The only way to reach Saint Helena, a rugged volcanic island in the middle of the South Atlantic slightly larger than Manhattan, is by catching a five-day ride on the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena. The vessel visits the British territory about once every three weeks from Cape Town, but that timetable is about to change.
That’s because St. Helena, a place so remote that European powers permanently exiled Napoleon Bonaparte there in 1815, is finally getting an airport.
Above: Both ends of the new airport’s runway plunge into the sea. Image credit: Avia Solutions Top: Napoleon. Image credit: Getty Images
The airport will finally open the island’s doors to the world. When complete in 2016, the carrier Comair Limited will start weekly flights from Johannesburg, South Africa, with a brand-new Boeing 737-800.
The new air service will certainly benefit St. Helena’s 4,250 island residents – known as “Saints” – and their visiting relatives. But it could also boost tourism and attract Napoleon buffs. Today, just 1,200 visitors set foot on “on this cursed rock” – as Napoleon called it – every year. (Their number is limited by available ship berths and hotel rooms on the island.)
Napoleon called St. Helena “this cursed rock.” He died there on May 5, 1821. Image credit: Shutterstock
For new visitors, the excitement will start onboard of the plane. Landing at the new St. Helena airport will be analogous to landing on an aircraft carrier: a short runway in the middle of the ocean. Due to the island’s size and topography, the new airport’s runway will be just 1,550 meters long, with a steep drop-offs at each end.
One company that played a role in bringing passenger jets to Napoleon’s last exile was Avia Solutions, a division of GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS). (It’s one of the GE Capital units that will remain part of GE after the company’s exit from banking.)
The British refurbished for Napoleon the Longwood House, the summer residence of St. Helena’s lieutenant governor. Napoleon lived there for six years, until his death in 1821. Image credit: Shutterstock
The local government hired Avia in 2013 to manage the procurement process for an airline to operate services in and out of St Helena. Cronan Enright, Avia’s head of airline consulting, says the project required solving a series of complex technical and market challenges.
For example, St. Helena is 1,200 miles from the nearest continent and the team looked at routes from 15 different locations in Brazil, Africa and Europe.
Napoleon’s tomb on St. Helena. His body was exhumed and moved to Paris in 1840. Image credit: Shutterstock
Johannesburg ended up on top since it is the busiest airport in Africa, offering the most connections and maximizing access to the island.
The GECAS team and airline operators also had to pick the best aircraft for the mission. “Given the projected number of weekly passengers in the early years, a smaller regional aircraft would have been most suitable,” Enright says. “However, given the four-and-a-half hour flight time from Johannesburg and the requirement to carry extra fuel, we decided to go with a bigger, longer-range narrow-body plane.”
Other technical constraints included daylight-only operating hours and the fact that the closest alternate runway: a military airport called Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island, doesn’t allow commercial aircraft to come in.
As a result, pilots flying to St. Helena will have to carry sufficient fuel to allow for two hours of circling the island in a holding pattern, in addition to the fuel for the trip from Africa. “This was an exciting project to work on,” says Julian Cook, Avia’ principal consultant. “There are not that many destinations left in the world that are brand-new like St. Helena.”
The airport terminal during construction. Image credit. Avio Solutions
In addition to the new air service, St. Helena is also adding hotel rooms to accommodate the influx of tourists. A new 32-room hotel, expected to open in 2016, will increase the number of hotel beds on the island by half.
The first 737 should arrive in about a year, Cronan says. “This really was a once-in-a-lifetime assignment and a challenge for the Avia team to resolve,” he says. “It’s not every day that your work gets to connect an entire island to the rest of the world.”
If only Napoleon knew.