St Helena: First commercial plane touches down on remote British territory

Inaugural landing at 'world's most useless airport' successful, but tourist boom unlikely

Ed Cropley
Sunday 15 October 2017 00:11 BST
The inaugural commercial flight between Johannesburg and Saint Helena shows the cliffs of the volcanic tropical island
The inaugural commercial flight between Johannesburg and Saint Helena shows the cliffs of the volcanic tropical island

One of the world's most isolated outposts joined the 21st century on Saturday, when the British island of St Helena welcomed its first commercial flight.

As the inaugural plane from Johannesburg touched down on the forbidding volcanic island in the middle of the south Atlantic, the 68 passengers on board clapped and cheered.

“I've never felt so emotional in all my life,” said Libby Weir-Breen, a British travel operator who has been bringing tourists to the island, 1,200 miles (1,900 km) west of the African nation of Angola, for the last 12 years.

She had flown from Scotland to be on the plane, and dabbed away tears as it touched down on the spectacular cliff-side runway of what was once dubbed “the world's most useless airport”.

“I never thought I'd see this day,” she said.

The 4,500 people living on St Helena – a British colony since 1658 most famous as the windswept outpost where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte lived his last years in exile – might also be forgiven for thinking the day would never come.

There was talk of building an airport on St Helena from the 1930s. The best site, one of the few flat spaces on the notoriously craggy island, â€was ruled out because of a nearby breeding ground for the wirebird, an endangered species of plover.

An airport at the new site, on top of a valley filled in with 8 million cubic metres of rock, suffered numerous setbacks and delays as costs ballooned to £285m, to the horror of the British government.

The runway and terminal were completed in 2016 but the official opening was pushed back another year after test flights were buffeted by wicked cross-winds, making it unsafe for large aircraft to use.

With the UK suffering under austerity measures, the media was quick to condemn it as a white elephant, or “the world's most useless airport”, with a price tag of more than £60,000 for every one of the island's residents.

Before the opening of the airport, which will receive weekly flights to and from the South African commercial capital, the only way to St Helena was a five-night voyage from Cape Town aboard the RMS St Helena, a British postal ship.

With the risk of wind-shear limiting the size of planes and numbers of passengers on Saturday's flight had room for 100 but only 68 on board due to weight restrictions, meaning the hoped-for tourist boom is unlikely to materialise.

Hotel capacity has jumped in the last few years from just a few dozen rooms to more than 100, but, with a maximum of 3,500 visitors a year, the island is unlikely to be weaned off the £53m pounds it receives in aid every year from London.

Besides Napoleonâ€'s old house, Longwood, and a cemetery holding some of the 6,000 Afrikaner prisoners sent there by the British during the Anglo-Boer wars in South Africa, St Helena offers scuba diving and walking in pristine natural wildernesses.

Governor Lisa Phillips dismissed the criticism and said that even before it accepted its first commercial flight, the airport had proved its worth in the last 18 months by enabling several life-saving emergency medical evacuations, including a newborn child.

“I've seen the headlines about the world's most useless airport, but for St Helena, this has already been the most useful airport,” she told reporters after greeting them on the tarmac. “It's priceless.”


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