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St Helena: How to fly into the 'world's most useless airport'

It was dubbed the 'world's most useless airport' when safety concerns delayed its opening, but now St Helena is open for business. But what's it like flying onto a now notorious runway? She who dares...

Julia Buckley
Wednesday 27 December 2017 15:47 GMT
Touching down in St Helena Airport, one of the world's hardest airports to land at

“You have written a new will, haven’t you?” said my neighbour as we were somewhere over the Atlantic, the Namibian coast nipping at our heels.

“Hahaha!” I said, too loudly. “Of course not.” Then I remembered he was an amateur pilot. “Wait,” I said. “Have you?”

“I’m flying into one of the most dangerous airports in the world, then going diving in the middle of the Atlantic,” he tutted. “Of course I’ve made a new will.”

I’m a notoriously bad flyer. Not bad enough not to fly, but bad enough to only fly with certain airlines at certain times of the day, sitting in certain parts of the plane, performing certain rituals that must be performed for us to stay in the air. I’ve been known to have panic attacks, both on boarding and onboard. And I’m getting worse with age.

So what does the most fearful frequent flyer in the world do to challenge their fear of flying? Book a flight to a brand new airport alternately called “the most useless” and “one of the most dangerous” in the world. Think of it as aversion therapy.

The genesis of St Helena Airport has been almost as turbulent as the notorious wind shear that plagues it. A British overseas territory 1,200 miles west of the Angolan coast, until October it was accessible only via a five-to-six-day boat crossing from Cape Town in South Africa. Sometimes, in rough weather, the boat didn’t come. It wasn’t great – for supplies, for healthcare, for tourism. “Serious hikers and old people” were the only people who could be bothered to come, as one high-up Saint (as the 4,500 residents are called) told me.

In 1999, local authorities suggested they needed an airport. In 2005, the UK government agreed to pay for it, partly in the hope that establishing tourism would enable the island to stand on its own two feet (it’s currently propped up by the Department for International Development).

They scheduled a 2010 opening, but that was before companies bidding for tender had withdrawn their offers, as well as a global financial crash and taking into account the need to level off mountainous landscape – filling in a chasm with eight million cubic metres of rock to construct a single flat surface on this most voluptuous of islands. Five years and £285m of UK taxpayer funding later, the airport was complete, only to find there were “operational difficulties” that rendered it non-functional.

Building an airport on a cliffside wasn’t conducive to landing airplanes, it turned out. Winds gather speed across the open seas, slamming straight into St Helena’s sheer cliffs – and the runway built on top of them. They change direction and speed at a split second’s notice. They are dangerous.

So the opening of the airport was delayed as they tested the wind shear. Trial charter flights didn’t go well (one former acrobatics pilot apparently called the landing “hair-raising”). When the first passenger jet – a Boeing 737-800 (in British Airways livery, operated by BA subsidiary Comair) – arrived for a trial run in April 2016, it took three attempts to land: the passengers inside, locals love to tell you, were screaming; the pilot had to sit in a room by himself with coffee and cigarettes for an hour after landing.

And so the airport opening was put on hold indefinitely, and the RMS St Helena ship, which was due to be retired, was given a stay of execution. St Helena International Airport was infamously dubbed “the world’s most useless airport”.

And then, in July 2017, it was suddenly announced that flights would start.

Not the large passenger planes connecting London to the island via an intermediate stop, as had initially been envisioned, but 99-seater Embraer jets operated by South African carrier Airlink from Johannesburg. A maximum of 76 seats could be filled, it was announced, because of safety issues – the lower weight would allow the planes to use a shorter section of the runway.

The first flight landed on 14 October 2017. And four weeks later, here am I, the nerviest frequent flyer in the world, about to take one of the most notorious flights in the world.

Check-in is at Johannesburg airport, at the ungodly hour of 7am – the 9am flight has been scheduled, I will later be told by the governor of St Helena, in order to have the least wind shear to battle. “Tell me I’ll be OK,” I mutter to the Airlink lady, who’s demanded my travel insurance documents as well as my passport (these will be scrutinised again on landing, so expensive is it for sick visitors to be airlifted out). “Of course you’ll be OK,” she says. “I’ve done check-in for all the flights, and everyone’s been fine.” Then she pauses. “Of course, I’ve only checked them in when they’re going there,” she says darkly. “I’ve never seen anyone come back.”

I stop at the airport pharmacy for travel sickness pills and ginger sweets. The woman suggests some homeopathic medicine for stress, and I gratefully accept, even though I don’t believe in homeopathy.

On the bus to the plane, nobody looks stressed (later, I will be let in on the secret that some of them were hiding it well). An Airlink representative travels with us, explaining to the entire bus how we will board and sit on the plane, and I wonder: is this a Johannesburg thing, an Airlink thing or is it because this flight is so dangerous we must have the protocol drummed into us in order to survive? I think of a colleague who did this flight in its second week (it had been delayed two days because of fog on the island). She had told me not to worry, that she’d spoken to the pilot and he’d told her that only four of them are qualified to fly this route. At first I’d felt reassured, but then I’d thought: hang on. Of all the pilots in all the world, only four are good enough to fly to St Helena? How dangerous is this?

Getting into my seat (by the window, exit row, all the easier to leap from), I introduce myself to my neighbour: Hi, I’m Julia, I’m terrified of flying. “No way!” says Brad (not his real name). “I’m a pilot.” He regales me with tales of his near misses and almost fatal errors all the way to Windhoek.

Ah yes, Windhoek. The flight to St Helena touches down, after just under two hours, in Namibia – to pick up passengers from Cape Town, was the initial plan, though that’s now not possible (later, a Saint will mutter something about Airlink being a tardy bill-payer, though there’s no evidence to suggest that). Instead, we just sit on the tarmac for an hour, not allowed off the plane; not technically allowed, the cabin crew tell us, even out of our seats, unless we need the loo. New (but slightly less inedible – this is an airline, after all) food is brought onboard, a toilet is unblocked, and one of the business-class passengers hops out to inspect the plane under the wing. Later, I will be told – because the Saints are world experts on their airport, even if they’ve never flown before – that there’s an engineer on every flight to do the pre-take-off inspection at Windhoek and be around in case anything needs a tweak at St Helena. “With a landing like this, it needs to be in tip-top condition,” nods Brad, knowingly.

“We’ve checked on the St Helena weather,” announces the pilot over the intercom. “It’s quite normal conditions, standard gusts of 60kmph. We expect to be on the ground 10 minutes behind schedule, and it’ll be a little bumpy going up now.”

It sure is bumpy as we take off from Windhoek, the heat thinning the air and making it feel like we’re on a particularly lazy horse, doing a slow, uncomfortable transition from walk to trot. Brad sees me gripping the armrests. “Gosh!” he says. “You’re going to be in trouble later.” Really, I ask him. Oh yes, he says. But there’s nothing we can do now.

So, faced with our impending doom, over the next almost four hours, skimming up Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and flying out across the limitless Atlantic, away from humanity, Brad and I unburden ourselves to each other. He tells me about his great, lost love; I tell him about the family friend killed in a plane crash when I was a toddler; about a fear of flying so primal that I chose my job partly in the hope that I might rip it out by the roots; about my friend, an aviation journalist, who, when I asked whether I should risk flying to St Helena, told me: “Maybe not."

He shares what’s in his will, and comforts me when I lament I haven’t made one. He tells me what to look out for on descent – what the flaps, wheels and landing equipment will do as we prepare to land, what will happen if we can’t land safely and need to do a go-around. If all else fails, he says, the runway on Ascension Island – 700 miles north-west – is not built on a cliff, and we have enough fuel to get there. “That’s what we were doing at Windhoek,” he says. I think, if something terrible happens, at least with Brad I have a chance.

And then the pilot is back, warning us about the landing. There are scattered clouds at 1,500 feet, and winds are “gusting at 55mph”, he says – “Whew!” says Brad. “Definitely a go-around.” We will be “uncomfortable”, warns the captain, but these are “quite normal conditions for St Helena”.

“It’s possible we will need to do a turnaround, and if we do that, we’ll turn left and go around again,” he says. “We do expect turbulence on our final approach, but it’s nothing to be concerned about.” He apologises that we’re running late. I study the emergency landing instructions and practise my grip on the exit handle.

And suddenly we’re grinding down through thick cloud, the island buried somewhere beneath us. “Whoah,” says Brad. “This is thick. Maybe we won’t be able to land.” I neck a homeopathic stress pill. “They wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t safe, would they?” I whimper. “Oof, no,” says Brad. “It would kill tourism.”

And then he says: “But this is going to be a close one.” He stiffens in his seat.

We’ll effectively be doing a semi-emergency landing, he’s already explained to me – the wind shear is too severe for a gradual descent, so we’ll come in higher than usual and then slam down on the tarmac at the last minute (that’s why the plane has to be both small and underweight – there’s only so much runway for it to brake on, and a normal planeload of people could tip it over the edge). With the winds this high – or “normal conditions for St Helena, I checked” – he thinks we’ll need to make at least two attempts at landing. Brad is in ecstasy at the idea of a go-around – “Think of that G-force!”. I ask, nervously, whether there’s some kind of barrier or sandbank at the end of the runway, ready to cushion us if we don’t stop in time. He looks horrified. “Are you kidding? We’d crash into that if we were doing a go-around.” No, he says, for safety reasons, the runway ends at the cliff edge, and beyond it is a sheer drop into the southern Atlantic. If the plane doesn’t stop, it goes in.

Brad is getting stressed now. I try to reach for my camera and he snaps at me, forbidding me to move. He, too, is gripping the armrest. He’s still smiling – this is an adrenaline fiend who’s booked on a mid-ocean dive the moment we land, after all – but it’s through gritted teeth.

We slide down, through the banks of clouds – it’s not particularly bumpy, and I brace myself for it to get worse. And then suddenly we’re below them, and I can see the island in the distance. Wait – we’re through the traditionally turbulent bit and I haven’t so much as gasped? Was it really that easy? Could it be that we will live?

St Helena – brown, cliffy, wart-like, “an island that the devil shat out, going from one world to the next", in the words of one of Napoleon’s retinue in exile – is to our right, outside my window. We glide past huge cliffs shearing vertically into the ocean. Past Jamestown, the island’s only town, squatting at the bottom of a seafront canyon and squeezed by two brown cliffs to either side. Past more cliffs, topped with rather luscious green hills. Towards a true monster of a cliff, a behemoth rearing up above all the others, smooth, dark brown, forbidding. The Barn, I will later find out it’s called. The cliff that Napoleon saw every day and found most depressing of all. The ringmaster of the wind shear.

Footage shows a non-commercial flight landing at St Helena airport in October 2016

And suddenly the plane is rocking and rolling – a horse again, but a show-jumper this time, tackling Grand National-sized fences. It all happens so quickly – I hear people gasping, I turn to Brad, who looks ashen, I look at the cabin in front of me, rearing up and then down again, and I look at The Barn out of the window, hurtling towards me as we lurch sideways towards it. This is it, I have time to think, this is how it ends, ploughing into an excrement-coloured cliff – and then suddenly there’s an almighty bump and we’re on the ground, brakes squealing.

I breathe “we’re alive”, and I turn to Brad to say “we’re alive” and the words freeze on my lips as I see him, eyes scrunched shut, gripping the armrest for dear life, and I remember him earlier saying “it’s not over once we touch down, we’ve got to stop in time”. I feel the chill in my stomach that I hadn’t had time to feel while we were bucking in the sky just seconds ago, and I see the brand new airport skidding past as we screech down the runway, and then I can feel us slowing down and pray it’s going to be in time – because Brad had said: “There’s a moment at which the pilot will have to decide whether we’re going to stop or if he needs to take off again.” I feel like we’re not going fast enough to take off again, but we’re also not going slow enough to stop, not yet – and then suddenly the plane’s groaning and we really are stopping and I think, please let there be some runway left, and there is, and we’ve stopped, and I can’t even look outside to see how close we were (although I do point the camera out of the window and the photos show us perilously close to where the tarmac spills into nothingness). I turn back to Brad and say: “We really are alive now.” He smiles, and I burst out crying, and as a planeload of passengers applaud, he says: “That was rough.” He leans back in his chair, and I reach for my laptop in the seatback pocket in front of me, desperate to get off the plane, and I realise I can’t even grab it because I’m shaking so much.

Going through customs – because St Helena has a rigorous immigration process that mimics the hard questioning of Donald Trump’s border control, and then demands you produce print-outs of your travel insurance and return flight as well – I look so discombobulated that the lady asks if I’m sure, absolutely sure, I have nothing to declare. When I explain I’m recovering from the flight, she waves me straight through.

“Which way did you fly in?” Saints will ask over the next week – because, it turns out, the wind shear is much worse coming in from the north (as we did). And when I say, dramatically, “past The Barn”, they will look gravely impressed.

“You’re so fearful,” a top-ranking islander will tell me later, when I tell him how I found the flight; even though a man – a manly man, who will spend his entire week on St Helena literally running up and down mountains – has just said the same thing, yet he was not called a wimp. “You’re so afraid of everything, I’m surprised you ever leave the house.” And I will think, well, if you will build an airport on top of a cliff where the wind slams in from both Angola and Brazil, to which only four pilots on the world are qualified to fly (though I think it’s six, now – there were a couple on my flight who’d come to train), you should maybe expect your guests to be a little nervy. In fact, you could make a lot of money by playing on that. I’d buy the T-shirt. I settled for a tote bag.

As it happens, on the return flight, I will be fine. Is it because of the adrenaline coursing through me after a run-in with my island nemesis at the airport? The fact that I’m mothering someone else more scared than me? A week of island time? Actually, it’s because we depart to the south – the less wind-sheared side – and take-off is smooth as butter.

Would I fly there again? Actually, yes. It was only a few seconds of abject terror, and with hindsight the captain did his best to warn us – it’s just that, without an explanation of what exactly wind shear feels like, it was hard to stay calm in the moment. Also, of course, I have that fear of flying, so not everyone will find it so alarming. And if the winds are right and you land from the south, you’ll be fine. Either way, the island is worth the journey.

Though next time I’ll make a will.

Update 30/1/18: The St Helena Government press office has asked to make it clear that there are now 7 Airlink pilots qualified to fly into St Helena Airport for commercial flights; additionally, outside of the scheduled flights, any licensed pilot with category C experience is allowed to fly into St Helena (there are three categories of airports, of which C is the most challenging, requiring additional pilot considerations and posing problems for the approach, landing or take-off). While the launch of commercial flights was indeed delayed, the airport had seen charter flights as well as medical evacuations prior to October 2017.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Return flights to St Helena from Johannesburg cost from £804 with Airlink. Virgin Atlantic flies from Heathrow to Joburg from £609 return.

More information

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