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Photo: Paul Tyson [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Here Come The Saints: Saint Helena Airport

In the Atlantic Ocean, roughly two-thirds of the way between South America and Africa, lies the island of Saint Helena. The island, approximately 50 square miles, is home to 4,500 Saint Helenians living in one of the most remote locations in the world. While the British Overseas Territory is most famous for being home to Napoleon in exile, locals are trying to push tourism to the island. However, the island is currently only accessible via the RMS St. Helena, which takes five days to take cargo and passengers between the island and Cape Town. The British government, faced with rising costs of the aging ship, decided it was time for St. Helena to have its own airport.

The decision for an airport was made in 2005, however delays meant that a deal for construction wasn’t agreed upon until 2011. Construction finally began and the barren wasteland on the eastern part of the island was slowly transformed into an international airport. With no facilities for aviation on the island everything would have to be constructed from the ground up, including air traffic control, navigation aids, and the actual infrastructure for an airport.

After the delays, construction finished in mid-2015 with the first aircraft landing in September 2015. The aircraft, a King-Air, came to the island to calibrate the navigation equipment. The airport itself features a modern terminal with a restaurant and an aircraft viewing deck, along with large windows allowing natural light to come into the terminal. The outside of the terminal is in a facade of natural rock from Saint Helena. The airport is designed to handle two aircraft at a time, designed for Airbus A319s and Boeing 737-700s. Designs are in place to expand the runway and infrastructure to accommodate larger aircraft such as the Boeing 737-800, the Boeing 757-200, and C130 Hercules. On April 16th, 2016, Comair sent the first jet aircraft to the island to test the route and ground operations.

Scheduled services were set to begin in May 2016, however as of now services are suspended indefinitely. Comair has plans for flights between Saint Helena and Johannesburg and Atlantic Star Airlines has plans for a flight between Saint Helena and London Gatwick. The problem on Saint Helena is winds. During the test flight with Comair, the airplane experienced low-level windshear on approach and had to go around. The surrounding landscape causes the windshear when landing from the south. This has raised concerns over safety as restricting operations to only northbound arrivals would create a tailwind.

Recently, an Atlantic Star chartered BAe 146 landed on the island with pilots trained in the Faroe Islands, an area that experiences similar winds to Saint Helena. The flight landed without a problem, giving hope for the small airport. When the airport finally opens, the RMS St. Helena will be retired from service and the airport will become the main link to the outside world. While the project is currently experiencing a road bump, the future looks bright for Saint Helena as the airport will surely increase tourism to the island and give it stronger links to the mainland.

Daniel Morley
Daniel Morley
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