St Helena Airport

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

Organization: Department for International Development (DfID) – UK
Project type : New airport
Date : Jun 2016
Cost :
 £285 million

Synopsis :
Wind shear is one of the most deadly atmospheric conditions an aircraft can hit. A significant and rapid change in wind speed, or direction, over a very short distance, wind shear is especially dangerous when it happens near the ground. For aircraft approaching an airport wind shear can destabilize the approach and cause an aircraft to suddenly lose lift. Violent turbulence near the ground has resulted in many crashes over the years and pilots are trained to avoid flying into wind shear type conditions.

St Helena Airport

St Helena airport after arrival of test flight
(source wiki commons)

The condition can be caused by a number of triggers, but one well-known cause is topography. Mountainous terrain combined with strong winds has the potential to cause wind shear type events and flying near mountainous locations requires special care, training and attention. This issue is well known and hence a proposal to build a new airport on the island of St Helena 2,000 km out in the Atlantic Ocean was greeted with warnings about the danger. St Helena is a small island standing alone in the vast open space of the Atlantic Ocean. Its predominant feature is a volcanic mountain that rises out of the sea to an elevation of 2,600 feet. The mountain has a significant affect on the atmospheric conditions and is so dominant a feature that it can trigger significant air turbulence in the St Helena area.

A naturally windy place, the combination of strong winds, the mountain and a very limited number of possible sites upon which to build an airport, has resulted in an airport that may turn out to be too dangerous to land at. A test flight made using a Boeing 737 aircraft in June 2016 found that the wind shear conditions were significant. Video shows the aircraft pitching and tilting near the ground as the turbulence buffeted the aircraft.

At the time of writing the decision to “indefinitely” postpone the opening of the airport has been made. Options for how to overcome the issues are currently being considered. It is a shame that more serious consideration wasn’t given prior to the investment being made. Reports indicate that warnings were given about the wind shear issue prior to the project being approved. Those warnings were apparently ignored (or misjudged) and it appears the project failed to conduct appropriate environmental / flight operations studies prior to construction.

Other related projects:

Berlin Brandenburg Airport – St Helena’s airport is not the only one facing an unspecified delay. At the time of writing, Berlin’s long awaited Brandenburg airport still has no confirmed opening date.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Failure to listen to the advice of experts. Failure to assess or address risks.


  1. St Helena airport costing £285m of UK money is delayed over safety concerns
  2. St Helena airport too windy to open – Includes video showing test flight arriving (note aircraft tilting and moving side to side near the ground).
  3. Rising bill for airport on remote St Helena as opening halted because it is ‘too windy’ for planes to land