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After taxiing to the end of the runway, the 146 Avro RJ85 prepares for take off heading South. Photo by Emma Weaver.

First Passenger Flight Alleviates Isolation

May 04, 2017 Written by Emma Weaver

History was made when St. Helena Island’s first passenger flight touched down at 1:55 GMT yesterday.

For centuries, St. Helenians have crowded James’ Bay wharf to see family and friends arriving or departing their remote island by ship. But May 3, for the first time, the tight-knit community instead journeyed to the opposite side of the island and crowded into the tiny St. Helena Airport terminal.

A British Aerospace 146 Avro RJ85 was bringing home 60 members of the community.

The May 3 passenger flight came 17 days after St. Helena’s lifeline, the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, went into unexpected dry dock for the second time in two months. Passengers and cargo from three voyages (255, 256 and 257), stuck in either Cape Town or on the island, had no other established way to get to or from St. Helena.

For over two weeks, the St. Helena Government (SHG) looked for a solution.

Although construction of the St. Helena Airport was completed in 2016, the airport had so far only been used for a few handfuls of private flights, and a handful of test flights. Windshear issues had prevented large commercial passenger planes, such as the Boeing 737-800, from operating on the runway as planned.

Atlantic Star Airlines, which was established solely to serve St. Helena and the few other South Atlantic islands and which had been using short-haul Avro RJs from the beginning, was told April 28 by SHG that it was out of the tender process. Atlantic Star’s Richard Brown was disappointed in SHG’s choices for future tenders and the interim charter flight, but was glad his airline showed Avro RJs could land well on the tricky runway.

But as an Atlantic Star Airlines Avro RJ100 had completed a successful test flight to the island on 21 Oct. 2016, SHG apparently began looking for a smaller, short-haul plane to transport passengers as an interim measure until the RMS left dry dock.

But SHG, which is currently going through the tender process for future commercial passenger flights, said it did not want to disturb the tender process by choosing an involved airline for the interim flight.

They therefore contracted with Air Partner, which sourced a British Aerospace plane - and the airline SA Airlink - for the charter flight, although SA Airlink is part of the tender process.

The BAE 146 Avro RJ85 landed on runway 20 (the sole runway is named runway 20 when aircrafts land from the North, and runway 02 when aircrafts land from the South) without a hitch, and family, friends and a momentous atmosphere awaited the members of the island’s first passenger flight in the arrivals area. The island had been awaiting this day for years, and the crowd was overjoyed.

At 3:20 p.m. GMT, the plane took back off with 48 passengers on board - although the original estimate was that there would be 80 passengers.

The Avro RJ85, which was taking passengers between Cape Town and St. Helena, did not leave or enter Africa directly through Cape Town. The plane stopped for fuel in Namibe, Angola, on the way to St. Helena, and later re-entered Africa through Windhoek before returning to Cape Town by 23-36 SA time.

Each passenger leaving the island had come into the island via, and had expected to leave via, the RMS. Baggage allowances on the RMS are liberal (one cubic meter of hold baggage, up to two cabin bags weighing no more than 23 kilos), so many passengers left most of their belongings on the island, or even in the airport, as they struggled to meet the strict requirements of the island’s first international passenger flight (one 7-kilo carryon, one 20-kilo checked bag and one purse).

Future passengers flying out of the St. Helena Airport will be allowed only 15 kilos in their checked bag. The tender process is set to end at the beginning of British Summer. No further passenger flights are scheduled between now and the end of the tender process.

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The St. Helena Airport parking lot began filling up by 10 a.m., when the airport opened. The control building is visible in the background. Photo: 1 of 12
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The airport’s terminal is the most modern building on the island, although the old cannons stationed out front are a tie-in to the island’s history. Photo: 2 of 12
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Most passengers still had RMS St. Helena tags on their luggage when they checked in May 3. Photo: 3 of 12
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The landside restaurant, the only food/drink option for visitors in the airport, was packed. The cafe ran out of almost everything. Many commented that the designers “didn’t understand St. Helena” because the viewing deck and restaurant were too small for the amount of people who would consistently turn up to send off and welcome family and friends. Photo: 4 of 12
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The runway is one of the most unique in the world; a mountaintop was blasted away, and the residue used to fill in a valley, so a flat area big enough for a runway could be constructed. Photo: 5 of 12
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Residents young and old wait eagerly for the plane to come into sight. Photo: 6 of 12
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The viewing balcony was full, and as the plane came into sight, a mixture of excited emotions was visible in the crowd. Photo: 7 of 12
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The BAE 146 Avro RJ85 taxiing toward the terminal. Photo: 8 of 12
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A child takes a video of the plane over the wall of the viewing balcony. Photo: 9 of 12
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The arrivals area of the terminal was crammed as people waited to welcome the 60 members of the first passenger flight into the airport. Photo: 10 of 12
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The afternoon was filled with emotional greetings as friends and family appeared through the sliding doors into the arrivals area. Photo: 11 of 12
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The plane lifts into the air, on its way to Windhoek before returning to Cape Town. Photo: 12 of 12
Photos by Emma Weaver

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