After construction had been completed a test flight found wind conditions were too dangerous for commercial flights ©Paul Tyson
After construction had been completed a test flight found wind conditions were too dangerous for commercial flights ©Paul Tyson

£285m spent on unusable airport

15 December 2016

A £285m airport built with public money cannot be used for commercial flights because of dangerous wind conditions. 

The facility was built on the South Atlantic island of St Helena by the Department for International Development (DFID). However, only after it was complete did test flights reveal a dangerous level of wind shear.

In a report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said it was “staggering” the problem was only identified after construction had been completed.

It said wind shear, a change in wind speed or direction over a short distance, was dangerous for low flying planes and well-known in airport construction. It said the problem should have been identified at an early stage. 

The report claims Charles Darwin described the phenomenon when he visited the island in 1836.

It said it had asked DFID how “if Charles Darwin could have experienced and described the problem... it commissioned a £285.5m airport, paid for by the British taxpayer, without properly appreciating the danger of this effect”.

PAC accused DFID of not doing enough to ensure it had the technical knowledge and resources to complete the airport, and said it did not commission an independent advisor or seek support from other departments that did have the technical expertise.

The report said a consultancy firm Atkins, contracted by DFID to run a feasibility study, expressed doubts about local weather conditions and recommended a pre-construction flight.

However, while one test flight was conducted using a propeller aircraft, DFID entered into a three-year contract for commercial flights with different twin-engine jet aircraft that are unable to land safely, the report said.

St Helena is a self governing UK overseas territory eligible for official development assistance. Home to about 4,100 residents, the island was where Napoleon Bonaparte lived in exiled from 1815 until his death in 1821.

The island is a two-day boat journey from Britain, travelling via Ascension Island, and is well-known for having a high number of endemic bird species.

The airport was built to develop the tourism industry in a bid to make the island economically self-sufficient. PAC said in its report the business case for building an airport was originally “marginal at best”.

A DFID spokeswoman told SM an external expert had been brought in to “review evidence of DFID’s actions” and an independent panel has been tasked with finding a solution the problem of wind shear. 

“Following this work the St Helena Government has now released a tender for air services for a three year period to provide the best possible air service for the island,” she said, adding that 18 flights had so far successfully landed at the airport and that more were due next week.

DFID also said it had engaged the Government Legal Department to examine some of the decisions taken and said there would be proper accountability, but that it would be inappropriate to comment further.

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