I was there, I can tell my Grandchildren that on the 15th September, 2015 I shared in a piece of history. It is a remarkable co-incidence that on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, one of the most important days in aviation history of the British Empire, that another, far flung out post of the Empire should join the rest of the World and take its first step in its own aviation history.
At 13:47 GMT (according to my watch) a small, Beachcraft King Air 200 aircraft touched down on St Helena. Years of planning, and thousands of man hours have brought us to this point where St Helena is no-longer one of the most isolated places on earth. And as the plane touched down I was there, stood alongside other members of St Helena’s photography and media community, just 100yrds from the runway.
There is much written about the airport, its construction, and planning, incredible feats of engineering so I will not go into it here, but instead hope to convey what it feels like to be here during this momentous and historic occasion. I am of course incredibly fortunate, not only to of been granted ringside seats today, but to even be here on this little Island in the first place. From my initial few months of self-doubt and worry, I have worked very hard to establish myself here, an ex-pat without a contract, trying to gain peoples trust and confidence in my work and to spread the word of what I hope I can deliver for the Island and its people. It was therefore incredibly disappointing when I was, at first, turned down from my opportunity to photograph this great event. But, as a testament to, “if you don’t ask you don’t get” I contacted Basil Read directly and to my great surprise I was granted access, alongside the Islands media photographers, to get within touching distance of the runway.
With insider information on the exact time of arrival I met the others at Basil Reads offices in Longwood and found a busy gathering of media, Island dignitaries, Councillors and others who, like me, had convinced someone to allow them special access. I was, to say the least, feeling a little over whelmed and perhaps out of place, after all why did I deserve to be here amongst such company when many many hundreds of others, some would argue more deserving than myself, were left to watch from distant vantage points across the South East corner of the Island.
The media and photographers were ferried by shuttle bus to three pre-designated sites along the runway. Having been myself for a preview of the sites I knew the location I wanted to be at, but had no idea if I would get my choice. As chance happened I did, and by just after 12.30 myself, representatives from South Atlantic Media Services and the Independent, Basil Reads HR officer and his daughter (a photographer) were each selecting our own little spot on our vantage point and chattering away about what would happen next, which direction the plane would come from, who would get the best photo etc.
With radio communication we knew that touch down would be very close to 13:35 so with an hour to go we settled down to wait. Prosperous Bay plain, the site of the airport is an incredible landscape, moon like sands and rocks of purple and red dominate, the desert landscape now punctuated by the pale concrete runway and rather Isolated and lonely looking terminal building. The wind, though light by St Helena standards, whipped up the occasional swirl of dust, and I sat watching the run way wind sock anxious that the weather didn’t deteriorate.
Having ignored the advice I give my children on going to the toilet before leaving the house, I became increasingly desperate to relieve myself. As time ticked by I knew that holding on could result in me missing the big event, and so I wandered off to find myself a little boys room behind a rock. As time went by I noticed that at least two others in our party did the same and I began to realise the nerves that we all felt. Was it nerves that we would miss the big photo, that something would go wrong, of the enormous change that the next ten minutes would signify, I don’t know, but we were definitely nervous.
We had a radio call stating that the Beachcraft was now just 100 nautical miles away, approximately 20 minutes by our calculations, and would approach from the North East, right over the imposing black rocks of the Barn, dominating our view. Silence fell upon us, we sat listening for the sound of propellers, the silence broken only by the odd nervous joke about shooting right past and missing the Island altogether.
And then, in the distance, a flash of sunlight on metal first caught my eye and then a black dot appeared. Very shortly after we could hear crowds on the distance slopes, the many hundreds of people watching shouting cries of “there it is” in unison. The airport brings about mixed feelings and emotions for the locals here, but undoubtedly today has shown me that along with concerns there is huge excitement and support for the airport and the changes it may bring.
The plane moved in closer, following the line of the runway as it made its first fly past. A twin engine propeller plane, it was larger than I expected and I found that even at normal flying speed I was able to pan and follow the flight path with my camera, much to everyone’s relief.
Another fly past and finally, the moment of truth, from past the Barn to my right I followed the plane in as it dropped and glided along the runway, touching down several hundred yards from where we had expected. I had picked the wrong spot and new instantly that the money shot of tyres screeching belonged to someone else.
And then it was done, a moment of silence returned as we all looked at each other, as if it were important to remember who we were stood with at that moment in time. The airport was interesting but insignificant to me just thirteen months ago, now, as I stood looking around it brings about all sorts of emotions and feelings. It is different here now, and there is no going back.
We waited to be collected by our shuttle bus and we bemoaned our choice of positioning, cursing those who had taken the “secondary” spots and joked that the pilots should have known better and perhaps could even do the whole thing again.
Before long we were ferried off to the parking area and had our opportunity to photograph the plane up close, its crew, and even have our own photographs next to the first airplane ever to land on St Helena. A joyous occasion it was also a little chaotic, reporters, photographers, staff and dignitaries all wanting their own photos, interviews, their own moments of history. A few quick photos and I stood back to allow the “more important” people to get on with things.
Since returning home I have felt something of a come down, strange given that I didn’t know I was on an “up”. But being part of something so huge gives you a high. Social media has gone crazy this afternoon as everyone rushed to get the first or best photos out there for the world to see. As I speak my own photos on facebook have just hit 20,000 views, in seven hours!!! Collectively between the different sources and social media avenues I guess that photos of this Beechcraft King Air 200 landing on St Helena have probably been viewed around 100,000 times since touch down.
What the future holds now we don’t know, in many respects that is up to the Saints and whether they embrace the changes that are about to occur. Time will tell, but for now, today history was made, and I was there.