What you’re about to watch is a Nebula originalmeaning it was first released on Nebula—the streaming site founded by myself and plentyof other creators. Producing this documentary was an enormousproject which involved flying myself and a crew 10,000 miles to one of the most remoteplaces on earth, and it was entirely funded by Curiosity Stream. That’s because Curiosity Stream has partneredwith Nebula to offer a bundle deal where, if you sign up at CuriosityStream.com/Wendover,you also get a Nebula subscription—easy as that. On there you’ll find loads of other greatoriginals by independent creators, but for now, to the documentary.
It was this precise moment, early on a Saturdayafternoon in October, 2017, that changed the course of history for one of the world’smost remote societies. This moment that ended 500 years of isolationfrom the world—cutting travel time to there from six days on a boat to six hours on aplane. It was this small moment that changed everythingfor the island—an island where the thing they need most of all, as much as it mighthurt, is change. It was this moment that long in the futurewill be recognized as the single most consequential ever for the island of St Helena. You’d be forgiven for not knowing exactlywhat or where St Helena is. It’s not a place that one hears a wholelot about. If you have heard of it, that’s likely thanksto Napoleon. It’s here, on St Helena, where the infamousEmperor of France was exiled by the British for the six years preceding his death. Since then, though, the island has been upto quite a bit.
It’s now home to about 4,500 of the friendliestpeople you’ll ever meet. Walking a block through its capital of Jamestown,it’s tough to go without saying hi and hello a half-dozen times. Driving past someone without giving a wave—well,that’s practically a crime. Saints, as its residents are called, are asproudly British as the come and fly their Union Jacks copiously and conspicuously. The island is, after all, a British OverseasTerritory. Life on St Helena is quite unlike life inthe UK, though. They’ve got their own money, their own accents,their own culture, their own government, but most of all, what makes life on St Helenadifferent is where it is. The island sits in the same neighborhood asnothing. Mainland Africa is 1,100 miles or 1,800 kilometersto its east.
Mainland South America is about 2,000 milesor 3,300 kilometers to its west. London is over 4,600 miles or 7,500 kilometersto its north. St Helena’s isolation defines and shapesit, in absolutely every way—including, perhaps most consequentially, economically. You see, St Helena is not a wealthy place. Its GDP per capita averages just above $12,000,compared to about $40,000 in the UK. The issue is that getting people and thingsto and from the middle of nowhere costs a great deal, so there just aren’t too manyindustries that can profitably operate on a place as tiny and isolated as St Helena. The Saints have found a few, though. Beyond the traditional goods and servicessectors that any small community would have, St Helena does have exports.
“We have some of the rarest coffee in theworld which sells for, I know, 90, 100 GBP in the United Kingdom for just 100 grams. If we could increase that to some extent,that would bring revenue to many of the farmers on the island.” They also sell a good amount of tuna and honey,but then there’s another sector that capitalizes on the islands isolation. “The predominant economy here at the momentis there is niche tourism–diving, history, walking tours, birdwatching, those sorts ofthings–plus also a growing market of people who want to get away from it all. One week away from the Internet and giventhe Internet prices here and that’s quite easy to achieve if you want to do it.” But tourism would be nothing without a meansto get off and on to St Helena Island.
It was only recently that this became somethingthat the government had to worry about. In the early days of the island’s humanhistory, shipping was what brought a population to it. It was the perfect stopping point on the routefrom the far east to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope—so perfect, in fact, that fora while the entire island was run by the British East India Company. Eventually, though, the Suez canal openedand so fewer boats would round the southern tip of Africa. This, of course, diminished St Helena’simportance, but still, up until the 1970’s, the island served as a regular stopping pointfor ocean liners traveling between the UK and South Africa, meaning there was reliablelink to the outside world. But then, throughout the 20th century, asair travel grew more popular and profitable, passenger ocean lines around the world increasinglystruggled to fill their ships and one-by-one closed down.
The last shipping line with passenger serviceto St Helena collapsed in 1977, leaving the island marooned—with no way to get to theoutside world. The British stepped in, buying a ship fortheir overseas territory which would be called the RMS St Helena. The RMS was part cargo ship, part passengership. In the front she carried dozens of shippingcontainers, acting as the primary supply-line for the island, and in the back she was adornedwith pools and bars and sun loungers. Her regular journey consisted of the fivenights from Cape Town to St Helena, then she would continue on to Ascension Island, intwo or three nights, where she would meet and connect her passengers to one of the bi-weeklyRoyal Air Force flights to the UK.
This method, via Ascension, allowed travelersto get from the UK to St Helena in relative speed—just four days. Most, though, took the longer route from SouthAfrica. Locals and tourists alike adored the RMS. She was thought of as the perfect transitionfrom St Helena to the outside world or vice versa. She was a legendary, storied vessel, but,after decades of heavy use shuttling passengers to and from the island, in the early 2000’s,the RMS was getting old and worn and the government started to think about what would replaceher. Initial assessments found that replacing theship would cost up to $100 million. This led to the question: with that kind ofmoney, was a ship really the best option? The answer, it turned out, was probably not. After decades of feasibility studies, discussions,debates, false starts, delays, and bidding, a contract was produced, and with a few quicksignatures, life on St Helena would change forever. St Helena was getting an airport.
“The contract was signed in November 2011,and that’s when Basil Read arrived on the island to start basically looking at the infrastructurelogistics. They started the first construction or thefirst moving of soil.” “And obviously they built various roadsup to the airport because they had to get the logistics up to the airport. That was they had a ship that brought in allthe materials, logistics, all the spares, equipment that had to obviously help to buildan airport. So they constructed it over four years. At the end of 2015, the runway was completed,most of the terminal buildings were completed most of CNS equipment, which is communicationand navigation equipment, was installed and the airport was ready for a certificationat the end of October 2015.” New airports are rare. New airports in places that have never hadan airport before are even rarer.
Getting an empty husk of an airport certifiedand staffed is no easy task. For this to happen on St Helena, subcontractorswere streaming through the island; there were audits upon audits upon audits; staff memberswere recruited; locals were trained both on and off island for jobs like security, immigration,firefighting, and more; emergency procedures were written; public meetings were conducted,airport vehicles were shipped in; instruments were calibrated; beacons and localizers andobstacle lights were installed; a logo was designed; calibration flights came in; emergencydrills were conducted; drone laws were codified; operational trials were run; and then finally,in February, 2016, the airport was certified and ready to open. Commercial flights could start, and St Helenawould achieve its decades long ambition of having an air link to the outside world. There was just one more step.
As one last hurdle of bureaucracy, Comair,the airline contracted to operate flights to St Helena, wanted to perform an implementationflight, as they called it. Essentially, they were to going to fly oneof their planes in to test that everything, from the instruments to the runway to theterminal to the fuel system, worked. Now, Comair was really the perfect airlineto connect St Helena to the world. They’re a British Airways franchisee meaningthey are contracted by British Airways to operate their regional flights from SouthAfrica, and therefore fly a number of routes around the region under the British Airwaysbrand. The plan was for Comair to operate a BritishAirways route nonstop from Johannesburg to St Helena. These flights would seamlessly connect toother British Airways flights to the two locations Saints travel most, Cape Town and London,as well as with hundreds of other destinations around the world. With the exception of a direct flight to theUK, there’s really nothing better St Helena airport could have wished for. They just had to do the implementation flight.
So, on one sunny, nearly cloudless April dayin 2016, a Comair 737 appeared off in the distance to the north of St Helena airportcarrying a handful of staff members of the airline and airport construction company. It approached, wheels up, in order to performa fly-by above the runway, as planned. After gaining altitude again, it circled backaround in order to make a second and final approach. But then, just seconds away from touchdown,there was a sort of wobble, then another one, then once its wheels were just feet abovethe runway, the pilots elected to abort the landing, go around, and give it another shot. So, the plane circled around again, and, aftersome more wobbling, came to a landing—the first ever landing of a commercial passengerjet on the island, even if it wasn’t carrying commercial passengers. St Helena was thrilled.
“I’m here with Basil Read’s island director,Deon De Jager. Deon, you just arrived on the first passengerjet to land here on St Helena. Can you describe the experience? Uh, great experience. I mean it’s just the cherry on the cakeafter the four years work. Friday morning I flew out, on the SA flight,I went home, spent the weekend with the family, played golf yesterday, and today I’m backon the island. I meant that’s the signs of the times andthat’s the whole reason for the airport is to be able to travel back and forth asyou please.” “Susan O’Bey and Graham Vest, guys, youwere here to witness the first ever passenger jet land on St Helena. First of all, you, Graham. How does it feel?
Can you describe the experience? It was absolutely amazing and I feel reallyprivileged to be here at this momentous occasion. It really is such a historic event. I feel absolutely wonderful. I feel proud by everything that’s beingdone by you guys on the island. And you Susan? Excited, extremely excited. This is like the culmination of weeks, months,years of hard work as far back as 2005 and we’re really, really proud of everythingthat’s been achieved today.” “This is the first step. You know, a plane landing on St Helena. What does this now mean for tourism on StHelena. Well now we’ve got the gateway to get peoplehere. Before we had to rely on the ship, the RMS,coming back and forwards. This means we can have a steady stream. At first it’ll be that Saturday flight,people will get used to and then once that starts filling up hopefully we’ll have amid-week one and that’s the way we can really develop tourism and it becomes worth peopleinvesting in—restaurants, bars, other things that will help the tourists here.
So, the start of a new era for St Helena.” Everyone was ecstatic, but at the time, nonefully understood what had just happened. You see, this little wobble, just before landing,had just derailed the decades-long plan for St Helena’s new era. That wobble was evidence of wind-shear—aphenomenon where wind traveling in one direction meets wind traveling in another directionand creates a zone of turbulent air. In St Helena’s case, its wind shear wasdue to the already strong wind being pushed around and rerouted by the enormous cliffsat the northern end of its runway. When coming in to land an airplane, wind isalready a hassle, but when it quickly shifts, as in the case of wind shear, it can be alot worse. The first sign to the general public thatsomething was wrong was when the St Helena Government postponed the long-scheduled airportopening ceremony, which was planned to be presided upon by Prince Andrew.
Eventually, it emerged that the solution wouldbe to land planes from the south as there was not a wind-shear issue from this direction,but this did have its own issues. Planes generally like to land into the windas this allows them to stop faster on the runway, but at the airport, wind almost alwayscomes from the south meaning planes would be landing with a tail-wind. In order to successfully land a 737 with atail-wind on the length of runway offered at St Helena, the 737 would have to be quitelight. It wouldn’t be able to take its full capacityof passengers or cargo. In fact, it would have to shed so much weightthat the flights would never be commercially profitable for Comair, even with the plannedsubsidies, and so, unceremoniously, it was announced that Comair, and therefore BritishAirways, would not be running the flights to St Helena. Eventually, the story of St Helena Airportreached the world.
The British tabloids got their hands on itand ripped it to shreds. They called the airport, “embarrassing,”a “gaffe,” a “folly,” a “farcical vanity project.” Much of what was reported wasn’t even accurate. Tabloids said it was impossible to land, theysaid the airport was closed, neither of which was true. In fact, throughout the delay, private andmedevac flights were coming in and out with no problem. The media latched on to the video of thatComair Implementation flight and, as one outlet called it, the, “terrifying three attemptsit took to land.” In reality, it was one planned fly-by, oneaborted landing, and one successful landing. In the world of commercial aviation, abortedlandings are nothing exceptional. They happen many times a day at airports largeand small all around the world.
Most of all, though, the common thread betweenall the media reports was the nickname St Helena Airport received: “the World’sMost Useless Airport.” That was the one that stung. “I think a lot of those sort of initiallabel given by the popular media has not helped the island. I think it’s totally false, quite frankly.” “We knew that it was going to get a lotof flack over it from the media. We didn’t quite appreciate how much it wasgoing to feature, but it became a lot about how bad the British government had done ininvesting in this airport on St Helena and putting it in the wrong place, essentially.” “When the bad press hit of St Helena havingthis white elephant for an airport, I was really angry and still to today, in my professionalcapacity, we are countering and battling to get rid of that negativity. It is really bad and people doesn’t want tosee the good that is actually happening.”
“Since all of those articles, we’ve hadto spend a lot of time, I suppose, trying to sell the island for its positive aspects.” “But those things are harder to get throughthan the sensationalist stuff that sells papers.” “Well, you always have starting out problems,and what would you expect? We are in the middle of the South Atlantic. This is the first time for it to happen. So you gotta have trial and error and I wishpeople would just leave the error now aside and look at what is happening as a result.” In order to shrug off that nickname, theyneeded, of course, a flight. “ So we had to do a lot of research. So we commissioned our UK Met office to doa lot of research on our wind data. So we collated a lot of wind data over sixmonths, twelve months so we could ascertain exactly what the conditions were on runway20 and 02.
Once we got all that thought into place, thenthe secretary government went up with a new tender looking for an aircraft that couldactually land runway 02, which had a 15 knot tail wind component.” It was runway 20 that had the wind shear issue,not runway 02. These two are, in fact, the same physicalrunway, but runway 20 refers to the landing coming from the north, runaway 02 refers tothe landing from the south. The prevailing winds originate from the south,so the key to a safe landing was an aircraft small enough to stop safely within the lengthof the runway even when wind pushes it from behind. That way, if the wind shear from the northis too bad, it can land from the south.
The service was not to be subsidized, butrather underwritten. “There isn’t a subsidy per passenger. So SA Airlink, who fly here, they don’t getpaid, let’s say 10 pounds per passenger per flight at all. It’s very much a commercial service, but ifthat commercial service makes a loss, that loss is underwritten by DFID in the UK.” Two main bidders emerged to operate the flightsto St Helena. The first was a company called Atlantic StarAirlines. Founded in 2012—still the early days ofthe airport construction process—Atlantic Star was created specifically to serve asan airline for St Helena. Their original plan was to make weekly flightsdirectly from London to St Helena via some midway refueling stop in addition to a weeklyflight to Cape Town. It was an ambitious plan, but they were seriousabout it.
The company consisted of seasoned aviationexecutives and professionals including a CEO who came from British Airways. Over time, though, the plan was scaled backto operating a few charter flights a year from London to St Helena via Banjul, in TheGambia. This was going to happen. They had an agreement with TUI airlines tocharter a 737, they had announced schedules, they had set fares, but then, of course, theairport’s opening was delayed, and these flights were all cancelled. After some time, in October, 2016, AtlanticStar came back into the story by chartering an Avro RJ1000 to fly to the island and runa series of test landings—a move the company tried to use as evidence of their legitimacyin the bidding process. The proposal was that they would lease anAvro jet to be based on St Helena as the island’s dedicated aircraft. Twice a week, they would fly the hour anda half north to Ascension Island to connect with the bi-weekly RAF flights to the UK. Having the aircraft based on St Helena would,according to their bid, be quite the benefit for the island considering that it could,at a moment’s notice, fly medical evacuation flights, rather than waiting for a plane tofly in from South Africa to pick a patient up. Ultimately, though, the bid failed.
The other major bid submitted to the St Helenagovernment was by a South African Airline called Airlink. Their plan was to fly an Embraer E190 jetto St Helena once-weekly on Saturdays. The aircraft would fly from Johannesburg toWindhoek, Namibia, where it would meet another service coming in from Cape Town. This connecting structure was viewed as quiteimportant since, while much of the Saint diaspora is in Cape Town, Johannesburg is the largerairport and offers more connections. From Windhoek, it would then fly the threehours over the South Atlantic to land in St Helena. It would then do the same in reverse. Included in Airlink’s bid was an agreementto operate once-monthly charter flights from St Helena to Ascension Island as an add-onto their flight from Johannesburg, giving that island, which primarily serves as a militarybase for the UK and US, its only regularly-scheduled, non-military flight to the outside world. This bid was as close to perfect St Helenawas going to get. On July 21st, 2017, the St Helena Governmentsigned a contract with Airlink and announced to the world that this tiny, south-Atlanticoutpost was finally getting its connection to the world. St Helena was getting a flight, for real thistime.
A few months later, just over a year afterthat Comair flight had arrived in the skies above St Helena, an Airlink Embraer E190 didthe same. It was filled with 70 or so journalists, tourists,and Saints, and soon enough, safely touched down and was greeted by, well, a big proportionof St Helena. That was St Helena’s before and after moment. Once those wheels touched down, St Helenawould never be the same. But once that happened, once the honeymoonperiod was over, it was time for St Helena to get to work. Realizing the full potential of the airportwas no easy task. Of course the natural environment presentedits own issues, but the true challenge lies in the island’s geographic isolation andpolitical independence, which mean that, in all aspects, the airport has to be entirelyself-sufficient. They’re not run by some big company, they’renot part of any national system. St Helena Airport is run by St Helena AirportLimited and, if Gwyneth Howell, its CEO, doesn’t know what to do, there’s not really anyoneshe can call.
That means that everything needed to run StHelena Airport, from administrative to operational, has to happen at St Helena Airport. It turns out that, even with just one weeklyflight, that’s quite a lot. “So, what we have, for example, is in thisroom here we have what’s called CNS—so communications, navigations, and surveillance. So, we have two guys, one who works on theIT side of things, one who works on the navigation aids, and so on, and they’re really crucialto the running of the airport, you know. Without the communications and navigationsystems, without those IT systems in place, we wouldn’t be able to land aircraft andtake off aircraft to the airport so that’s extremely important. CEO’s office—obviously we need a ChiefExecutive Officer for St Helena Airport LTD—and then there’s my office next door. I’m kind of the CEO’s right hand personso I will always be there to support them but I’m also kind of separate as well asI’m meant to be there to be the conscience of the company.
To do the thinking, to do the questioning—whyare we doing it like that, could we do it another way, could we do it a safer way, couldwe do it a better way. That’s a pretty important role.” “So if we carry on this way, actually, thisis an important room to look in. It’s the gym and it’s where our FS teamkeep fit. Being in the firefighting service, it’sa very physical job so you need to be fit all the time and, in fact, there are fitnesslevels to be met so the gym is an important part of that. Hello, Bill. Security and because I’m not security clearedI’m not allowed to go in there even though I’m, sort of, senior management team thereare still levels of security that some of us can’t get in to and this is one whereI’m not permitted to go in to, and rightly so.” “So if you want to follow me down into therest of the combined building.
So, we have a training room. There’s an awful lot of training that goeson for staff. We need to be accredited in many respectsso there’s a lot of training that goes on—security, in particular, but also in firefighting aswell—so there’s our training room. Walking on further down, we also have a maintenancebay, as well, which I’ll briefly open the door to and walk in. So, the maintenance bay is where we obviouslymaintain equipment. We have a lot of equipment to maintain andwe have an on-site mechanic who does so. So we also use it for storage as well. So this, for example, is a tow-barless tugwhich allows us to tow aircraft if we need to and other bits of pieces like the toiletcart and so on. So it’s a multi-purpose bay so we use itfor storage and we use it for maintaining our vehicles.
So, moving along, finally we come to the end,and it’s the most important room in the building because these are the people whomake sure we get paid. So, here we have—good afternoon—we haveHR and finance. Extremely important to running a small butcompact airport, but nevertheless, there’s all the HR and the financial functions thatgo with that.” In addition to all the administrative functions,St Helena Airport, while it might need less of it, needs all the same things that an enormousairport like Heathrow would need. A striking example of this is the fire service. “ICAO regulation basically states that everyairport has to have some sort of firefighting category, it really depends on the movementof the aircraft within the airfield. That is regulation and that is what we haveto provide.” “We are always on standby so if there’san aircraft emergency right now and we get the crash alarms going, we can provide a threeminute response to the runway.”
That’s despite the fact that most days,there isn’t a single aircraft within hundreds of miles of the island, but nonetheless, it’swhat’s required by regulation. In addition, even at an airport with thousandsof weekly flights, it’s not as if firefighters are responding to fires all that often, whichmeans that there’s no real reason for those airports to have more than one firefightingcrew. The result is that an airport like St Helena,which has one or two commercial flights a week, needs firefighting capabilities prettysimilar to an airport like Heathrow, which has thousands. That’s part of what balloons the cost ofrunning such a small airport. Given the isolation of the island, weatherforecasting is another crucially important yet challenging part of what’s needed tokeep the weekly flight reliable and safe. The UK Met Office stations meteorologistson St Helena on more-or-less yearly rotations.
“Well, after a Saturday flight, so, I usuallyhave the Sunday and Monday off, so when I come in on Tuesday that’s when I first startlooking at what the weather is going to be like for the next flight date which is usuallythe Saturday. As we get nearer to the time I start to domore detailed forecasts for the airline. So, on a Friday I produce a detailed forecastfor their estimated time of arrival on Saturday and then I come in at 4:00 on the Saturdaymorning and take that forecast and forward that to the flight operations.” The reason this is so important is so thatthey know, when an aircraft is supposed to get to St Helena Airport, it’ll be ableto land at St Helena Airport. “The main problem is, because of the remotenessof the airfield, there are no nearby diversions so they can’t arrive here and spend twohours circling and then divert to a nearby airport. If they come here then they’ve got to be99% convinced that they’re going to be able to land, so I will be looking at, cloud baseand visibility is the main things that stop them from landing at St Helena. The reason being because of their restrictionsthey have to be visual with the airfield before they can land.\
So if the cloud base is below 900 feet, thenthey won’t be able to see the airfield before their decision point.” Assuming the airline has that required levelof confidence that the flight will be able to successfully land at St Helena, Airlinkwill give it clearance to depart from Johannesburg at about 9 am local time. It’ll then make the two hour flight to WalvisBay, Namibia, a more or less regular flight. At Walvis Bay, they’ll refuel the aircraft’stanks, giving them about six-hours of flying time, but also at the stop, they have to onceagain decide whether they’ll be able to land at St Helena. This time, the level of confidence has tobe higher than it was even in Johannesburg, but assuming they are confident, the flightwill take off, climb to altitude, and begin its three-hour ocean crossing, but the decisionsstill aren’t over.
Throughout this crossing, the airline willbe continuously evaluating the conditions on the island to assure that they will beable to land and, if they believe they can’t, they’ll turn back for Namibia. Assuming they continue on, eventually, theywill then approach the island, drop altitude, and connect by radio with the airport’sair traffic controller, but then, even once there, if the cloud levels are too low orthe wind is too strong, the plane still won’t be able to land. “So when they get here and they’re notable to land on the first attempt to land, they will do a go-around, they will go intoa holding pattern, and they will wait for a few minutes. Based on what we have in terms of satelliteimage for the weather, it could be ten minutes, it could be five minutes, it could be as soonas they go around, when they come back they can see the runway, and then they’ll beable to do a landing.”
“So, in the unlikely event that successfullanding cannot be completed, then the aircraft will have to divert.” St Helena’s closest diversion point is AscensionIsland. It’s about an hour and a half flight north,so this is likely where any flight would divert if landing at St Helena was not possible. There they have fuel and facilities so theAirlink flight could give landing on St Helena another shot the day after. In the time that St Helena airport has beenopen, no commercial flight has ever failed landing and had to divert. In fact, in the first 10 months of 2019, theairport didn’t even have a single cancelled flight. Every Saturday, at about 1:15 pm, at AirlinkEmbraer E190 has reliably pierced through the clouds above St Helena’s airport, readyto drop off another load of eager tourists and wistful locals. Saturdays at St Helena airport are an event. Despite its tiny size, people start arrivingat the building three to four hours in advance of the flight. While the plane might only seat 96 people,every flight sees a crowd far larger, as extended families of every Saint arriving and leavingseem to show up.
Just for the flight day, there opens a bankbranch, a gift shop, a luggage wrapping business, a cafe, and a restaurant. Those not taking the flight will stand inthe check-in hall, looking to see who’s leaving, then make their way up to the restaurantonce the passengers pass through security. Then, as the time draws near, everyone packsinto the observation deck—far busier than that of any of the world’s largest airports—andlook to the left. It’s reminiscent of sailors watching tobe the first to see land, but in this case, it’s Saints trying to be the first to seetheir link to the outside world—a world that some of them have only seen through screens. They try to spot the small metal tube thatrepresents the link between them and us. With patience, the time comes and the EmbraerE190 appears in St Helena’s skies.
It makes its approach, usually jostled aroundby the consistently inconsistent winds, then passes the daunting cliff at the end of therunway, then glides smoothly into touchdown. That’s when the airport truly comes alive. Only 75 minutes sits between the scheduledlanding time and the scheduled takeoff time each Saturday so, as soon as the aircrafttakes its right turn towards the apron, there begins a carefully choreographed dance. The aircraft is marshaled in, then first toapproach are the airstairs, followed by the ground power unit that gives energy to theaircraft while it sits powered down. While the cleaners approach the aircraft,the baggage compartment of the aircraft is opened, the fuel truck gets into position,and the first passengers start to disembark. With certain jobs only needing to happen oncea week, quite a few staff at the airport work multiple jobs. The firefighters, for example, go straightfrom their truck, assuring that the aircraft has landed safely, to handling baggage. At the back of the aircraft, all the sewagefrom the lavatory has to be emptied, and an ambulift is used to lift passengers with reducedmobility on and off. The pilots qualified to land at St Helenaare among the most senior and experienced at Airlink, which means there are fewer thanten pilots who work the route. Therefore, they visit the island on averageabout once a month, but, since the aircraft only stays there for just over an hour, havenever seen more of the island than the airport. During their time on the island, though, they’llperform a safety inspection of the plane and then, soon enough, it’ll be time to loadup.
Boarding the 96 or fewer passengers doesn’ttake long, and quickly, the door will close, the stairs will pull away, and the aircraftwill taxi back to the runway. It will take a turn to the north, roll itsway down to the end of the runway, turn around, then thunder down St Helena’s spotlesslyclean piece of pavement to take off on its four and a half hour trip back to Johannesburg. With that, the clock starts ticking againas the airport preps for its next 75 minutes in the spotlight, and then everyone makestheir way to their homes or hotels, starting their next week of isolation from the world. Of course the Saints love the airport whilethey’re at it, when they’re standing in the observation deck watching the plane flyoff, destined for Johannesburg in a quick four and a half hours.
For those that have lived their entire liveson St Helena, the prospect of getting to South Africa in a matter of hours still seems likemagic. Once people go home, though, the questionthat comes up frequently in conversation is: was it worth it? “2013 and 2014, when they were buildingthe airport, was a big, significant boom for St Helena–the amount of people that werein and out of the island, a lot of St Helenians saw an airplane for the first time in theirlife, the economy was actually thriving. So it was a build up to what was the airportgoing to bring for saying to Helena.” “I would say people expected the airportto bring quite significant change. Now, whether that those expectations werereasonable is something that is perhaps debatable.” “The once a week flight is ok, but at theend of the day, if you bring it in a plane which can carry potentially 90 passengers,that’s not enough to be able to generate a significant increase in the footfall on StHelena.”
“I think there’s an expectation that theservice perhaps isn’t delivering what it should, but I think we also have to take into accountthe fact that we’re still a relatively untested market both for tourists and also for potentialinvestors.” Looking at the graphs, the airport has hadsome effect. In the 12 months after its opening, 3,337people arrived on the island by plane. That’s compared to just 2,616 passengerswho had arrived the previous 12 months on the RMS. In the airport’s second year of operations,4,188 passengers arrived via the airport, which certainly is a measurable improvement,although overall visitor arrivals to the island stayed about the same as there was a periodof overlap between the start of flights and the end of RMS service. It’s tough to measure the true success ofthe airport yet, just two years into service, but what’s sure is that there has been notourism explosion. Flights are expensive, infrequent, and indirectfor everyone but South Africans, and this has kept the island a niche destination.
The island certainly had to hurry up and wait,as, while the first flight might have been the impetus for change, it certainly didn’tchange everything overnight. Evacuation Flight – 2.5 minutesSuccess, for St Helena Airport, however, cannot be measured solely by visitor numbers. It can also be measured in lives—the numberof lives this solitary piece of pavement has saved. “So I, uh, I was in my last trimester…fairly normal pregnancy up until the last bit when my blood pressure spiked. So the concern was preeclampsia and they decidedthat I needed an emergency caesarean. So Eli was born about four weeks earlier thanthan expected. We had him around half six Wednesday evening,and he had a bit of a restless night. Breathing wasn’t so good, although that wasto be expected because of the C-section. The next morning the midwife came in and shesaid, no, breathing wasn’t normal, and they decided to put him on the ventilator and havehim assessed.
So they did so many tests and he had respiratorydistress syndrome and about like eleven-ish on Thursday night, Dr. Kevin O’Brian and HelenLawrence came in to our room to say that you say that he would need to be Medevacd. The RMS was on its last journey to the UK,so our reaction was, how do we get him out? And then we we were told that they had alreadydecided to get a medevac flight in.” Two days after Eli was born, on a Friday afternoon,a small jet from a South African medical evacuation company touched down at St Helena Airport,representing only the fourth arrival by a fixed wing aircraft to the island. The team spent the afternoon evaluating Eli’scondition, and then early the following morning, him and his mother, Patrice, were transferredby ambulance to the airport and brought onto the jet. After a quick four hours crossing the SouthAtlantic, they touched down in Cape Town, and by 2pm local time arrived at Vincent PallottiHospital, with all the facilities Eli needed, just about five hours after leaving the hospitalin St Helena.
“If it wasn’t for the airport then I reallydoubt that Eli would have made it. It would have been a long wait for the RMSto come down, like another month, and then the week’s travel to Cape Town. He probably wouldn’t have made it. Waiting for the month for the ship to actuallyget there. So no, without the airport, I don’t thinkEli would have survived.” Today, Eli is a perfectly healthy young boy. He’s one of the handful of Saints who quitedirectly owe their lives to the airport. Isolation is dangerous, and St Helena’shospital just isn’t equipped to handle advanced medical conditions. Before the airport, that medical risk justcame with the territory and in some cases, survival was down to luck—the luck of wherethe RMS was on its voyage schedule.
One can’t easily argue against anythingthat saves lives, no matter the cost, but the truth is that, when the British governmentspent their hundreds of millions of dollars to build St Helena Airport, they had morethan the humanitarian benefits in mind. In the two years since its opening, the airporthas brought change, but it has not yet fundamentally transformed what St Helena is.“I think thatthe potential for the island is actually really, really quite strong, but I think, as withall emerging destinations, it’s going to take a while. What I think is worrying, though, is thatfor a lot of people, it’s how long will that while be? Is it going to be five years, 10 years, 20years? Nobody really knows.” Long-term, the airport’s ambition is, ofcourse, to grow the island’s economy.
The UK’s Department for International Developmentconducted a business case for the airport way back in 2010, and developed a tourismgrowth estimate for St Helena based on how other similar islands fared in the industryafter improving their access. This model, starting at about 1,000 touristsper year in 2016, projected growth to 30,000 yearly tourists by 2042—a number that hasbeen subject to intense scrutiny everywhere from the Saint Helena dinner table to theParliament of the United Kingdom. The data show, though, that accounting forthe one-year delay in the airport’s opening, current visitor arrivals are exactly on targetfor this growth. What that means is that the airport projectis not doomed from the start. What will determine its success is what’sto come, and the Christmas 2019 season is bringing something promising—sold-out flights.
The holidays are by far the most popular seasonfor travel to St Helena and with that, in the months of December, January, and February,Airlink has added Tuesday flights from Cape Town—a first for the island. In addition, there’s another promising sign:in their first year of operation, the flights actually turned a small profit for Airlink. Longer term, the island has ambitions foran even more extensive network of flights. One goal would be to get a route to a SouthAmerican city like Recife to allow for a more direct route from the Americas. Technically, this would be plenty feasibleas it’s only a four-hour flight. Commercially, though, that’s another question. Also on the wishlist is a roundtrip flightto Namibia to tap into their large tourism market. However, the largest tourist demographic forthe island by far is British, and so the crown jewel of routes would be to the UK. Since before the airport even opened there’sbeen talk of a route to London via Cape Verde.
Right now, though, these are all just dreams. An airline would only take the enormous riskof starting a route to St Helena if it proved not only commercially viable, but successful. That has not happened yet. The next couple years for St Helena are crucial. As the number of successfully completed flightsticks up, data will prove whether they’re sticking to this line—the line that willdetermine whether St Helena will survive economically into the far future. If they stick to it, they’re in for an economicrenaissance.
If they start to fall below it, there’slittle hope for any sort of self-sufficiency, meaning the island will remain at the mercyof the UK’s budgetary allocations. St Helena was never supposed to change overnightand the airport was never supposed to be a magic cure-all. The airport is a tool for change, not theimpetus of change itself. For the island to fundamentally change, ithas to sell itself to the world. It has to one-by-one convince people to cometo it, to invest in it, to take a risk on a place that’s competing with an entireworld of options. Time has proven that St Helena airport isnot, “the World’s Most Useless Airport.” It has rather proven that it has the potentialto become the world’s most useful airport. An airport that could save lives, revitalizean economy, and connect a forgotten dot on the map to the rest of it.
An airport that could rescue an island fromfalling into the same fate of so many like it—crumbling into irrelevance as its peopleare slowly drawn to the urban world—so now that the island has their tool, all they haveto do is use it. As I mentioned at the start, this entire projectwas made possible thanks to Curiosity Stream. They covered all the enormous production expensesincluding flying a team to St Helena and all they asked in return was for us to mentionthe bundle deal they’re running with Nebula—the streaming site founded by myself and loadsof other great creators and where this documentary originally released.
If you sign up for any Curiosity Stream subscriptionat CuriosityStream.com/Wendover, you’ll not only get access to thousands of top-qualitydocumentaries and TV shows on there, you’ll also get a subscription to Nebula at no addedcost. On Nebula, you’ll find tons of great originalcontent like this one from loads of the internet’s best creators. I can safely say this is the best value inthe streaming world, so, head over to CuriosityStream.com/Wendover to sign up for the bundle deal, and whileyou’re at it, you’ll also be helping support independent creators create great, ambitiousprojects just like this.