone.
Thanks Jean. It is amazing Atlantic Star’s resolve, keep coming up with solutions. Let’s hope that viable airport isn’t too far away now 🙂
I did not witness this touch down yesterday afternoon Darren but what a positive report! Well done to Atlantic Star! I can only guess how emotional some of our islanders felt at this touch down, onward and up!
You missed out Pat 🙂 The take-off today was pretty cool as well, much better weather in terms of sunshine for photos. Thanks for the comment.
Delighted to hear of positive news regarding the St Helena Airport. Apart from the RJ100, could the Airbus A318 also be a possibility? Like the RJ100, it is cleared for steep descents to London City Airport. Perhaps the RJ100 (though it is no longer in production) could start a service and the A318 (also no longer in production, but BA is cutting down on its New York-London City flights) could be introduced.
I would love to come to St Helena (and the Falklands!) if I could afford it!
Thanks for the comment Ken. There’s clearly good aviation solutions out there when the right people are involved. Don’t know much about the Airbus options but excited to have a solution soon hopefully. We too hope it’s affordable 🙂
What an uplifting article and interesting to hear the comments from the Faroese pilots. They now fly the A319 into Faroe so they may well be able to offer advice. Us islanders have to stick together 🙂
Absolutely. Listening to the guys compare our islands was amazing. So much we can learn from each other. Will be looking out Faroe Islands in Island Games next year 🙂 Thanks for the comment Robert.
Hi Darren and Sharon fantastic reporting on the Atlantic Star Flight, I hope that door you referred to in your article will open to Atlantic Star and that HMG will do all it can to have Ascension Airfield open to landings from Atlantic Star on a permanent basis, the Americans will benefit from this as much as we will and its is call join up thinking if we can get officials to understand and see this. We can get a service up and running and safely quicker far more quicker than have been done so far. It really beggars belief as to how our people have been treated over last six months about the lack of information and it have really shown how incompetent those in White Hall have been in trying to micromanage from there. Look what they have done to our tourism industry by the lack of action on extending the RMS when this crisis first broke. As I said in my motion in Council, they really though this issue was a quick fix and even when all the evidence was otherwise they did not change the message. Senior officials in SHG should take some responsibility for this too, as they did not change the message but continued in same vane. There is a great deal to learn about this issue and I hope those who have been involved will do so and one day reflect on the damage they have caused our fledging tourist industry and still doing and importantly take responsibility for it. We now need to work together to keep this positivity from the Atlantic Star Landing and we look to HMG to help us to this not dictate to us as have been done over last 6 months.
All the very best to Atlantic Star. Lawson Henry Member of St Helena Legislative/Executive Council
Thanks Lawson and well said. Atlantic Star showed anything is possible with a will to get it done. Was inspiring just to be around such positive energy from these guys. Cheers
“beggars belief”…couldn’t possibly have been any more well put! I have been studying your airport
situation since…well, you know when, from Oakland Ca. USA. Great story. You Saints seem to be
a beautiful people. Keep your chins up, surely pragmatism will prevail some day.
Thanks for the comment D.Crockett. Surely pragmatism will prevail – your would think, eh. Let’s hope so anyway.
Great and very revealing article Darrin.
Cheers Paul 🙂