02.24.2018 - 02.24.2018
Getaway day dawns. I have only to pack and run down to the Coffee Shop to use up my remaining St Helena pounds (not convertible anywhere in the world except here) and retrieve my three bags of St Helena coffee and have breakfast at the Mantis before our scheduled "Half Eleven" pickup for transport by Mario back to the magnificent St Helena airport and our Airlink flight back to Joburg. I couldn't resist overtipping Mario using five crisp new US $2 bills just to see his reaction. He looked puzzled as if I were putting something over on him but he happily accepted them nonetheless. I suspect he will get an even more suspicious look when he takes them to the Bank of St Helena for conversion. I wish I could witness that.
We (Stuart, Taylor, Mike, Ignus, Sasha, Martin, Rosie, Jan, Peggy (who I don't think I have mentioned) Peter (a commercial fishing executive who I haven't mentioned either) are all on the same flight. Everybody here, remember, is on the same flight as there is, need I remind you, but one flight each week. This is only the nineteenth commercial departure from here in the history of the island.
Intrigued by the airport situation, I Googled the airport and quote here from the FAQs on its website:
"I am a nervous flyer. Should I be worried about windshear at St Helena Airport?"
"St Helena Airport is open and operational. The isolation of the Island together with the potential for windshear has meant that St Helena Airport has been classed as a Category C airport. Category C airports have additional considerations for approach, landing or take-off. Difficult wind conditions, including turbulence and windshear, are encountered and safely managed at many airports around the world and St Helena Airport is no different."
"There has been extensive work undertaken to understand and mitigate the potential for windshear at St Helena Airport. Safety is our number one priority. The decision on whether a flight takes place as scheduled rests with the pilot - flights will only take place when the pilot is confident that conditions are favourable."
"During Airlink's proving flight visit in August 2017, they carried out a total of 13 flight trials at St Helena Airport. These included 'touch and go' - where the aircraft circles the runway, comes in to land, touches the wheels to the runway, and immediately takes off again for another circuit. All of the trials were successful and subsequently the final approvals for the scheduled air service were granted by the South African Civil Aviation Authority."
"All necessary regulatory approvals for the scheduled air service to St Helena are therefore in place. A short video of Airlink's proving flight to St Helena is available at the following link: https://youtu.be/kiecNLqWrMA
"We recognise that some residents on St Helena might not have flown previously. Island residents might like to visit St Helena Airport to witness the arrival of a flight. The restaurant and viewing platform at the airport will be open to the public on flight days commencing on 14 October 2017. Staff at the Airport will be happy to answer any questions."
That is, to be sure, quite a wonderful answer to the "I'm a nervous flyer" question. To add to this interesting point, here is the text (I asked to flight attendant to provide it to me) for the announcement they make prior to landing here. Her instructions read as follows:
Flight Attendants: "Please take note of the following announcement when operating HLE flight: "Ladies and Gentlemen, We will be landing shortly. Please fasten your seat belts. As we prepare for our landing at St Helena, I draw your attention to the fact that St Helena airport is known for difficult landing conditions and I caution that we could experience turbulence on our final approach to the runway which may result in a short period of discomfort. Ensure that your tray tables are secure and bring your chair back in the upright position. All carry-on items should not be placed under the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins."
When we arrived, that announcement was delivered clearly and sternly and, for the first time since I have truly pondered the phrase "Final Approach" gave even me a bit of pause. And, yes, last Saturday's landing was a bit more roller-coastery than what I would consider to be normal but far from threatening. For most flyers, I think, had there been no warning little notice would have been taken. Our takeoff was also a tiny bit bumpy. If you have taken note from earlier installments of this blog, the runway at both beginning and end is framed by an abyss. The air apparently swirls and darts and, therefore, so (at least a bit) does the arriving or departing aircraft. For us, however, both in and out, it was much ado about not much.
On the way home, only 42 seats are filled on the aircraft-not a good sign for the profitability of Airlink or the success of St Helena tourism. (I think 78 seats were filled on our flight on the way in and I did not have the presence of mind to count the deplaining passengers who arrived just now) I think I heard that only four of the thirty rooms are reserved at the Mantis for the coming week.
We don't have to stop at Windhoek, Namibia, on the way back as we weigh less and the tailwind makes it unnecessary. It is a mere four-and-a-half hours to JoBurg.
One more tidbit of potential interest is this: Prior to the closing of the Embraer E190 forward door, one of our three flight attendants made the following announcement (here paraphrased): "For the purpose of achieving the proper weight and balance on this aircraft for takeoff from St Helena, I would now like to ask five passengers from rows three through nine to kindly move from their seats to any open seat in rows 19 through 25." Then, she waited. "Kindly, I need three more passengers from rows three through nine to kindly move from their seats to any open seat in rows 19 through 25." After that apparently took place as requested, she then said, "I would now like to ask eleven passengers from rows ten through eighteen to move to…" and so on. (I don't have the rows perfectly quoted here but you get the gist of it.
Of course, you probably already know, with any aircraft you don't want too much weight in the forward part of the aircraft on takeoff. A too heavy nose makes for a difficult if not dangerous departure. After the aircraft reaches cruising altitude, everyone can move back to where they were without either positive or negative effect. But, I suppose many fliers don't really understand that. This game of musical chairs without the music peeved some and amused others. One wonders why, when seat assignments are made by the computer, they don't simply spread people out precisely as they need to for proper takeoff weight and balance. But then, on this trip there have been many things about which one wonders and one is best served by not wondering and, instead, just accepting.
Before I forget it let me point out a not-so-good last impression of St Helena. At security, my backpack was lightened by removal of my plastic bagged liquids, MacBook Air laptop computer, iPhone and iPad and run through the x-ray machine as is done everywhere in the world.
Here, however, my backpack was then not merely secondarily searched, it was emptied entirely before I was allowed through. Every pen, credit card, tissue packet, nail clipper, camera, power cord, sweatshirt, eyeglass case, St Helena coffee package, travel document, cash reserve, sunglass case-everything was taken out of the backpack and arrayed on a table for latex gloved officials-one in training-to peruse. Then, it was all replaced but certainly not as I had carefully packed each bit because only I could do that and get everything in its correct position and still zip it closed.
I don't know if that is standard operating procedure or if I was taken for an apparent desperado such as myself but, whatever the reason, it was annoying and something that in crossing into and out of over 100 countries has never happened before and I hope never happens again.
Oh yes; they also made me check my bag on the way home. I do so hate that.
We fly over the Namibian Dessert, I have a fine Airlink meal. There is a trivia contest in the Airlink In-Flight Magazine where one of the trivia questions is about Anthony Scaramucci and we arrive at Johannesburg a bit early. Oh, and my bag made it. The Intercontinental (wonderful, by the way) welcomes me and I'm one step closer to home.