Fri 31 July, 2020
A Boeing 757-200, the largest aircraft ever to land at St Helena Airport (HLE) is now in the air (at time of writing) over Africa somewhere, on its way back to Stanstead, London, in the UK after a successful repatriation flight to the island.
In these strangest of Covid times, with the island still blessedly virus-free and most residents generally very happy to remain isolated from the outside world, this repatriation charter flight still managed to generate a buzz of excitement and anticipation. Because of the size thing.
Size Matters | by Darrin Henry
I’ve heard quite a few people this past week express some, ‘hmmm’ reservations, not too sure about this one. A big plane on our little runway; how will it cope? And I must admit, I had also been a little ‘hmmm’ myself.
The Boeing 757-200 at 47.3m in length, was after all, much longer (by 11m) than our regular Embraer E190 at 36.24m.
But, as we’ve now seen for previous aircraft ‘firsts’ landing at St Helena, the pilots once again made it look easy. A first time landing yesterday, Thursday 30 July, 2020, then this morning a series of no-fuss training circuits, before embarking 94 passengers and heading back north.
It was the second flight direct from the UK, albeit, with a refuelling call at Gran Canaria Airport (LPA/GCLP) and an overnight stop at Ascension Island. And once again, it was Titan Airways, following up their mission to bring test kits in April, which was also a ‘first’ with regards plane type, the first time an Airbus jet had landed here.
The Age Of Quarantine
Arriving yesterday were 51 passengers who were all immediately taken to nearby Bradley’s quarantine camp, overlooking the airport. Of this number, 39 travelled all the way down from the UK and 12 boarded the plane at Ascension. Seven of the Ascension passengers were only transiting, and have now left for the UK. This leaves 44 people now serving a 14-day quarantine period at Bradley’s.
A different overnight quarantine site for the 10 Titan Airways’ crew members, who were all accommodated at the Mantis Hotel in Jamestown, which is currently mothballed for a few months because of the absence of incoming tourists.
Getting A Close-Up Shot
For Sharon and I, we’ve documented many of the major milestone aircraft visits at St Helena, but there was added excitement with this one. This time we would be ‘airside’ at the airport, far side of the runway, looking back into the island. Our cameras would get an amazing up-close vantage point.
A technical issue with the aircraft last week knocked the whole operation back 48 hours. On Wednesday the Boeing 757-200 departed Stanstead and social media was immediately full of updates from people tracking the progress to Gran Canaria and then Ascension, on Flight Radar.
Boeing 757-200 Lands on St Helena – check out our video
Technical Issues & Jam Tarts
Yesterday, Thursday 30th, ETA at St Helena was set for 1pm. We made our way to the airport only to learn the plane had turned back to Ascension after half an hour – another technical issue. Along with the airport staff, health and immigration officials, we waited patiently at the terminal waiting to see if the aircraft might still come. Ascension was only an hour and 40 mins or so flight away.
All the sandwiches and snack food that we usually bring for these trips, helped pass the time. Jam tarts and cinnamon buns which Sharon made especially, plus hot dogs and crisps. Coffee & tea provided by the airport was very welcome. We ate too much!
The local radio station, Saint FM, was being relayed on the airport PA system and we could hear the presenters were doing their best to keep the public up to date with news of the flight status.
Setting Off The Metal Detector
Finally, smiling faces informed us the 757 was airborne and a tentative 4.35pm ETA was circulated. The radio presenters also got the news very quickly and we could hear it being read out to the listeners.
Suddenly, after hours of just sitting around, it was all go!
Security passes were quickly issued, camera bags through the scanner, Sharon required a pat-down search after setting off the metal detector, and then we were in the truck with Marten, bumping along the rough track that took us around the southern end of the runway and out to the far side of the runway.
Listening In To The Control Tower
As we set up the tripods and took up positions, we all commented on how calm the conditions were. There was hardly any wind at all. We had brought along our big old, Manfrotto tripod, a heavy beast bought way back in 1994 when video cameras were also heavy beasts. The thinking was the weight might offer better stability from the wind. Oh well, best be prepared.
Unfortunately, the later arrival time meant the sun was now at a lower angle, which made our view towards the final approach line a bit hazy. Earlier, at 1pm it was bright with blue skies; shame about the delay.
A welcome surprise and something else new for covering this flight, for us anyway, was Marten’s VHF airport radio. We could listen-in on the control tower and pilot discussing the approach which really made it a super cool experience.
Boeing 757-200 Lands on St Helena
Sharon was shooting the stills with our Canon 5Dmk3; I was shooting video with the 5Dmk2. Our little action camera was locked down capturing static behind-the-scenes video. It was a well-rehearsed routine but being so close to the runway made it all very exciting.
Eagle-eyed Martin spotted the plane long before us. The Boeing 757-200 followed the now familiar flight path in, past the Longwood Barn, towards the airport. Just before it reached edge of the cliff and the start of runway 20, the also now familiar little dip as the nose pitched downward, and the sound of engines given a burst of extra power by the pilot.
And then that last part of the descent to the concrete strip, the ‘long-legged’ 757 under-carriage touching down with a big puff of blue tyre smoke.
By our camera time stamp, landing was at 4.23pm.
Engines were quickly on reverse thrust as the aircraft whizzed past us, and although it went right to the end of the runway, it had slowed down well in advance; the stopping distance seemed quite comfortable.
Getting Too Dark To Fly
Once the Titan Airways jet had parked up and passengers started emerging, the radio was full of chatter as the pilots and control tower discussed the training circuits that had been planned for that same day. The delay coming up from Ascension meant the light was now fading (it’s St Helena’s winter) so it was eventually decided to postpone training until the morning.
Returning to the Combined Building, (the one with the control tower), we could see the ground staff all wearing PPE, a sobering reminder that a terrible pandemic is still out there in the world. We are ever so grateful St Helena remains Covid-free and hope we can keep it that way.
Shooting Under The Floodlights
After five hours sleep, we were back at the airport before 6am this morning. It was still very dark, but wonderful to see the whole terminal lit up as well as the parking apron and runway lights, everything glistening from a heavy shower of rain.
Passing through security again, we could see the outbound passengers quietly queuing to check in. Each one would be leaving the sanctuary of St Helena’s safe little bubble, probably a little nervous about what to expect at the other end of the flight.
Out on the other side of the terminal the long, slender Boeing 757-200 stood on its own, quietly waiting for the day’s activities to begin, the fuselage glowing brightly under the orange glare of the apron floodlights.
With Marten chaperoning us again, we were able to walk slowly in a wide circle right around the aeroplane, stopping in different spots with the tripod to capture some longer exposure night shots of the scene.
The sun was just peeping up over the horizon as we made our way once again round to the far side of the runway to setup ready for the training circuits.
Tailwind Take-Off & Landing and A Missed Approach
Listening in on the airport radio chatter was fascinating again. A plan was agreed between the pilots and control tower to do a take-off on runway 20, fly around the island, land back on runway 20.
Next, they would do a crew change and take-off from the opposite end, runway 02 (zero two), do a ‘teardrop’ turn to return for a ‘missed approach’ pass on runway 20, then land on 02 and finish. Pick up passengers and depart for UK.
Wind data was constantly being given from the tower. Wind speed and direction at each end of the runway, plus the readings in the middle. The ends of the runway were generally low, around seven knots, the middle of the runway always higher, around 15 to 20 knots.
Filming and photographing the training circuits was just brilliant from our side-of-the-runway vantage point. The 200mm lens had to be zoomed out as the plane passed by in front of us.
Capturing landings and take-offs with the backdrops of the Longwood Barn, Flagstaff and the inner island landscapes of Levelwood and the Central Peaks, was just wonderful. Shots we’ve never been able to capture before.
The Question Of Direct Flights From the UK
The fact that these were training circuits, similar to those that Titan did in April, really adds to the speculation that direct flights to the UK might soon be under consideration. Or at least once normal air travel is resumed.
Titan Airways’ pilots are clearly acquiring valuable knowledge of St Helena Airport. The Boeing 757-200 has certainly made a good first impression, although it would have been interesting and probably more useful to see how it coped with stronger winds. But there we go.
For now, the island goes back to isolation. The last scheduled flight was way back on 21 March, 2020, over four months ago and the situation looks unlikely to change for some time yet.
But options are now becoming interesting. A Boeing 757-200 is now the largest aircraft that has landed at St Helena and after two successful Titan flights, it will get harder and harder for authorities to resist the calls for a regular direct service from the UK.