Friday, May 27, 2005

Winair's first landed in Montserrat since the Soufrière's eruption in 1995

Windward Islands Airways International (Winair) made history Tuesday morning when it landed at the brand new airport in Montserrat. The island and its population of some 4,500 have been isolated from scheduled air service since the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in July 1995.
The landing of the first plane in close to 10 years was witnessed by hundreds of people standing on the hill along the runway or on top of the roof of the airport building, clapping and cheering when the Twin Otter touched down. Captains Roberto Richie and Gavin Peterson smoothly put the aircraft down on the freshly asphalted 1,600-foot runway.

The plane, with members of Winair’s management team and the media on board, was greeted by Chief Minister John Osborne and Airport Project Manager Claude Hogan.

At the official ceremony that followed the landing, Osborne elaborated on the economic importance of opening up the 39-square mile island through Winair’s flights, which will be operating between Antigua and Montserrat for round trips starting July 11. He said “many people” were “afraid” to travel by sea, on the ferry between Antigua and Montserrat. The only other way to get to the island is by helicopter.

The air service, Osborne said, will “open up” the island to the outside world and “boost” the local economy. “Not only from a historical, but also from an economical point of view this flight is of utmost importance. People must be able to depend on an airline,” he said, noting that the island was still recovering from the eruptions, developing infrastructure and hotels. “I am optimistic that we’ll make it, but it doesn’t take one day to rebuild a country,” he stated.

“This first testing flight gives us hope for scheduled flights in the not too distant future. There are still a number of details to be worked out for the airport to meet the standard for commercial flights. Residents and visitors are looking forward to air service and we anticipate good service from Winair,” said Osborne.

Winair’s Managing Director Edwin Hodge told those present at the ceremony that 10 years had passed since Winair’s last flight out of W.H. Bramble Airport in the east, which was destroyed by the volcano. He called the first flight both a “sentimental and operational journey,” mentioning that he had been on one of the last relief flights.

Hodge promised the “best possible service” from Winair, an airline that he said had an “excellent safety record.” Winair won the bid to fly exclusively between Antigua and Montserrat for two years. Hodge announced special introductory fares and other benefits of Winair’s service.

He said that in the future, depending on the demand, there would be direct flights between St. Maarten and Montserrat. The crowd at the ceremony responded positively to that announcement.
Captains Richie, who brought the plane in Tuesday morning, and Peterson, who flew the Twin Otter out, said they had a “very positive impression” of the new landing strip and airport.

They considered the landing strip in Montserrat of the same difficulty as the ones in Saba (1,200 feet) and St. Barths. They said this would restrict the destination to some pilots who have special training in short takeoff and landing procedures. The pilots made six landings in Montserrat Tuesday.

The new airport at Gerald’s, opened by Princess Anne in February this year, has been built in the safe zone. To make the runway, which measures 600 metres, longer, the area at the end of the strip that goes downhill was filled up. A tunnel was constructed underneath the filled up part of the airstrip.

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