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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.