The first plane to officially land at St Helena’s new airport – the first airport in the island’s more than 500 years of human habitation – is scheduled to do so in February 2016.
Viewed as a threat to the quiet lifestyle on the island by some of the around 4 000 islanders, the project was given the thumbs up by a local referendum prior to the start of construction in 2011.
With the airport opening up the 16 km by 8 km island to air traffic, it is hoped the £254-million development will wean the South Atlantic island from a £25-million annual contribution by the British govern- ment, required for the territory to stay afloat financially.
The airport is set to boost industries such as tourism. The main source of income for the island in recent times has been flax, until the closure of the island’s mills in 1965, which set in motion a steady economic decline.
St Helena is perhaps most famous as the place to which French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled and where he spent the last six years of his life under British confinement.
The construction group building St Helena Airport, South Africa’s Basil Read, won the contract to design, build and operate the airport in November 2011.
The group will work with the operators of Lanseria Airport, in Gauteng, to run the facility for ten years, following the scheduled construction time of 51 months.
Project director Jimmy Johnston, who has been with Basil Read since 1975, has a personal history that has a number of similarities with those of the ‘Saints’, as the inhabitants of St Helena typically refer to themselves.
A Scot by birth, Johnston comes from the Isle of Bute, which, in 2001, recorded the number of residents at around 7 200.
After the Second World War, the local political structures in Bute resisted nearly all attempts to embrace change and integrate more with the mainland, including opposing the construction of a bridge, and then a university faculty, plus several other revenue generating opportunities.
“The local politicians of the time wanted to protect their lifestyle, but it would have been tremendous for the island if these projects had been welcomed,” Johnston reflects.
He eventually left Bute to study civil engineering at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, and then came to South Africa to pursue a career with Basil Read.
Building an Airport by Ship
He says the biggest challenge in building St Helena Airport has been creating and maintaining an efficient logistics chain.
There are no capital equipment dealers on St Helena, no cement plants and no brick factories. Almost everything, excluding rock, water and a large portion of the workforce necessary to construct the airport, has to be brought to the island.
To make this happen, Basil Read chartered a 2 500 t ocean-going vessel for a period of three years. However, there was no direct landing infrastructure on the island, and limited mooring facilities at the seafront of the capital, Jamestown.
This meant that a landing jetty had to be developed for the ship, followed by a 14 km road up the mountain to the airport site, along with a 1.5-million-litre temporary fuel farm.
The ship also had to be modified to carry one-million litres of fuel, and now also boasts a derrick crane, which allows for the handling of containers.
“These changes make it a self-sufficient vessel,” explains Johnston.
“We set up a consolidation area at Walvis Bay, from where we sail to St Helena, 2 000 km away,” he adds.
For the duration of the project, up to 70 000 t of goods will be transported to the island, including 22-million litres of fuel, 25 000 t of cement and 5 000 t of explosives.
As it takes five days to reach the island and seven to return, owing to currents and winds, a single shipping cycle takes up to 21 days to complete.
“We need to plan incredibly well. I always tell the team that we can’t order the hammer and not the nails,” notes Johnston.
Almost all capital equipment shipped to the island is new, as Basil Read wants to minimise the risk of any downtime.
Johnston and his team also had to provide accommodation and food for his expat labour team of up to 100, as well bring most of their food requirements to the island.
The construction group is currently working with local producers to supply eggs and grow vegetables for consumption by the construction team, which should then spill over into eventually supplying tourists with fresh produce.
The project currently employs around 300 local people.
While the locals are highly skilled and educated, finding labour with the appro- priate construction skills was initially challenging.
Some of Basil Read’s long-term project employees live in the island’s towns with their families.
Informing the local population of how the project is progressing and the works which take place next has been important to the understanding of the operations, notes Johnston.
“This project and the works can be a sensitive issue with the islanders, even if around 70% of Saints support the airport. We have to deal with enquiries correctly. Nothing this large has ever been done on the island. Some local residents have never been off the island and now we come in with our large construction machines, making a noise, blasting and working double shifts.”
To facilitate communication, the project access office is issuing weekly newsletters which outline the work to be done and the jobs already completed.
Big Enough for a Boeing
The job is to ultimately create a runway 2 000 m in length, with a landing distance of 1 550 m on rocky, mountainous terrain.
Other project infrastructure and equipment to be supplied include a bulk fuel installation of six-million litres, a terminal building, an air traffic control tower, a drainage culvert, airport ground lighting, navigational aids, air-traffic control equipment and airport operational equipment such as fire engines and two units.
The end goal is to achieve airport certification from the ASSI, the UK government’s regulatory body, by the end of February 2016.
The main companies that are subcontracted to Basil Read include WorleyParsons for the lead design and landside design, DeltaBEC for the airside designs, KHM Architects and LYT Architects, Atkins and WSP as the independent certifiers, PRDW for the marine designs, Thales for the navigational aids, SAIEA for environmental management, Trotech for bulk fuel installation, BME for explosives and Ohorongo Cement.
The airport will ultimately be able to handle an Airbus 319, a Lockheed L100 or a Boeing 737-700, or a Boeing 737-800 with limited load.
In order to create the runway and site for the buildings, Basil Read is simultaneously filling up and flattening land by moving eight-million cubic metres of rock into mostly one large fill with a maximum height of 100 m.
Apart from the geography of the island, the airport site presents another unique set of challenges owing to the setting and history of the St Helena.
Johnston and his team have come across human remains of slaves freed on the island. An expert team from the University of Bristol, in the UK, has been studying and dealing with these remains.
The site is also close to the breeding area of the Wirebird, which is indigenous to St Helena. It is also in close proximity to around 40 species of invertebrates that can only been found on the island.
Once completed, the challenge remains for Basil Read and its subcontractors to clean up and remove all hazardous waste generated by the project, leaving the island as they found it when they arrived.