St Helena Island is one of the most remote places on earth.
Guy Leitch went along with St Helena pioneer pilot Larry Beamish on a Challenger 300 to rescue a stranded Falcon 7X.
The decision to build an airport on the remote island of St Helena, the actual construction and then the problems of opening the airport for scheduled flights, are a fascinating story.
FLYING TO ST HELENA - THERE BE DRAGONS
The island is swept by a predominant 30 to 40 knot south-easter wind, making Runway 20 the into-wind and thus preferred runway. The south-easter develops and strengthens without obstruction across the vast south Atlantic, and then hits the island. It climbs the King and Queen pinnacles, rolls over the top, and then down to the threshold of Runway 20, into a ravine to collide with the wind blowing over the sea before flowing back up the opposite cliff (the Barn). On a two-mile final for Runway 20, you hit swirling updrafts while fighting the crosswind, until just after the threshold, where the wind just drops away, sheltered by the two pinnacles on the left. To help tame this approach, the threshold was displaced 280 m down the already short runway.
During its very first flight to St Helena in April 2016, on approach to Runway 20, the Challenger was caught in the monster roiling rotor. The aircraft rolled violently 60 degrees left and alignment with the runway was lost. Instantly commanding a go-around, Larry Beamish as the Pilot Flying, powered away and tried the approach from the other side – to Runway 02. This worked better. Even though the landing had a 12-knot tailwind component, the Challenger’s brakes were easily up to the task.
Over the next few days, Larry Beamish and his crew flew numerous approaches to the island and it became clear that the approach to the into-wind Runway 20 was unusable in the predominant wind. Final approach was hair-raising, with the aircraft going from stall to configuration overspeed warning as the gusts caught it. Larry Beamish’s experience as a jet formation aerobatic pilot helped him ‘fly the wing’ and thus understand the aircraft’s behaviour and limits.
In the interim, South Africa’s Comair had won the bid to provide a scheduled airline service to the island and had acquired two new Boeing 737-800s with ETOPS approvals for the island’s Remote Operations. When Comair’s Head of Flight Operations, Capt. Martin Louw, saw the in-cockpit videos of Beamish’s unstable approaches, there was much sucking of teeth and reconsideration of the task.
Nevertheless, they went to see for themselves. They flew their brand new 737-800 in British Airways colours with a load of dignitaries in the back and flew the approach to Runway 20 with gear-up for an exploratory flyby. The wind dragon was ready and waiting and tossed the Boeing about, but they had plenty of speed in hand for their planned go-around.
The next approach was an attempt to land. At a slower speed, with gear and flaps down, the wind made the approach unstable and, with a cockpit warning of windshear, they again immediately powered up for the go-around.
Comair’s Flight Ops SOPs limit them to two missed approaches after which they have to divert. So, the next approach had to work. This time the flight’s captain, Johan Bruwer, a former SAAF fighter pilot, slew the wind dragon and they got down and stopped, to cheers from the pax.
The problem was deceptively simple. Runway 20 is the into-wind runway, but the wind was roaring up and over the King and Queen pinnacles guarding the threshold and then being sucked down into the venturi formed by the ravine on the other side of the threshold. To land on 02 avoided this windshear, but it was downwind – and downhill.
Comair is a conservative airline and it carefully considered the responsibilities of having to operate a Part 121 airline schedule. It decided that, despite having bought aircraft specifically for the job, it was just not possible to get safely and punctually to the island, and so withdrew its winning bid to provide the air service.
The hopes of the island’s inhabitants had been dashed and the British press was scathing in its criticism of what it called a £285 million ‘white elephant’ investment. What to do next? Cut down the King and Queen pinnacles? Or cancel the flight schedule, and only fly when there is no wind? But what would happen if the flight was already on its way and the wind picked up beyond limits?
Perhaps the answer was to use smaller aircraft that needed less runway than the Boeing 737-800 and so could land downwind on 02?
A NEW AIR LINK
Rodger Foster at Airlink reckoned he had the right aircraft with his Avro RJ-85s and was prepared to give it a try. The high wing four engine Avro is noted for its short field operations. But it doesn’t have the range to get there from Johannesburg without a refuelling stop. And Airlink is phasing them out in favour of Embraer’s E-Jets.
Embraer was keen to show that their E-190 could do the job and arranged a demo flight. It went well and so Airlink entered the second tender to provide an air service and proposed using the E-190. They faced stiff competition from other bidders, including ExecuJet, who proposed operating the Boeing 737-500 and -700 for which the airport had been designed.
Airlink won the tender and from October 2017 the ‘Saints’ finally had a regular and reliable air service. Freight services to the island will be carried by the newly commissioned MV Helena freight ship, and mail and other express freight by the passenger aircraft.
THE FALCON RESCUE
Despite the problems with the runway, the airport’s very remoteness holds a fascination for adventurous tourists. A Falcon 7X carrying six Americans on an around the world trip stopped off on the island. The crew noticed a nosewheel tyre was looking a bit soft and asked the airport if they could pump it up. They obliged, however the overpressure relief valve failed. Now the tyre was completely flat. The Falcon 7X has twin nose wheels and some wag suggested that since only one tyre was flat and just at the bottom (as the rest was still round), they might be able to still fly. But it was wisely decided to get a matching set of new wheels and tyres.
A call was made to Larry Beamish, who flies the Challenger 300 that ExecuJet Africa operates on behalf of Quintessential Aviation. He was initially asked to quote to fly engineers and a wheel to the island, then upload the passengers and fly them on to Chicago. The Falcon operators consulted their passengers, however they were happy to spend a few more days on the island while ExecuJet sourced new wheels from the USA and flew them and the necessary engineers and specialised tools to the island.
EXECUJET TO THE RESCUE
The Challenger 300 is the ideal aircraft, and Larry had just the team to do the job. His son Jason, already an accomplished airshow pilot, has the necessary FAA maintenance engineer licence to sign the N-registered Falcon out, and his daughter Laura, a qualified air hostess, could take time off her veterinary studies.
Although the Challenger has a seven-hour endurance and thus more than enough range for the four-hour flight to St Helena, prudence dictated that we land at Walvis Bay to fill the tanks. When heading out over the South Atlantic it’s best to have enough fuel to comfortably get back – or to the only alternate at the Wideawake Airbase at Ascension Island, 800 nm to the north-west.
We took off before dawn from a rain-swept Lanseria. Walvis Bay Airport opens at 08h00 and as we approached, a ground fog rolling in from the sea was covering the airport. Beamish flew the VOR approach to minimums and we broke out of the fog on short final to Runway 09.
A quick stop to fill the tanks, and at just 80 lbs below max takeoff weight we were airborne and turning out over the ocean for the 1,200 nm to the remote speck of the island. The flight planning required for a flight such as this justifies all the hours spent learning about PNR (point of no return) and PET (point of equal time). The winds were carefully researched at the different flight levels and it’s all calculated and presented by the Garmin Pilot flight planning software Beamish uses on his iPad.
Airline pilots like to say that their IQ is in direct proportion to the amount of fuel in their tanks. The Challenger had enough fuel to get there, fly a few missed approaches, divert, or come back, so all the clever PNR and PET calcs were still just academic.
The initial sector from top of climb was flown at just Mach 0.77 at FL360, as the Challenger was asked to give space to a BA flight to Cape Town. All communication was by a remarkably clear HF with Johannesburg Oceanic. Once clear of the BA flight, we headed north-west with occasional heading changes to maintain the great circle route at Mach 0.8 at FL430, into a moderate 30-knot headwind.
After 2 hours 50 of cossetting by cabin attendant Laura Beamish, we were at top of descent from FL430 for St Helena. As we neared the island there was broken stratus layers at about 1,500 ft with the mountain tops still hidden in the cloud.
There was a brief discussion in the cockpit as to whether to land into the 15-knot wind on 20 or downwind – and downhill – on 02. Even though everything in the cabin had been secured, there were still fresh memories of having to clean up the mess created by earlier wild rides to 20, so 02 was selected.
Gunther Grobe was Pilot Flying and he did a beautiful job planting the Challenger on the numbers. Moderate braking had us stopped with plenty of runway remaining.
While we were there, a non-scheduled Airlink flight had arrived on the island, and when the Embraer 190 arrives and departs, a two-hour ‘sterile zone’ around the airport is required by the Airlink Operating Agreement. This is to prevent an incident such as an aircraft blocking the single runway interfering with an incoming flight’s arrival. So we had no need to leave early the next day and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Blue Lantern in Jamestown.
Beamish arranged for the Challenger’s tanks to be replenished with 2,500 litres for the return flight. At £1.00 per litre, the price of JetA was surprisingly reasonable considering the cost of getting it there. In contrast, car petrol costs £2.50 a litre.
Ready to go, we endured the security charade to stop us bombing our own flight and then were airborne off 20 in less than half the runway’s 1,950 metres.
Because there were plenty of alternates, fuel was not critical for the return journey and we flew directly back to Lanseria in an easy 4.1 hours.