Last updated: 07:00 PM ET, Tue June 14 2016

St. Helena’s Wind Problems Keeping New Airport Closed

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | June 14, 2016

St. Helena’s Wind Problems Keeping New Airport Closed

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

St. Helena is a tiny island, located about 1,200 miles west of Angola, Africa in the southern Atlantic Ocean. It is so remote its own tourism board acknowledges “Getting to St. Helena is part of the attraction; it is an adventure all in itself!” But now as the British territory has made an attempt to modernize itself with the construction of a brand new airport, the completed project remains unopened due to Mother Nature’s wrath.

Currently, if you want to travel to St. Helena, it requires a five-day trip on a Royal Mail ship from Cape Town, South Africa, unless you’re a passenger on one of the very few cruise ships that makes St. Helena a port of call.

The project has been funded by the British Department for International Development (DFID), costing 285 million British Pounds ($420 Million U.S. dollars), with the goal of building an airport that is capable of handling commercial jets, and making the island territory self-sufficient and boost tourism. But now that it’s complete, pilots making test flights are having a difficult time landing there.

The BBC said that high winds at the island’s airport are causing the aircraft’s wind shear alarms to sound, thereby making the pilots abort the landing and try again. DFID and the St. Helena Government are working on a solution, but one has not been reached. Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "Estimating the likely costs and benefits of a project such as this is an inherently difficult task, particularly with a limited number of precedents for building an airport in a remote location.

READ MORE: The World's Most Remote Island Finally Gets An Airport

One may wonder why they don’t just go ahead and open, and then hope for the best. Well, wind shear is a major concern for commercial planes. It is phenomenon where an aircraft encounters an abrupt change in wind speed over the course of a very short distance. If the wind direction is downward, it can have catastrophic consequences for aircraft, as in the case of Delta Air Lines Flight 191, which encountered wind shear while on final approach to DFW Airport on Aug. 2, 1985. With thunderstorms in the area, the plane encountered a microburst wind shear while very close to the ground. Despite pilots’ best efforts to control the aircraft, the plane hit the ground and crashed short of the runway, killing 137 people.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on pilot error, for their decision to fly through the storm, and lack of training on how to avoid and escape microbursts. Since that time, cockpit technologies have evolved, and pilots now have an advanced warning system to tell them if wind shear is present in the area, but it is still possible for unpredictable events to catch pilots off guard.

Even today, the so-called “clear air turbulence” surprises flight crews. It occurs when flying through otherwise clear weather, and comes with no warning, often injuring any passengers and flight attendants who are out of their seats, or seated without a fastened seat belt.

St. Helena Airport was scheduled to open last month, but the opening has been delayed indefinitely. Once a plan is implemented and the airport is opened, its Royal Mail ship will cease service. Scheduled air service will be provided by ComAir, operated by British Airways to Johannesburg, South Africa. 

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