An airport built with £250-million from the ballooning foreign aid budget risks becoming a white elephant because it is too windy to land there safely, it was claimed.
A royal opening at the airport on the remote island of St Helena has been postponed indefinitely after test flights raised safety concerns.
The cliff-top landing strip was built with £250-million from the Department for International Development to help boost the tiny island in the South Atlantic, which is Britain’s most remote overseas territory. It is home to around 4 000 people. It was due to be opened by Prince Edward last month but the start of commercial flights has been delayed after trials with a Boeing 737-800 revealed a problem with turbulence and windshear on the runway approach.
Windshear is a sudden powerful change in wind direction which can destabilise or even flip large aircraft and has been responsible for crashes around the world. Former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft said he was recently forced to abandon a planned visit to the island because of ‘serious concerns that the airport is too dangerous to use’.
Writing on the Conservative Home website, he said: “Although aviation experts are working hard to try to find a solution to the windshear problems, there is a real danger that the airport could become a hugely expensive white elephant and a terrible embarrassment to the British government.”
The airport had been touted as a lifeline for residents and businesses on St Helena, which is about a third of the size of the Isle of Wight and lies in the South Atlantic, about 1 200 miles west from the African mainland and 1 800 miles east from Brazil.
It can currently only be reached by sea, and the ageing Royal Mail ship St Helena is to be retired, leaving the islanders cut off. It was hoped the airport, with a weekly service from Johannesburg and a monthly flight from the UK, would boost tourism and prevent job losses and population decline.
But video of the first test flight by Comair, a British Airways subsidiary in South Africa, shows the 737 lurching from side to side and it was forced to abort its first attempt at landing.
Lord Ashcroft said the pilot of his private jet, Larry Erd, had flown in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan but had warned against trying to fly to St Helena.
The pilot said windshear was one of the biggest causes of fatal air accidents and told Lord Ashcroft: “St Helena clearly has a serious problem with windshear.” A test pilot who had made the landing was said to have described it as “hair-raising”.