Boeing 737-800

At 12:12 pm on the 18th April 2016, St Helena witnessed the next in a recent string of historic firsts, and once again I was there to witness flight MN8427 landing on St Helena soil. This was the first large jet aircraft and crucially the first landing of THE Boeing 737 British Airways Aircraft that will be flying on a weekly basis from Johannesburg to St Helena from the end of May. The plane is brand new, hot of the production line, and it glistened in the tropical St Helena sun shine on this perfect April lunch time.

The buzz has been around for several days, but reached new levels this morning as the first posts appeared on Facebook indicating that for the first time ever, St Helena was listed as a flight destination on an Airport departures board.

13055667_10153393095891481_3334065671304722321_o

And there it is, Flight MN8427 to St Helena.

As it flew North West to Namibia before heading out over the Atlantic, people tracked the location of the plane as I, and my photography colleagues made our way to the now familiar spot on Mole Spider Hill.

Presentation1

Tracking the flight this morning

Schools and businesses closed as the Island gathered to witness the historic occasion. Bev was positioned along with the pupils of Prince Andrew School, and, unbeknown to me at the time Charlie, who had managed to gain permission to leave his nearby class mates and sit with Mummy as the historic events unfolded. Despite my privileged position I did feel a tinge of sadness that I wasn’t sharing this occasion with my family up on the hill.

But privileged I was. I’d like to think my hard work in photography and promoting the Island had warranted my spot amongst the media and other lucky few on our run way side vantage point, but I think in reality I would not have been invited had I not the nerve to simply ask enough people in the right positions as to whether I could join the more recognised local media. But lucky I was, and that privilege was and is certainly not lost on me given the hundred more deserving people watching from their distant points across the Island. Most however were just filled with excitement and pride that this day has arrived.

St Helena Commercial Jet Flight (1)

Crowds gather to watch the historic event

We arrived in position well ahead of schedule and with a two hour wait we chatted and made small talk about the changes ahead that are about to be unleashed on the Island. Are we ready, do we have enough accommodation, how will this affect the unique culture and environment? The questions and doubts soon evaporated when someone shouted, “there it is, above the cloud, just coming past the Barn”.   I looked, but couldn’t see, and began to worry as to why it was only me who couldn’t see the shiny dot in the distance, at least I worried until Bruce Salt, Australian born to Saint patronage said, “I can’t see it”, relieved I was to turn around and find the only person who could see it, had binoculars and I needn’t of worried as before long the twinkling of a bright shiny aeroplane came into full view.

St Helena Commercial Jet Flight (2)

Our first glimpse.

“It’s landing gear is still up” I heard, and sure enough it was, we hadn’t been warned about the fly past we were treated to, as the beautiful Boeing 737 flew past just feet from the tarmac.

St Helena Commercial Jet Flight (6)

Stunning Boeing 737- 800 ZS-ZWG Flies Past St Helena Airport.

Leaving the Southern end of the run way she circled round, gear down for her landing approach. Much slower this time, she edged to the runway and kicking up dust in the jet stream she suddenly veered and then climbed steeply away, apparently aborted the landing. “Does she have enough fuel to return to J’berg” I asked, being told that Ascension would be her alternative landing in the event of problems. We had discussed the wind conditions whilst sat waiting for this landing. Looking to the South of the runway the wind blew strong in a North Easterly direction, at the opposite Northern end the wind blew South Westerly but, judging by the wind sock to a lesser extent, and, at our own vantage point mid-way along the run way it blew directly at us, westward with some force.

St Helena Commercial Jet Flight (11)We can only assume at this stage the challenging wind conditions led to the aborted first attempt, but before long the aircraft was once again close to the tarmac, this time several meters closer to the precarious start of the runway and we held our breath as the screech of rubber on concrete and the smoke plumbed from the tyres. Touchdown.

 

St Helena Commercial Jet Flight (28)

In all her glory. Click on the image to see a full high resolution file. This is actually 15 photos stitched together to form a highly detailed image.

St Helena Commercial Jet Flight (30)

360 degree panorama looking across St Helena Runway, Airport, my colleagues, Dianas Peak, the waiting crowds at Millennium Forest and the Barn. Click to view full size image.

I have to admit that at this point it was all quite emotional. It’s hard to explain just how significant this is. As I sat at the bus stop this morning I spoke with friend and Saint, Maria Thomas. “Well, today is the day” I said.  ”Yes, I can’t quite get my head round it” was the reply “It doesn’t seem real”. In the western world we take air travel for granted, but this Island has been cut off from the outside world since its discovery 500 years ago. Nothing has arrived her or left here unless by sea for contraries, the world was five days away. Now, it is five hours away. Speaking with Maria it became overwhelming to think about, I can only imagine what Saints are feeling today, and at that moment. Their world has just been turned upside down, for the better or worse. False dawns have come and gone, and the airport is now here.

Although I have not had any involvement I can’t help but feel proud, proud for the Island and its people, proud for Basil Read, Halcrow and the numerous others involved. Proud of every Thai worker living near the site at Bradleys. What an incredible job, truly it is inspiring. The rest of the World seems to agree. As I write the photos I posted to my Facebook page have been viewed by 18,000 people in less than 8 hours! In total, between the various outlets you can probably make that 100,000! It’s quite something for this tiny little sleepy Island that no-one apparently has heard of!

Whilst I was lucky enough to have ring side seats today, I was also lucky enough to have a nosey round the airport, with my camera last week. It’s a lovely building, small but aesthetically at least, perfectly formed. Clad with local blue stone, it reminds me of a Snowdonia art gallery built of black slate. Perfectly in keeping with the rugged like surroundings of this Mars like corner of St Helena.

St Helena Airport (22)

Arriving at St Helena Airport

St Helena Airport (1)

Saint Helena Airport

Inside the airport is modern with clean lines and finished with oak effect panelling and brushed steel signs. Fantastic views over the runway and taxi area are afforded to both passengers and family and friends alike, and I suspect a cup of coffee whilst waiting for the next flight to arrive will become a popular pastime for a while. I stood with Bruce today, and said to him “It’s incredible to think that many people on St Helena have never seen a jumbo jet before”. Much to my surprise he replied, “Yes, like me”.  Even with weekly flights it will be some time before the novelty of watching a plane arrive on St Helena wears off.

St Helena Airport (20)

First view of St Helena as you leave the Airport. Diana’s peak will be in view on a clear day.

St Helena Airport (21)

And welcome to St Helena. Please enjoy your stay.

We look forward now until the next big day, opening ceremony. 21st of May is St Helena Day, the day that the Island was discovered, how fitting that that same day should herald a new dawn. Of course St Helena day was always chosen to be the opening day, it makes complete sense. The fact that it will still be going ahead on St Helena Day, as planned some two or more years ago is nothing short of incredible, and I’m so glad that I will be there once more.

Onwards and Upwards

Since my last post things have certainly returned to some sense of normality, at least, normal for us on St Helena. Out of no-where I am extremely busy again, and all of those little jobs that I really should of done when I had nothing to do, and didn’t, are now staring me in the face making me wonder when indeed I am going to do them!

Photos of the Jamesbay Waves I promised in the last blog.

The response to my last blog entry has been somewhat overwhelming. It seems I am not alone in my feelings of self-doubt and miss-direction and that many people have appreciated what I wrote, whilst others have offered sympathy and support. It is an odd thing barring your heart to the world, particularly to those who are in your day to day life, who then know how your feeling and, understandably want to help. But it turns out writing is easier than speaking, and my usual response has been “I’m fine” when someone asks if I’m ok. In reality I am a lot better than I was. I don’t suppose to think I have suddenly gotten over everything, but being busy helps immensely, as does having supportive family, good friends and good times. There is also a real therapy to writing down your thoughts. Confronting yourself and feelings, and attempting to apply a logic to them so that others can read and understand, helps to box them up and rationalise your feelings, you can then start to break down the problems and fix them.

The first thing I have to do in future is to recognise when I have less work on, and do productive things with the time that is freed up, for now however that is not a problem.

_MG_7356

Sunset Behind High Knoll Fort viewed from our garden!

_MG_6556-HDR

Sunset over JamesBay, Stunning.

 

In terms of photography out of the blue I had numerous photoshoots, I am resuming some product photography for a local jewellery designer and I finished editing the shots from my first wedding shoot. The wedding took place a few weeks ago. I was incredibly nervous, after all, when the day is over all that is left are the photos and memories, and I didn’t want to screw this up. I am thrilled with the results and the feedback has been fantastic. You can see for yourself here, and here. It was a wonderful experience, to be invited in to someone else’s special day, strangers to all intense and purpose is a true privilege. As the photographer you spend the whole day with the couple, you are the only one who does, you build a relationship with them and in many ways direct many elements of the day. I have a new found respect for wedding photographers, next time you see the cost of a wedding photographer, give some thought to the responsibility that lies on their shoulders. Plus the hours of work that will go into editing the shots once everyone else on the day has finished their work, I know I will never look at them in the same light again.

I have also been helping out on the Enchanted Isle, the stellar sightseeing boat on the Island, helping primary school groups on a dolphin watching trip, and with Bev’s Marine Biology A level class. Bev has signed up for a global project to test for plastics in the worlds oceans, taking water samples at depth with a special piece of kit called a niskin bottle. Great fun was had and the day was followed up with more swimming in the sea at Lemon Valley. This gave ma great opportunity to test my new underwater camera kit. Unfortunately the underwater flash (strobe) that I had purchased second hand showed its value in the bath the night before by leaking and breaking on me, but the camera is great and in better conditions and with some practice I’m hoping to get some good shots with it during dives around the Island.

The family and I have also enjoyed our first night at Banyan Cottage. Nestled in the bottom of the Valley of Sandy Bay, this 100 year plus cottage can be hired out for the princely sum of £20 for three nights. Those of you who have followed from the begging may remember a birthday party we attended there some 12 months or more ago, this time we were there for the night, and I don’t mind saying we were in fact dreading it. A stone cottage equipped with the basics, a few beds, pots and pans, running water and lots of nearby wood for fuel. With no electricity fire and candles are the order of the day. The children loved it, what an adventure and experience for them and despite our worries, Bev and I had the most wonderful night with great company and many laughs. Banyan cottage shows the diversity that exists on St Helena. Here I am on my computer typing away, editing photos and uploading my blog to the world on St Helena, whilst in other parts of this tiny Island, less than a few miles away, people still live in this subsistence manor. There are not many in 2016 without electricity, but I have no doubt there are some, and many more without electric ovens who rely on fire wood for cooking and heating and who’s way of life is from a simple, some would argue, nicer time.

Whatever the pros and cons of modern life, to escape from it entirely for a night is wonderful. We cooked food on a fire, roasted marshmallows and drank beer until the early hours of the morning. 3am to be precise, and with the sun waking us up before 7am there was little sleep to be had.

And so it was that I rushed off the next morning, barely awake to ensure that I arrived on time for another huge milestone in the life of St Helena, the first Jet Engine Airplane to Land here. Following a wonderful piece by fellow blogger, what the Saints did Next, I was inspired to contact Air Access to see if it were possible for me to gain access to the newly finished terminal building to take some shots to show you all. Unfortunately that request has been temporarily turned down I was invited to be part of a small group of media representatives to photograph the arrival of the Bombardier Challenger 300 as it arrived to complete further tests for the airport. With it arrived members of ASSI, the Air Safety Support International personal who are here to conduct final audits on the airport, and, with fingers crossed, give it the all clear for the commencement of commercial flights. Just saying that in quite extraordinary. I don’t wish to out a jinx on things, but we are so close now, within a few weeks people will be able to fly here. I will save my feelings on this until it happens, but to take a quick look at what has been achieved is valid right now.

In 2011 permission and funds from the UK government were provided to enable St Helena to build an airport, to open the Island up to tourism and to reduce its dependency on overseas aid. With that in mind, Basil Read, a South African company were announced as the successful bidders. £210 million was granted for construction. But there was a problem, there was no flat land, solution, dynamite a mountain and use the rock to fill in a valley to create the flat land, simples. But wait, the area ear-marked for this airport had no road, ok, so they built a road, up some of the most difficult and steepest terrain you can imagine. But before they could build a road, they needed to get equipment, supplies and the like onto the island, and there is nowhere for a ship to dock. No problem they said we will build a temporary wharf, allowing the first ship to actually dock on the island in its 500 years history, and eventually replace it with a permanent wharf to provide access for container shipping once the RMS is de-commissioned. And so they did, apparently on budget and on time, to the very day if the last tests are successful. For £210 million pound Basil Read have achieved the impossible, they have built a wharf (having never built one before) built an access road, built bulk fuel installations to supply the airport, built infrastructure to support the build (such as a garage, and workers accommodation), flattened a mountain and filled in a valley, built a runway, terminal building control tower and all navigation equipment ( all of which they hadn’t done before), they have built an airport on one of the most remote and challenging places on earth. They have done all this on time, on budget and with an Island full of cynicism and lack of belief behind them. Having been let down with many false dawns before few on the Island really ever thought they could do it, that this day would come, and no one thought it would be ready on time. By all accounts it will be, and we are now a tiny step away from something incredible, everyone involved should be incredibly proud regardless of the outcome of the tests this week.

We have witnessed so many firsts in our time here, first docking of a ship, first mobile phone service, first airplane to land, first jet plane to land, and before long first commercial flights to land. The rest of the World may take these things for granted, but being here makes you realise what an incredible thing it is, maybe it is good, maybe not, only time will tell. One thing is for sure, there is no going back, the Island is about to change forever, and it’s almost frighteningly close now.

 

_MG_6743-Pano

A Random Rainbow outside our house, stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Onwards and