Wind shear worries stall St Helena launch

130aA brand new airport on the remote island of St Helena costing more than £285 million is unable to launch commercial services until concerns over wind shear and turbulence have been settled.

Scheduled air services from Johannesburg were due to start on 21 May until the St Helena Government last month announced an indefinite delay to its opening. This is despite the issuing of an aerodrome certificate by UK-based Air Safety Support International (ASSI), a subsidiary of the UK civil aviation authority.

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“One outcome of the implementation flight has been the gathering of additional data on turbulence and wind shear on the approach to Runway 20 from the North,” said the official government statement. “As a result of the data gathered and the conditions experienced, it has been decided that there is some additional work to be done in order to ensure the safe operation of scheduled passenger flights to and from St Helena airport.”

Windshear refers to a change in wind speed or direction, including a rapid change over a short distance. Difficult wind conditions, including turbulence and windshear, are encountered and safely managed at many airports around the world.

A spokesman for the UK CAA tells Air Traffic Management: “Basically, the operator with the contract to service St Helena, Comair, is still conducting proving flights. The ASSI certificate approves the airport infrastructure and is not connected to these flight operations issues. So, although the airport runway, lighting, radar and RT all meet international standards, it is up to Comair to decide when to begin commercial flights.”

St Helena is in the British Overseas Territories and is more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from the nearest major landmass, and can only be reached by a five-day sea journey from Cape Town, making the island one of the most remote populated places on earth.

In November 2011, St Helena Government signed a Design, Build and Operate (DBO) contract with Basil Read which included £201.5 million for the design and construction of the new airport, an additional amount – of up to – £10 million on shared risk contingency and £35.1 million for ten years of operation.

St Helena airport will be equipped with an instrument landing system (ILS) and a Doppler VHF Omni-directional Radio Range system (DVOR) supplied by Thales. Further to that Honeywell will supply its SmartPath Ground-Based Augmentation System (GBAS), a technology that augments GPS signals to make them suitable for precision approach and landing. It overcomes many of the limitations of ILS traditionally used by airports to guide aircraft as they approach the runway.

While the certification ensures that airport infrastructure, aviation security measures and air traffic control service all comply with international aviation safety and security standards, it is only valid until 9 November, at which point the airport will need to be re-certified. ASSI said it was aware of some light-related operational issues that still have to be addressed and will be actively discussing these issues with the airport operator and other stakeholders over the coming weeks.

“The commencement of flights is an operational readiness issue. Work is continuing in parallel on operational readiness at St Helena airport, including the work that is now underway to manage issues of turbulence and wind shear experienced by the Comair Implementation Flight,” stated the UK CAA. “Every effort is being made to start airport operations at the earliest opportunity. However, safety is paramount and we will not commence commercial operations until we are satisfied with every aspect of airport operations.”

On April 19, the first large passenger jet aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 (ZS-ZWG), touched down at the new airport shortly – the actual Boeing aircraft which Comai is hoping ultimately serve the St Helena/Johannesburg route.

As planned, British Airways – Comair operated this implementation flight from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, complete with various Comair, Basil Read and other passengers – plus a consignment of aircraft spare parts which will remain on the island. A Bombardier Challenger 300 business jet also landed there on 10 April – the first ever jet aircraft to land at the new airport.

Listen to BBC Radio 4’s feature on the sigificance of St Helena’s new airport

In preparation for the commencement of scheduled air services, the objectives of the Implementation Flight included route assessment, airside operations, passenger and cargo handling, training and various aspects of safety at St Helena Airport.

In preparation for the commencement of scheduled air services, the objectives of the implementation flight included route assessment, airside operations, passenger and cargo handling, training and various aspects of safety at St Helena airport.

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