THE AGE OF AIR TRAVEL TO BEGIN | Darrin Henry
“Wow! This, is, beautiful!” I’m completely awestruck having just stepped onto the gleaming concourse inside the brand new St Helena Airport terminal. I’m conscious my mouth is literally hanging open as my eyes dart left and right, but I can’t help it – a building like this exists on St Helena. Amazing!
The transformation from the bare concrete shell I was last in 18 months ago, to this, is remarkable.In fact, the transformation from the volcanic wasteland we all knew four years ago, to this, is miraculous.
A Little Piece Of St Helena Stone
My tour guides allow me a minute to recompose before we slowly begin to make our way through the terminal. Basil Read’s Island Director, Deon De Jager and the company’s HR Manager, Charles Schwarz, are leading the way. Both have lived and breathed this project for the last four years, achieving what many said was impossible and doing it on time and on budget.
The building is obviously new, but the design instantly feels personal and welcoming. The wood panelling inside and dry stone exterior walls give it an authentic island feel. The colour scheme is a blend of white and cream, offset against accents of light wood panelling. Dark window and door frames and seating benches define the lines.
The dry stone cladding is a great story. Deon tells me “the stone has come from different quarries across the island, as far away as Horse Pasture, as close as Horse Point over the hill and also from right here on Prosperous Bay Plain.” It’s a lovely touch, different parts of St Helena making up the airport.
St Helena Immigration and HM Customs
We begin in the Immigration Hall. New arrivals will walk across from the airplane and in through these doors. ‘St Helena Immigration’ signage hangs over four desks where incoming passports will be checked. As arrivals queue, visible to the right through a transparent partition is Baggage Reclaim; suitcases should pop in through a hole in the wall onto the chrome roller bed to await retrieval by their owners.
The entire Immigration Hall and Baggage Reclaim area is flooded with natural light, pouring in from the floor to ceiling windows on two sides.
Afterwards it’s out of Baggage Reclaim and into the obligatory HM Customs gauntlet.
And then you emerge as a new, hopefully legal, arrival onto the concourse. This is will be the island’s new meeting place, where families will shed joyful reunion tears, where friendships will reconnect with smiles and a warm embrace and where tourists will begin their St Helena adventure searching for a taxi. It’s going to be exciting to see for the first time.
The New St Helena Airport Viewing Deck
Next we head up to the first floor in the lift. Up here is the public cafe/restaurant which will seat perhaps 50 or 60 people. It’s all glass up here, the inescapable runway panoramic and Prosperous Bay Plain stretching left to right. Doors lead out onto the open air viewing deck which looks down onto where the airplane(s) will be parked. This area is going to be very popular!
Charles tells me a children’s play area is going to be added. Shadows from the trellis overhead, the gorgeous blue sky and landscape framed in the large glass panels make for a stunning setting.
On The St Helena Airport Concourse
Back down to the concourse we go and into the public toilets which are virtually complete. Mirrors are still to be fitted but everything else is in place including sink taps triggered by motion sensors – another first for St Helena.
Other facilities on the concourse include a tourist and airport information kiosk, banking and currency exchange, a gift shop and a lost baggage desk.
The terminal makes maximum use of natural light; floor to ceiling windows that illuminate the interior but also visually connects those inside to the spectacular volcanic landscape outside.
Large, circular down-lighters in the ceiling are actually sunlight port holes, funnelling even more natural brightness into the building.
Unseen solar panels heat water and double glazing helps maintain internal air temperature. The terminal is cooled by a controlled combination of air-conditioning and natural air flow.
Final Call For Departures
We turn our attention to the section of the airport for departing passengers.
Entering the terminal from the car park they will turn right towards three baggage check in desks. Suitcases will be weighed, tagged and dispatched via a roller bed through a hole in the wall to the cargo handling area. In there hold luggage will be scanned before being loaded onto the aircraft.
Once hold baggage is submitted, passengers go to the left to pass through security and passport control. In here we find the new airport staff undergoing training; personal effects placed in the standard airport plastic trays are fed through the x-ray scanner. Some of the staff play the part of passengers, being subjected to body scans and bag searches. Everyone’s taking the training quite seriously. It will all be real soon enough.
Successfully through these final checks, passengers will then find themselves in the departure lounge looking out onto the aircraft apron. There is a lot of activity in here; workers are finalising the toilet block so we are careful of the cables and tools. There’s a small cafe and duty free shop which are just empty shelves for now. At the far end of the departure lounge is the business lounge; a smaller space for VIPs. Again, a lot of work is underway in here with carpets being fitted, so we stay clear.
A Beautiful St Helena Day
The tingle of excitement running through me goes up a notch as I realise very soon the first passengers will sit in this lounge, watching a Boeing 737 taxi up to the window. What an emotional experience it will be for them; for everyone. St Helena’s 500 year travel culture is going to change overnight.
Outside on the aircraft apron into the blazing midday sun I slide on my sunglasses; St Helena is at its most dazzling. The terminal lies low, sleek and stylish; the two-storey viewing platform, flanked by the departure lounge on the left and arrivals hall on the right. Workmen in the distinctive Basil Read blue overalls and yellow, high-vis vests are applying final touches to the exterior trim.
It’s been a little over six months since I was out here last when the first airplane to ever land on St Helena made history; it was the first calibration flight for the airport.
The Combined Building and Control Tower
We walk across to the Combined Building, a chunky structure topped by the unmistakable tub-like control tower. Spidery antennae stalks circle the tower roof; dry stone cladding cloaks the lower walls. Unlike the terminal which will only be open on flight days, the Combined Building will be manned throughout the week. The airport support staff are based here – fire and rescue, airport manager, administration, aircraft support, flight control, weather data etc.
The large belly of the Combined Building is garage to three huge, shiny, yellow fire engines. Little kids are going to love a school visit here! Large reflective letters spell, ‘St Helena Airport’ on each of the Mercedes model fire trucks – not too shabby! The airport even has its own ambulance. The fire fighting team are huddled nearby, training. They also look quite serious.
Air Traffic Control St Helena
Up in the control tower we meet Nolwazi and Bhavna, two experienced South African air traffic controllers who have just arrived this morning on the RMS St Helena. The ladies have been training on a simulator over the past three weeks to prepare for St Helena’s airport.
The reason they’re here? A small airplane with Air Safety Support International (ASSI) regulators is due in about two weeks time. They will be here for seven days conducting test flights and a final on-site audit of the airport. If all goes well as is expected, international certification should then follow. The airport will then be authorised to start scheduling commercial flights ahead of the official opening date of 21 May, 2016.
Moving through the Combined Building we pop in to see the Airport Manager, Nigel Spackman, who has been in post for the last eight months. Nigel outlines the detailed task he has ensuring the crucial procedures and guidelines for operating the airport are in place in order for final certification to be achieved.
Ready For Opening Night
Like everyone else I’ve met on this visit, Nigel is busy but calm and relaxed. There’s a quiet confidence in the air – with everyone – a sense of ‘final rehearsals done, opening night imminent.’ Everyone has learned their lines and now we just need an airplane! It’s exciting.
If there’s a problem I reckon it’s going to be the volume of people on flight days. Elsewhere when Sharon and I have flown we take public transport to and from the airport and say our goodbyes leaving the house where we are staying. However, Saints on island traditionally mobilise the family to say goodbye or greet new arrivals. Recently I was one of 10 seeing a single family member off at the wharf in Jamestown. Even reduced, these numbers could still be problematic at the airport. But, there we go; there will undoubtedly be a few operational kinks to iron out as the age of air travel begins on St Helena.
Deon De Jager
The visit is over; we retrace our steps back through the terminal while discussing the project.
Even now the man who effectively built the airport remains as modest as ever about what he and his team have accomplished. A little grandstanding could be easily forgiven, but as I’ve seen over the last four years that’s not Deon’s way.
“I walk through here every day and look around and it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come,” Deon tells me. “Sometimes when I look back it feels like it’s been a million years, but when you consider when it was we completed the haul road and got access to Prosperous it’s only taken three and a half years.”
That’s about as much as I’m going to get. But make no mistake; delivering this project really has been a phenomenal achievement.
HLE: St Helena Airport
The logistical coordination alone should be held up as a case study for construction industry experts. The earth-works statistics are mind-boggling.
As for the airport building I’ve just viewed, the architects got the balance spot on. This building is something everyone on St Helena can feel proud of; it’s already the island’s modern showpiece yet occupies a subtle profile on the Plain. It’s not gaudy; it doesn’t try too hard or fall down as a poor imitation.
I’ve been fortunate to see a few airports around the world. With that in mind, I think our airport on St Helena is quite special.