Friday, 29 April 2016

The Disturbing Story of St. Helena Airport: No Happy Ending Yet in Sight

St Helena Independent 29th April 2016

You really could not make it up: £285 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.

Letter by retired B.A. Pilot to St. Helena Independent

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:

April Fools Day 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.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

What the Governor Did Next: From St. Helena to Paris and Ajaccio

Governor Mark Capes leaving St. Helena

I don't think the Governorship of St. Helena has ever been an easy job, and Governor Capes has probably had a rougher ride than most. He has now made way for a new governor, Lisa Phillips, the first woman to hold the post.

The Governor and his wife waving goodbye to St Helena

His leaving coincides not only with the completion of the airport, but with the opening of a major exhibition in Paris, to commemorate Napoleon's final years in captivity on St. Helena.

Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène

This exhibition, which it is hoped will promote tourism to the island, has for sometime been planned, in association with the Fondation Napoléon, by the indefatigable Honorary French Consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.

As long ago as 2013 much of the furniture at Longwood, including the famous billiard table and bath, were packed and shipped off to France for restoration in preparation for the exhibition.

Governor Capes at La Maison Bonaparte in Ajaccio

On leaving St. Helena the Governor and his wife made their way to Napoleon's birthplace, Ajaccio in Corsica, to promote the forthcoming Exhibition and the island of St. Helena.

Governor and Mrs Capes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the right a beaming Michel Dancoisne-Martineau

From Corsica they travelled to Paris for the opening of the Exhibition, and attended an official reception at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Governor at Napoleon's Tomb

The most symbolic event in this tour was the visit to Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides, where the Governor was photographed inside the crypt.

A wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower from the roof of Les Invalides

No previous St. Helena Governor has made an official visit there, and I know of no official British Government representative that has done so since Queen Victoria visited in 1855 and bade the Prince of Wales kneel down before the Great Napoleon - an event that has tended to be overlooked in the mainstream historical narrative!

The Governor in lighter mood: Sir Hudson Lowe and those of his ilk would not be amused

Michel Martineau is to be congratulated on the success of this project, which he sees as a triumph for l'Entente cordiale, a cause very dear to the heart of his predecessor and adoptive father Gilbert Martineau, who in more enlightened times was even awarded an O.B.E.!

Mention should also be made of the contribution of the Fondation Napoléon, without whose support neither the restoration of the Generals Quarters at Longwood nor the current exhibition would have been possible.

The Exhibition, which I can highly recommend, runs until July. It has received much critical acclaim in France and beyond. I will say more about it in a later post.


I have been informed by Mrs Capes, see messages, that they actually went to Corsica after Paris. I have left the blog as originally posted to do otherwise would involve quite a rewrite, but I always try to maintain accuracy. There is enough misinformation and disinformation on the internet without me adding to it.

Monday, 18 April 2016

St. Helena Airport Update

Flight departure board, O.R. Tambo International Airport Johannesburg

Today for the first time St. Helena's name appeared on an airline departure board. A British Airways Boeing 737-800 registration ZS-ZWG, operated by Comair, the actual plane that will be used when commercial flights begin, left Johannesburg and arrived at St Helena this morning.

The Boeing 737-800 making its first landing on St. Helena

This is indeed an historic day for St. Helena, but for my part one tinged with a little sadness.

I feel very privileged to have been able to visit (twice) on the RMS St. Helena before the obliteration of the island's historic isolation.

I do not relish the thought of hen parties and stag nights at Longwood, though I appreciate the importance to the islanders of having quicker access to the medical facilities that South Africa has always provided.

As to the supposed aim of the project, to make the island financially independent from the UK Government, I remain a sceptic.

I am also fearful of the impact of commercial development on the people of St. Helena and fear that it will in time lead to an exodus of many of its poorer inhabitants, unable to compete for already over-priced housing with incomers in private jets with very deep pockets. I know though that St. Helena had no future as a remote and rarely visited museum, and I hope that my worst fears for the future of its inhabitants prove unfounded.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

St. Helena 1821: The Malingering Ex-Emperor

Mme Betrand visiting Napoleon, from Inside Longwood

Reading the introduction to Thomas Keneally's excellent novel Napoleon's Last Island, reminded me how Sir Hudson Lowe, Sir Thomas Reade and Government supporters in England refused to believe that Napoleon was ill. They were convinced that it was a plot to try and engineer his return to Europe, and that he would be miraculously cured once he were put on a ship away from the island.

On March 30th Lowe called at Longwood and said that Napoleon had not been seen for 12 days.

"If it should be necessary the door of his room will be battered down and an entry made by force."

When it was pointed out that this would kill Napoleon, Lowe answered, "No matter, I would have it done." (1) Shortly after Napoleon agreed to see Dr Arnott, the British physician, and even he claimed, surely influenced by Plantation House, that Napoleon's problems were largely psychological. By mid-April though Arnott was coming round to the view that Napoleon was dangerously ill, and he himself began to lose the trust of Lowe. (2)

The Morning Post, in an article published 25 days after Napoleon's death, provides an insight into the mindset of the Government and its supporters:

The information respecting BONAPARTE's dangerous illness is deemed extremely doubtful in those quarters to which we should be most most inclined to look for correct intelligence. Several modes of obtaining the release of the EX-EMPEROR have in vain been tried; and a rumour that he is likely to expire would afford topics for a new brief in the hands of his interested and mischievous agents. Already do we see his name chalked on many of the walls of the metropolis; and we should not much wonder if endeavours were used to instigate public meetings upon the subject of his great merits and distresses! - At all events, we are quite sure, from what we already witness, that if this rumour continues in circulation, there will be a great deal of insidious writing upon the subject." (3)

Perhaps the most surprising passage is the section I have put in bold: further evidence of the support for Napoleon so often overlooked by historians. Apparently when the news of Napoleon's death finally reached England in July, placards appeared in the streets urging people to go into mourning.(4)
1. Napoleon at St. Helena, Memoirs of General Bertrand Grand Marshall of the Palace (Cassell 1953) p. 134
2. Bertrand p. 161
3. Morning Post, 30th May 1821
4. Cobbett's Political Register, July 14th 1821. Apparently a "discredited" report of Napoleon's death reached England by mid June. Leicester Chronicle, 16th June 1821