First Scheduled Commericial Flight to St Helena Arrives in Style
The first scheduled commercial air service to St Helena has been a resounding success.
Shortly before 2pm local time on Saturday, 14 October, Airlink flight SA8131 from Johannesburg landed at St Helena International Airport after a short refuelling stop at Windhoek, Namibia.
Many of the remote island's 4,200 residents turned out to watch the Embraer E190-100IGW jet make its final approach and landing, with the eyes of the worldwide media focussing on news reports and social media feeds from the island, and, indeed, many journalists on board the flight. Attempting to listen to the local radio station via the internet was met with a 'resources full' message and a blank screen.
The airport has been dubbed many things by the UK media, very few of them pleasant. At a cost of £285million and funded by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), the airport was completed in early 2016 but the first (and only) test flight by a British Airways 737-800 resulted in disappointment when a commercial service was denied due to adverse wind conditions.
Since then the airport has been officially open, and although the mainstream media have inaccurately dubbed it the 'world's most useless airport', it has since then received 34 flights, eight of the emergency medevac flights for islanders to receive urgent medical treatment in Cape Town.
Nevertheless, Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer made a series of successful test flights to the island, followed by a test in August 2017 by South African operator Airlink. The much smaller aircraft, seating 76 passengers, is less affected by wind conditions, and the route was cleared for operation.
The commencement of a regular, scheduled service to the island is the singularly most important historical event for St Helena - a British Overseas Territory - for decades, and an undoubted boost for the island's economy in terms of tourism, and the transfer of people and provisions to the island.
At 1,200 miles from the African coast, the only way to reach St Helena has been the 5/6 day passage via the RMS St Helena from Cape Town, a voyage which sees the ship return to the island every three weeks delivering her cargo of fresh produce and passengers. The ship is due to be phased out in early 2018.
DIVE Magazine was fortunate to visit the island early in 2017, and found a remote and tranquil island paradise, a landscape of immense contrast and outstanding natural beauty, plus - of course - some excellent diving. Scientists have discovered that St Helena is the only currently known location in the world's oceans where adult male and female whale sharks are known to gather in equal numbers - a clear sign of mating behaviour - and the giant sharks congregate each year between December and March.
The return flight departed for Johannesburg on Sunday afternoon to allow the inaugural passengers to enjoy a little time on the island. The service will continue every Saturday from 21 October.
For more information about visiting and diving in St Helena, take a look at our guide to the island.