A Titan Airways, Airbus A318 is landing on St Helena today, bringing long-awaited Coronavirus, or Covid-19, test kits and other medical supplies, plus approximately 10 passengers, including three new medical workers to supplement the island’s health service.
Sharon, my dad, Pat, and me, are on our way out to photograph and film its arrival.
St Helena’s regular air service, provided by SA Airlink, is currently suspended while South Africa is in lockdown because of Covid-19. Which has triggered this A318 relief flight with the primary aim of delivering test kits.
Photographing The Dumpty Plane – By Darrin Henry
Today’s flight is significant for a few reasons.
It’s the very first Airbus type aircraft to fly here, a special mission brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. And it will be very interesting to see how the Airbus A318 performs at St Helena Airport as for the last four years many aviation enthusiasts have suggested that it could be ideal machine for our windy conditions.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of today’s flight is its direct route from the UK, albeit with a technical (refuelling) stop in Accra, Ghana, and an overnight stop at Ascension Island. The direct route from the UK, as opposed to the existing arrangement of having our air service linked to Johannesburg in South Africa, has always been the preferred option for many.
Ironically, the flight bringing test kits is also scary for many on St Helena because it represents a threat to our current Coronavirus-free status. (It is assumed the island is still Covid-19 free at the time of writing this). One medical person who was due to come on the flight had to be bumped after they contracted Covid-19, a stark reminder of how fragile our position is.
Cut Off From The Outside World
Isolation has defined Saint life, since… well, forever.
Air travel has only been up and running here since October 2017, two and a half years ago, so most of us are quite happy to pretend we still have a ship and its broken down somewhere leaving us cut-off from the outside world again. Island people everywhere know how quickly seasonal flu can spread in the community, so this new Coronavirus and its lethal capabilities scares the crap out of us.
Lots of Saints have told us they would prefer if this flight wasn’t coming at all.
For now, though, the three of us are quite looking forward to seeing a new type of passenger plane and how it looks and manages the conditions on the runway. We saw on Facebook that it left Ascension Island at 11.13am so it seems the 1pm ETA advertised last week is still on.
Problems With The Police
Photographing aircraft landing at St Helena is awkward. There’s no clear vantage point from the airport itself, which in any case is now closed to the public completely, and the viewing positions on the Horse Point headland are still some distance away from the runway. Our preferred shooting spot involves a 20 min hike down and around the hillside below Bradley’s Camp, and that’s where we’re off to today.
We’re surprised to encounter a police road block at the Millennium Forest, preventing us reaching Bradley’s.
The old airport construction workers’ camp has been modified for use as a quarantine site for incoming passengers and road is closed, supposedly to protect their privacy.
I try to reason with the two police officers that we have no interest in seeing anyone at Bradley’s, we’re just here to photograph the aircraft landing, but it’s no use. We’re told one of the councillors has ordered the closure and we should take it up with him.
It’s a frustrating setback to our little plan, but time is ticking, so we turn around and head off to Horse Point. There are a few spectators there already and we learn later that others were also stopped by the police from accessing their normal viewing points.
The Airbus A318 Arrives At HLE
Once the cameras are all setup and ready for action, it’s picnic time while we wait.
Fruit cake, vegetarian pizza, chicken kebabs, crisps and chocolate! Ok, it all sounds a bit much, but it’s Monday and some of this is leftover from Sunday dinner, and it’s all easy finger-food.
Right on time, one o’clock, the all white Titan Airways jet appears over the hill behind us. All three of us train our lenses to the sky. Sharon and my dad are shooting stills and I’m taking video. We’ve had a few requests from WTSDN followers for video of the landing.
We were expecting the Airbus A318 to do a fly-over on the first run, but right away I notice the landing gear is down. We’ve been keeping an eye on the runway windsock since we arrived and it’s been pretty much horizontal most of the time, so a steady breeze for the pilots to contend with.
Coronavirus Test Kits Are Here
But, the rather dumpty looking aeroplane makes a simple, no-fuss approach, glides past the distinctive landmarks of King and Queen Rock, and settles down easily on the runway like there was nothing to it. Piece of cake you might say.
All three of us are impressed and start looking in the bags for more food as we discuss what we just saw.
The aircraft is scheduled to do some ‘proving’ and ‘training’ flights, so we put the cameras away while we wait as it’s a bit windy and dusty.
We pass the time by sizing up the amazing coastal landscapes around us, moaning that the weather’s getting a little chilly now and then finishing off the pizza.
Finally, just after 2.30pm the plane creeps back out onto the runway and down towards the end where we are, turns around, then roars back up the concrete strip and into the air.
Direct Flights From The UK One Day… Maybe?
Over the next hour and a half, we enjoy the spectacle of a fly-over, this from the Runway 02 tailwind end, a normal Runway 20 landing, a take-off, a tailwind landing on 02, another take-off and finally finishing with a regular landing into the wind on Runway 20.
Everything looked easy from afar, I have to say, even the tailwind landing.
I’m assuming the aircraft was empty, so maybe a full load of passengers might affect handling a bit, but even so, it all looked very straight-forward from where we were.
We understand the flight was chartered by the British government to deliver 2.5 tonnes of medical supplies and a few residents needing to get back to the island. Tomorrow, when the plane leaves it will repatriate about 28 people back to the UK.
But those ‘training’ flights? What was that all about? Training for what?
Could it be someone, somewhere, is finally considering the benefits of a direct flight from Europe?
We pack up the gear and trudge back up the creeper-covered hillside to the car, chattering away and speculating about what it all might mean. We’re the only ones left out here on Horse Point, and by now, it’s after 4pm, the clouds have rolled in and we have our jackets on. The wind has not stopped all afternoon.
The conversation turns toward that nice cup of hot tea when we get home. And the three slices of gateau left in the fridge!