SA Airlink Lands First Commercial Passenger Flight At St Helena Airport | Sharon Henry
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The feel good factor oozing around St Helena Airport today was just fantastic to witness. The very first commercial passenger flight into St Helena took place; an Avro RJ85 aircraft operated by SA Airlink made the smoothest landing you could hope to see and in doing so gave hope to all of us that regular flights are not far away.
This was a charter flight, hastily organised by St Helena Government (SHG) to bring 60 passengers up from Cape Town who were stranded after the RMS St Helena had become crippled with propeller problems and forced into two dry dock sessions.
History in the making! I know, we’ve been saying that a lot over the last year, but this really was special. For the very first time we got to see and feel our new airport come alive in the way it was always meant to do. Tearful goodbyes and joyful reunions mixed with the tingly excitement of air travel which cuts travel times from five days to three hours!
Skip to the good bit – the whole operation was a thumbs-up success.
Like A Virgin, ‘Touchdown’ For The Very First Time
I estimate more than 400 people turned out today, the first so keen they arrived at 9am this morning before the airport staff! Such was the occasion, spontaneous cheers and applause erupted from the viewing deck once the plane had touched down, many cheeks were damp.
Air travel is still new to St Helena. Sadly our airport is still to be officially opened since wind shear taunted a test flight last year, throwing commercial flight plans out the window. That said, there have been a number of successful small private jets that have been able to land and two notable test flights by larger aircraft (Atlantic Star and Embraer) that indicated a solution lay with a change of plane. So today’s first successful commercial flight has raised hopes and expectations once again.
The SA Airlink Avro RJ-85 took full advantage of the perfect weather and wind conditions and calmly plopped down on the wind shear side, on runway 20. Not a whiff of wind shear was detected. The plane used a fraction of the airstrip’s length to land and slow, then taxied onto the parking apron. For those who like details, the wind was blowing straight down the runway at “20 degrees and 10 knots.”
“I did think about wind shear,” admitted Sandy Bay resident, Patricia Henry, one of today’s arrivals who flew in with her husband Cedric. “But after being stuck in Cape Town and having the choice to fly or sail, I thought let’s go for it. It was exciting actually, we didn’t have any doubts getting on the plane, the trip and the landing was brilliant. I just feel that the airport should now be up and on the way to moving on.”
The new arrivals gained instant celebrity status as they filed into the terminal chock-a-block with family, friends, well wishers and (nosey) onlookers. There was a definite buzz and so much excited chat it sounded like mynah birds.
“I thought there was going to be a band out here as a welcome back!” laughed Joan ‘Sylvia’ Yon of Ladder Hill, who received a balloon instead. “It’s great to be home and to be part of history.
“It was really nice until we got to Namibe to fuel up,” said Sylvia. “While we were waiting, we were only supposed to be there for half an hour but a gentleman announced that we had to stay a bit more because government had not paid for the fuelling. They told us we couldn’t go until they got the okay from the St Helena Government.”
“The flight was good,” said Jeff Dawson of Longwood, returning from a seven-week holiday ‘extension’ with his wife, Julie. “When we landed everybody was cheering and clapping which is a bit unusual after a flight! It was just a feeling you can’t really describe. We’ve flown quite a lot and you don’t get that in a normal aircraft. It’s an experience being one of the first people to arrive back on island on a chartered aircraft.”
“Yes,” added Julie, “the significance of us being history makers made us a bit more emotional, tears came to my eyes when we landed. If I had the choice to sail or fly, I’d definitely fly! I would fly any day.”
The captain on today’s flight has actually flown here before, in November with the Embraer 190 test flight, so had valuable, previous experience.
“At first it was nerve-wrecking,” Serena Thorpe from Oak Bank, told us of the flight, “then with no hesitation from the pilot, we came straight in and landed brilliantly. I suppose the mood at first was anxious, I was actually quite tearful. Coming home and this being the first historic flight to St Helena, it was three cheers for the pilots who brought us here safely.” Serena was on the flight with her husband, Mike.
Sophie Fowler from Sandy Bay admitted to being scared. “But it was very smooth so I wasn’t frightened after. The atmosphere on board was nice, everybody was happy, especially when we saw St Helena. The landing was so smooth we didn’t feel a thing. It is amazing that within a matter of hours we have gotten back home, I can’t describe it! Now if I had a choice of flying or sailing? I’d go by plane!”
Refreshments were made available throughout the flight with packed lunches and a choice of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
“They really looked after us on board,” nodded Cyril Fowler who lives at The Briars on St Helena. “The service was very good and the two stewardesses were very pleasant. All the seats were the same, there was no split between economy or first class, everyone was the same. When we touched down here, everyone clapped.”
Governor Lisa Philips also had a seat onboard and said she probably was the first to spot the island on approach. She had been to the Foreign Office in London and sat with DfID when the decision on the flight was being made. “I kicked a few calves under the table shall we say,” she smiled.
“What was the weirdest part about organising this? I think when you are talking to people who have no idea about the logistical complexity of finding a plane. You can’t go down to Solomon’s and buy a plane of the shelf. So that. And just where St Helena is, and the fact that the Ascension airport was closed. A lot of people would say, well you can just fly from here to there, come the long way round, get on the ship. Well, no, you can’t, because the plane has to have ETOPS; all the regulation approvals. So it’s suddenly becoming quite a technical expert on how to get a plane into St Helena. That’s probably the weirdest thing.”
We grabbed Tracy Corker for a quick chat before she made her way home to Jamestown. “It feels great having landed on St Helena,” she said. “It was a great flight all the way through and the perfect landing, but if the weather wasn’t perfect we would have had another story. If the weather had turned out differently it wouldn’t be this story.
“I didn’t feel nervous at all, there were only one or two small air pockets but nothing to worry about. I feel glad to be one of the first people to land here; this was one of my dreams!”
Lighting up her first cigarette after the flight was Margie Fowler from Sandy Bay. “After all the frustration I am deeply appreciative to be home with my family,” she told us. “I’d been waiting since the 25th of March to come home. I think there was a bit of poor communications because we didn’t know what was going on, even with the flight but never mind, we are home. We thank SHG for getting us home as quick as it was.”
“It’s so good to be back with my family,” smiled Irene Clingham, having returned from a nine month medevac in Cape Town. “The grandkids will be all up in my lap when I get home and I have a baby granddaughter who I haven’t met yet.”
The flight from Cape Town took 8 hours with a refuelling stop at Namibe, Angola. The return journey went via Windhoek, Namibia carrying 48 passengers.
The flight turnaround at St Helena was one hour, an excellent litmus test for airport staff who were tasked with baggage handling, passengers, refuelling and cleaning the aircraft. “On the whole I think they did exceptionally well,” said Gwyneth Howell, Airport Head of Operations, her face glowing with pride.
“Checking-in did have a bit of a problem with overweight bags, the allowance was 27 kilos. (20 hold, 7 cabin).”
Finding out the hard way his luggage was overweight was Bill Higgins, who had to promptly lose a few kilos and personal items to meet the weight restrictions. “Coming on British Airways it was 23 kilos, coming on the RMS it was 23 kilos, this is unusual, 20 kilos,” he said. “They don’t give you the option of paying for excess baggage. They don’t allow that, it’s got to be spot on.”
Bill was returning to the UK after a holiday and clearly a little frustrated. “As to how the government goes, they were rather slow in telling people what’s happening. Everything seems to be at the last minute. I can’t say I was impressed with that. In fact the whole thing has been a bit of a letdown as far as procedures go. If they are going to compete with the rest of the world they’ve got a long way to go.”
Flying out to Cape Town then onward to the UK for a holiday was Ann Buckley. “I feel quite excited because I’ve never been at the airport before. I thought when I do come it would be when I fly out. So I’m over the moon. When I got told yesterday afternoon I was jumping up and down with excitement, like a child again! I’ve waited for this moment for a long time. I’m very pleased with all the work they’ve done and now we’re actually going. I can’t wait to get going now. We should arrive in the UK on Saturday morning.”
Amazing. Actually it’s more than amazing, it’s mind-boggling for Saints whose travel culture has always involved time-intensive seafaring, days.
The mood today was highly contagious and I’m still breaking out in a goofy grin just thinking about it. I admit to feeling a pang of jealousy watching people at the check-in desks and then boarding the plane. I really can’t wait for the day when we can book a scheduled flight from St Helena airport. Hopefully one day soon…
Congratulations to everyone concerned with making this first passenger flight to St Helena a huge success. In particular, well done to all the staff at St Helena Airport who we just couldn’t fail to be impressed with. First big test, hundreds watching – you made us proud.