With the delicacy of a gentle kiss the tiny twin prop plane touched down on St Helena’s brand new airport today, yet the impact of this event will ripple into the next 500 years of the island’s history, just as Joao da Nova Castella’s landing by ship did half a millennia ago.
Ok, I’m being a bit flowery, but it’s been an incredible day, more than 10 years in the making since the airport was announced and I can’t help myself. The first aeroplane to land on St Helena is here. This may not sound a big deal to some readers but in St Helenian terms it’s akin to landing on the moon!
By my camera’s time stamp, touchdown was exactly 13:44:25. Tuesday 15 September, 2015.
Pilot For First Aeroplane To Land On St Helena
Captain Grant Brighton was in command of the specially modified aircraft, having flown all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa, refuelling in Angola before crossing the Atlantic to reach us. It’s now here for a week to carry out airport calibration flights.
“It was amazing, we feel privileged to be part of your project,” Grant told us afterwards. “I’m happy to be here. Runway’s good, conditions are good, you have lovely facilities here; it’s wonderful.”
Seeing St Helena For The First Time
I was one of the few fortunate photographers stationed around the landing strip and lucky enough to capture the historic moment from a great vantage point.
A small group of officials and island dignitaries were assembled on the hill to my right, overlooking the terminal building. Over my left shoulder, back up at Bradley’s Garage and the Millennium Forest, nearly a mile away perhaps, hundreds of people had gathered to watch, including Sharon. More were sporadically lined along the ridge out to Horse Point. Even the pilots noticed.
First Officer on the plane, Dillan Van Niekerk, said afterwards, “The key part for me was seeing the island; seeing everyone on the mountain watching us.”
We all wanted to witness it; the moment that many, many (many) people thought would never come; the day the first aeroplane to land on St Helena touched down.
At Bradley’s Garage, people of all ages were there, from babies right up to the island’s oldest resident, Ma Flo, at 101 years old. Winter weather (island winter) meant a fleece jacket and beanie dress code and flasks of tea were preferred over something stronger – for most!
St Helena Plo and Tomato Paste Sandwiches
Some families made a day of it. Tommy and Milly Benjamin from Rupert’s Valley were the first to secure a prime spot at 10:30am, along with their son Colin and grandson Lucas. Milly had cooked plo and made tomato paste sandwiches, two St Helena favourites.
How The First Plane Landed On St Helena
The plane, when it did arrive, treated us to two fly-bys before landing. Okay, it wasn’t just as a treat for us on the ground, they were checking for “wind shear” as planned. The first was a high speed pass; the second was slower and a bit lower. And then, the ‘historic’ moment.
On final approach I could see the aircraft moving around quite a bit; the wings dipped first one way, then the other as the pilot made adjustments to find the right alignment. From a long way out I was aware of a bright light on the front of the plane; closer in the undercarriage caught my eye, dangling down reaching for the ground.
And then suddenly the plane was over the runway, gliding gently down. The left wheel and the nose wheel touched down first, then the right. The left wheel did the tiniest of bounces, rising up off the runway before settling, and then the plane was fully down. History made. The first aeroplane to land on St Helena, ever.
Like a lot of Saints, probably most, who have looked forward to this day for so long both Sharon and I were filled with mixed emotions. Sorrow for family and friends who dreamed with us of this day but sadly never lived to see it. But also happiness for the potential of positive change that now lies ahead, especially for the youngsters.
Commercial flights to St Helena should begin early in 2016 and a 500 year culture of exclusive sea travel to the island will come to an end.
An End To Isolation For St Helena
We all have our thoughts on what this now means and how it affects us as residents of St Helena.
Christine Caswell was there to be part of history, together with her family. “Ever since I was in school we used to write essays about the island having an airport. Twenty years later it’s actually happened. Now it should be easier to get to places, faster and for shorter periods. For us now as a family we’ll be able to fly out of here in four hours rather than spending five days on the ship.”
We could go on forever discussing the possibilities that now lie ahead. It’s exciting, stimulating and perhaps just a little bit scary as well.
But what a day it’s been. Just over 500 years ago the island woke up with a ship anchored off Jamestown for the very first time. Tomorrow when the sun peeps up over Prosperous Bay Plain, there will be an aeroplane sitting on the island for the very first time. Incredible.
2018 update: For more facts about the St Helena Airport, click here.