Onlookers peer through windows shortly after the first commercial flight landed at St Helena airport near Jamestown, on October 14 2017. Picture: REUTERS
Onlookers peer through windows shortly after the first commercial flight landed at St Helena airport near Jamestown, on October 14 2017. Picture: REUTERS

Jamestown — The first regular commercial flight landed at St Helena on Saturday, opening the small British island in the South Atlantic to the world after centuries of isolation.

About 100 islanders came out to the airport to watch the historic landing of the Embraer 190 jet which came from Johannesburg.

On the tarmac, 60 incoming passengers were welcomed by the island’s smiling governor, Lisa Phillips.

"It is connecting us to the world and it is opening us to the world," said Niall O’Keeffe, in charge of economic development on the island.

St Helena, with just over 4,000 residents known as "Saints", is best known as the rocky outcrop where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte saw out his final days.

After five years of construction, controversy and embarrassing delays due to high winds, the airport — built at a cost of £285m — finally opened for business.

"It will bring in tourists and we will be able to get a better standard of living," said Phillips.

The volcanic tropical island itself measures just 122km² and is located almost exactly halfway between Africa and South America.

Its isolated location meant it was chosen as a place of exile for those who suffered defeat at the hands of the British, with Napoleon held there from 1815 until his death in 1821.

Several thousand Boer prisoners of war were also detained there at the start of the 20th century.

Until Saturday, St Helena was one of the world’s most inaccessible locations.

It has been only reachable by sea, a five-day voyage from Cape Town aboard a Royal Mail vessel that chugs along at a speed of just 15 knots (28km/h).

Every three weeks, the RMS St Helena has been the islanders’ link to the outside world, bringing a cargo of food, post, visitors and vehicles.

The new flight route, via Windhoek in Namibia, makes the island reachable by air from SA in just six hours.

The airport has been a colossal civil engineering challenge.

The island had no suitable flat surface to construct the necessary 1,950m-long airstrip.

Engineers were forced to chip away a mountain peak and fill in a valley to create enough of an even surface.

The runway is located on a breathtaking mountain just 300m from the sea.

Because of high winds, Comair abandoned plans to operate the route with a Boeing 737, paving the way for AirLink’s smaller Embraer 190 jet.

The winds meant the airport could not be opened in 2016 as originally planned with a ribbon-cutting by Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son.

The conditions made takeoffs and landings much more difficult than expected and just weeks before the scheduled ceremony, it was cancelled and the airport became practically unused.

After more than a year of test flights and studies, the decision was taken to use the Embraer 190.

The island will be served by a weekly service from Johannesburg costing about £800 return. The average salary on St Helena is just £7,280.

"It’s more expensive that a flight to London (from SA)," said Jacqui Wilson, who saved up to take the "historic" flight.

But on the personal side people are just so glad there is an airport.

"Now we will be able to go home more often. Our family and friends will be able to visit, which is very great," said Catherine Man, the only veterinarian on the island.

It is also hoped that the air link will help reduce the island’s dependence on aid from London which cost the British taxpayer £53.5m in 2015 alone.

When the RMS St Helena is retired from service next year, the island will become almost completely dependent on its airport.

But with its Napoleonic heritage, rare birds and exotic plant life, hopes are high that the island will become a nirvana for curious travellers.

AFP

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