This week I had been looking forward to visiting St Helena, one of the most remote places on earth, for the first time in 68 years. My last visit to the South Atlantic island was in 1948 and, since I was only two at the time, it would be stretching the imagination to say that I remember it vividly.
However, after my parents had helped me to climb all 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder, cut into the cliffside in 1829, I visited Longwood House – where Napoleon Bonaparte lived after his exile – and I promptly fell into its fish pond.
My stop-off on St Helena all those years ago, en route to my father Eric’s first colonial posting in Africa, has left me with an affinity for the island: all 47 square miles of it, and its 4,200 warm, friendly, but isolated, residents.
Furthermore, this week I was excited by the prospect of landing at St Helena’s new airport. As someone who enjoys travel and adventure – I have visited nearly 150 countries to date – it was an enticing prospect.
Sadly, however, my visit to Britain’s distant outpost has now been postponed indefinitely, amidst serious concerns that the airport is too dangerous to use because of strong and unpredictable winds – known as “windshear”. I will return to this problem facing pilots and their passengers later in this article, but first I will detail the tragic knock-on effects of the prevailing environmental conditions.
The official opening of the new airport on the island – which is a lump of volcanic rock about a third of the size of the Isle of Wight – has also now been put on hold indefinitely. The project, an amazing feat of engineering, has been funded by the Department for International Development (DfID), with approaching £250 million of British taxpayers’ money.
Although aviation experts are working hard to try to find a solution to the windshear problems, there is a real danger that the airport could become a hugely expensive “white elephant” and a terrible embarrassment to the British Government.
St Helena, a British Overseas Territory, lies some 1,200 miles from the African mainland and 1,800 miles from Brazil. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, but later run by the East India Company which, in turn, eventually handed it over to the British Crown.
Until now, the island’s lifeline to the rest of the world has been Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St Helena, which takes five days to sail between Cape Town and St Helena, and has operated on a fortnightly cycle. The ship is due to be decommissioned later this year because it has reached the end of its natural life and because aircraft can do the same journey in a few hours. The ship is due to make her last voyage to South Africa in July, but not before she is the star-turn at a reception on the River Thames that will be attended on 8th June by HRH The Princess Royal.
The airport was initially due to open in February of this year, but that date was postponed by three months “to fine tune the operational readiness”. The revised plan was that the airport would be opened on 21st May – St Helena Day – and HRH Prince Edward was lined up for the official unveiling. However, this was also abandoned in the wake of the alarming flight reports from the first two jet pilots to land at the new airport.
The St Helena Government hopes that the airport will bring up to 35,000 tourists a year to the island, thereby providing a much-needed boost to the struggling economy. As well as being the famous location for Napoleon’s exile, the island boasts stunning landscapes and unique wildlife, flora and fauna, and is the home to the oldest living land animal: Jonathan, the giant tortoise, who is more than 180 years old.
The British Government announced in 2010 that a new airport “is likely to represent the best value-for-money for the British taxpayer”. It said that replacing RMS St Helena with the necessary new ship would cost an estimated £64m.
Residents on St Helena – known locally as “Saints” – and those who have worked on the airport are understandably proud of what has been achieved at the airport site. To build the runway, contractors from South Africa had to fill a gorge called Dry Gut. It took 19 trucks working day and night for 22 months to shift the 450,000 loads of material that was needed to fill the gorge.
I have always hoped that the airport would be a resounding success – not just so that, selfishly, I could visit the island easily for the first time in nearly seven decades but because I want the island and its Saints to flourish. Being more accessible would mean younger islanders can stay on St Helena, both because of the jobs offered through tourism and because they will not feel so cut off from the outside world. The island currently receives around £30 million a year in subsidies from the British Government.
Local businesses – everything from hotel owners to shopkeepers – have been relying on the new airport to bring a much-needed influx of visitors. Yet without the promised flights, the hotels, guesthouses and shops are empty. With bills and overheads mounting but no money coming in, numerous business are struggling for their very survival and for many heavy debt, even the threat of bankruptcy, hangs over them. Even food and other goods are in short supply on the island.
Hazel Wilmot is 60 today but, with so many acute worries in her life, it will be a fairly muted birthday celebration. She is believed to be the biggest inward investor on St Helena, having come alone to the island from Botswana in 2008. Since then, she has spent well over £2 million buying and renovating an 18-room, 18th century hotel, as well as a 17-acre farm to provide meat, eggs and other food for her hotel guests.
Her money was invested with the prospect of a new airport and new prosperity for the island – but now her hotel is empty and the likelihood of any tourists coming to the island in any real numbers in the near future has evaporated. This is, in fact, the airport’s second major delay: the original airport project for the island was put on hold in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, only for it to be revived under the Tory government.
Her financial plight is so acute that she has three times been threatened with having her electricity supply to her hotel cut off because she cannot pay her bills. Many other Saints are facing similar economic hardship, with the threat of homes, cars and boats being repossessed.
She said: “The situation is now beyond desperate and all we are told ‘hang in there, we [the island’s government] are working on it’. But the wheels are starting to fall off and the cracks are becoming valleys.
“With no flights and the RMS St Helena about to be decommissioned, the islanders and being left without access to and from the island. I have moved here lock, stock and barrel, and I have sunk my life savings into the island knowing the airport was coming and that the island was being promoted for tourism.”
Ms Wilmot said that many islanders fear the runway has been built in the wrong place and the airport may never become fully operational because of the windshear problems. “The Government here says it is not their fault – but it is not our fault either and we need some sort of [financial] help. Every person on the island is affected by tourism in one way or another.”
Mike Olsson, originally from Sweden but who has lived on St Helena for 20 years, now combines his job as a journalist with his role on the council, the 12-strong elected group that helps Lisa Phillips, the recently-appointed Governor, to run the island. Since Ms Phillips says her past roles include “a career eliminating poverty with DFID”, she should be well equipped to tackle her first major challenge on the island.
Mr Olsson, who is married to an islander and fellow councillor, has been working hard to relieve the suffering but he admits there are no easy solutions. “There is a lot of frustration on the island. It is the uncertainty [over the airport] that is worrying people.”
Mr Olsson would like to see some sort of financial help for stricken islanders given the exceptional circumstances. However, he added: “Exactly how this can be done is difficult to say: you can’t just give out money without controls. But it is now going to take a long time to get tourism up and running, even if the regular flights start.”
For those, like me, unfamiliar with the technicalities of aviation, windshear is the difference in wind speed and/or direction in a relatively short space in the atmosphere. Such activity is, of course, unwelcome for someone trying to land an aircraft on a newly-built strip of tarmac, just over a mile long, with high rocky ridges to one side and a sheer drop to the sea of approaching 1,000 feet at the end of the runway.
In those circumstances, and these are precisely the ones that exist on St Helena, windshear can be not just inconvenient but highly dangerous, particularly when there is no other civilian runway for 1,300 miles. Indeed, in such cases, windshear can be the difference between life and death.
Today I can reveal that the two pilots of the first two jets to have landed at the new island airport have both submitted reports detailing major concerns over safety. I have obtained access to these two reports and their conclusions from the pilots throw the future viability of the new airport into doubt.
There is just one runway at St Helena but since it can be approached from two directions, the airport has given the same runway two names: “Runway 20” when approached from the north and “Runway 02” when approached from the south. All things being equal, pilots usually want to land and take off into the wind.
The pilot of a Bombadier Challenger 300 jet that landed on St Helena from Johannesburg on April 10 2016 reported that during one of his test flights “at +- 2/3 NM [nautical miles] from touchdown we encountered severe windshear resulting in an immediate max performance go-around [a dramatic windshear escape manoeuvre].
“We positioned left downwind for [runway] 20 and attempted two visual approaches, both were unsuccessful due to severe turbulence and windshear on short finals, the second approach was an eye-opener as the windshear rolled the aircraft to the left and +- 20 degrees off the approach course!”
The pilot added: “I have personally never experienced windshear this severe, not even in the sim [simulator].”
The pilot made five safety recommendations for any crew planning to land at St Helena and concluded: “I hesitate to dramatize however it is both my and co-pilot (my colleague in the cockpit) opinion that a landing could not have been carried out by any aircraft on [runway] 20 yesterday at the time we flew…”
The pilot, a South African called Larry Beamish and a veteran aerobatics display team member, told friends that his experience had been “hair-raising” and he said of conditions “some days [are] good, others very scary!”
I have also obtained a report from Comair, a South African-based airline, whose pilot carried out flights at St Helena, also in clear weather conditions, on April 18 and 19. The pilot reported that, on three successive approaches to his first landing, he encountered significant turbulence.
In fact, he aborted his first attempted landing, later writing: “Once again turbulence started at 350 feet AGL [Above Ground Level] soon followed by significant gust, loss of airspeed and sinking feeling and minor wing drop. The aircraft triggered a windshear caution.”
The Comair pilot also made a series of conclusions including: “Approaches onto RWY [runway] 20 with any wind above 20 knots are not suitable for Comair operations. No gust should be tolerated.”
The Comair jet’s arrival at St Helena was video recorded from the ground. The footage shows the pilot make an initial approach with his landing gear up to assess the conditions. However, the pilot’s second approach, with the landing gear down, encountered such significant problems with turbulence and windshear that he aborted his landing at the last moment. His third approach to the runway resulted in a successful landing, but only after he briefed his crew that if he felt unable to land safely on that approach, the aircraft would head to an alternative airport in Windhoek, Namibia, more than 1,300 miles and three hours flying time away.
There is a military airport on Ascension Island, some 800 miles and two hours’ flight time from St Helena, but I understand that this can only be used by civilian aircraft in emergencies.
Comair, which has close ties to British Airways, had been due to start operating weekly passenger flights from Johannesburg, but these have been postponed indefinitely because of the safety concerns at St Helena airport. Atlantic Star Airlines, which hopes to run monthly flights from the UK, has also put its flights on hold.
I commend both companies for behaving so responsibly in putting passenger safety before their commercial considerations. Sources on the island say that aviation experts are looking at operating different aircraft – those able to stop more quickly on a runway – as well as methods of countering the windshear.
The two jet pilots that encountered difficult landings were apparently only the second and third aircraft to land on St Helena. The first test flight was conducted by a twin-engine turbo-prop aircraft on September 15 2015. Video recorded from the cockpit provides a fascinating insight into the challenge the runway provides to pilots. The footage has been posted on Youtube by the St Helena Government.
A short write-up, accompanying the footage, says the plane was “making history”. What it does not say is that, like the pilots of the two jets, the pilots of these initial test flight also encountered “significant turbulence and windshear”.
After making some money as an entrepreneur, I am in the privileged position of having a private jet. Larry Erd, 65, is my chief pilot and he has flown me for 25 years, including into war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet, last week, as he was trying to finalise our flight to St Helena, he had major reservations about trying to land the jet on the island. His concerns were shared by Mark Jacobson, his co-captain, who has more than 18,000 hours of flight time and who is a former aerobatics champion.
“Having looked into everything, St Helena clearly has a serious problem with windshear,” Larry told me. “The best policy towards windshear is avoidance because it claims lives. It is one of the biggest causes of fatal accidents in the air.”
Larry explained that any pilot flying to St Helena would have to take enough extra fuel to enable him (or her) to fly on to alternative airports in Africa and this extra fuel caused its own problems. “Extra fuel is heavy and it increases your landing distance,” he said.
“If you are in a boat and it is rough, you can see the large waves and the swell. The trouble with windshear for pilots is that when it hits, you can’t see it and you don’t really know exactly what you are going to encounter. The two pilots who have made their reports say it is fine approaching the runway until you get to about 350 feet and then it [windshear] can be instantaneous and severe.”
Larry, who obtained his pilot’s licence in 1969, said: “I can’t remember any other airport that I was this concerned about. I don’t know what can be done, if anything, to solve the problem. I am a pilot not an airport designer. But there has to be a question mark over whether St Helena can ever operate a viable airport in the future.”
Windshear is usually associated with jet streams, mountain waves, frontal surfaces and thunderstorms. In St Helena, it appears that the windshear is caused by the unique, rugged topography of the island.
Air Safety Support International (ASSI), a subsidiary of the Civil Aviation Authority, is responsible for aviation regulations in the British Overseas Territories. ASSI issued an Aerodrome Certificate to St Helena Airport last month having been satisfied with its security and other operational standards. However, the airport stressed that issues of turbulence and windshear were still being investigated.
A spokesman for the St Helena Government said: “Airport Certification from ASSI and operational readiness are parallel processes – so windshear and turbulence mitigation is a separate issue.”
The spokesman said that measures were ongoing to “manage” turbulence and windshear, adding: “Every effort is being made to start airport operations at the earliest opportunity. However, safety is paramount and we will not commence commercial operations until we are satisfied with every aspect of airport operations.”
Who now wants to take responsibility and declare unequivocally that St Helena airport is a “safe” location on which to land? Will enough tourists be willing to take the risk of flying to the island now that they know the major safety concerns aired by several experienced pilots?
I do not wish to get into the “blame game” over which organisation, or organisations, should have identified the windshear issues earlier and therefore carried out more tests ahead of the runway construction. Instead, my immediate concern lies with the islanders and the hardships they are facing to their day-to-day lives.
The British Government, through DFID, is committed to spending 0.7 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on foreign aid even though we know that tens of millions of pounds from the annual £12.2 billion foreign aid budget get squandered by corrupt and inept regimes.
As residents of a British Overseas Territory, everyone on St Helena has an automatic right to a British passport. That is why I am convinced that we have a moral obligation and a duty to pull out all the stops for these Saints, where the average annual wage is said to be less than £6,000 a year, despite also facing higher than average costs for services and food.
Having been unable to fly to St Helena this week, I have devoted substantial time and resources in recent days to investigating the islanders’ problems and I now want the inquiries of my findings to be widely known. Furthermore, I will continue to champion the islanders’ cause until the British and/or St Helena Governments step in with some form of help for them.
In 2009, as a show of support for the island, I took a detour when flying to South America from South Africa in order to fly over St Helena. While conducting a radio interview with Mike Olsson, the journalist I have quoted in this blog, I “buzzed” St Helena, twice flying low around the island and above Jamestown, its capital.
As I looked down then on St Helena six years ago, I, like the residents themselves, was convinced that, with the imminent unveiling of its new airport, the island was about to undergo a dramatic, almost overnight, transformation.
However, for the moment, at least, the old French proverb perhaps best captures what is happening on the island: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.