You really could not make it up: £250 million spent on building an airport; plans made for a member of the Royal Family to fly in for the official opening; critics silenced and an air of expectation as the first plane flies in from South Africa on a calibration run. On its first approach it makes an aborted landing but on the second attempt lands successfully; celebrations all round. Then a few days later the bombshell: the St. Helena Government announces that the airport opening has been delayed because of [unanticipated?!!] windshear problems.
On my first visit to St Helena in 2008 I met a retired British Airways pilot on the R.M.S. St. Helena. He poured cold water on the idea of building an airport on Prosperous Bay Plain. The wind conditions will be too hazardous he told me, no reputable airport will fly in, and he said that he personally would not fly there.
I have often thought about my conversation with him, and wondered whether SHG had really understood the problems that he had raised. Today the St. Helena Independent has published a letter from the same man.
It reiterates what he told me 8 years ago:
The operational problem at St Helena Airport is of no surprise, I’ve been waiting for this to surface since the construction started. There is nothing anybody can do about wind shear, it is a meteorological phenomenon, the airport authority can discuss it for evermore, but nothing will change the local topography.
It appears that the letter writer lives in David Cameron's constituency, and made his concerns known to the Prime Minister:
If an airport is built on the edge of a near vertical 1000 foot cliff the prevailing wind is bound to cause problems. I predicted this to The Independent, to the consultants, and to my MP who is David Cameron. At the time Andrew Mitchell was in charge at DFID and his reply was that the airport would only be “challenging”. To grumble about wind shear at St Helena airport is a bit like grumbling about the heat in a newly built Sahara airfield in the summer, it is entirely predictable.
Our retired British Airways pilot speculates that Comair, the South African airline that was given the contract to fly to St. Helena may simply refuse to do so.
The St. Helena Independent, suggests that in its current state the airport may only be serviceable for small planes, including private jets, that can delay ascent until they are over land and do not need such a long runway.
The decision to build the airport was taken by the new coalition Government in 2010, and at the time was widely credited as being compensation to Lord Ashcroft, a strong proponent of the airport, who had bankrolled the Conservative Party only to see David Cameron fail to win a majority. I blogged about this in July 2010, shortly after the decision was announced, and on April Fool's day in 2012:
I have long had a nightmare that the result of the airport project will be to provide a landing place for executive jets. It would be the height of irony if Lord Ashcroft was one of the few people on the globe able to fly there.
I have to say that I have got absolutely no pleasure in writing this blog, it is heartbreaking for so many people, and I hope the fears expressed prove unfounded. There is no Plan B.
I have often joked ironically that nothing can possibly go wrong on St Helena, e.g. my post on Atlantic Star Airline last year. I no longer find it funny.