UK

Ascension Islanders left stranded after RAF halts flights

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Media captionCaroline Yon says this runway is so old and fragile planes can't land

Ascension Island, home to around 800 people, is even more cut off than it used to be after weekly flights linking the island to the UK were stopped - due to a dodgy runway and the wrong kind of RAF aircraft.

The British overseas territory is the tip of an old volcano in the Atlantic Ocean, mid-way between Africa and Brazil.

It's so remote, that when the Portuguese discovered it on Ascension Day in 1501, they didn't even bother colonising it.

"Half of the island looks like the surface of the moon, the other half looks like Mars, but in a good way," says Caroline Yon, station manager for the European Space Agency tracking station on Ascension.

"But I wouldn't want to put anyone off. We do have gorgeous white sandy beaches, and pristine clear blue seas absolutely jam-packed with marine life - it's a very unique place."

Image copyright Matthew Teller
Image caption View from Green Mountain across volcanic cinder cones

The island, which covers around 45 square miles just south of the equator, is formed by around 40 volcanic peaks.

It is rough and rugged - barren in parts - but at its heart has a lush peak known as Green Mountain, home to rare bird colonies which are the result of a unique botanical experiment led by Charles Darwin.

"We have the second largest turtle colony in the Atlantic Ocean," says Johnny Hobson, the island's dentist who has lived on the island for 31 years.

"Outside our house at the moment there are baby turtles erupting on a beautiful golden beach," he says.

"Everyone's finding it hard to get to and from Ascension at the moment.

"Currently the only real way off for most of us is an eight or nine day journey by sea to Cape Town and to fly back to the UK that way - at a cost of £3000-4000 for the round trip and the ship, the RMS St Helena, only passes by every three weeks."

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Media captionResidents Jacqui Ellick and Johnny Hobson say the island's economy could be potentially destroyed over the runway closure

Johnny, who also owns a hotel and car hire business, tells me visitors to the island have increased steadily over the past few years. Some were going to St Helena, the nearest landmass some 700 km to the southeast, while others included deep sea fishermen, conservationists and people arriving to see the turtles.

"Last year we had five or six thousand visitor nights," he says.

But with the end of the weekly flights all that has changed and businesses are quickly collapsing.

The runway, designed as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle, is maintained by the US military.

It used to be one of the longest in the world but now badly needs maintenance, and while there's a plan to have the tarmac repaired by 2020, the Airbus A330 Voyager aircraft the RAF uses to land on the island is no longer suitable.

The Ministry of Defence says it is committed to running an air bridge between the UK and the Falkland Islands, but not necessarily to Ascension.

The plane was very convenient as it stopped off on the island to refuel, but now it lands on Cape Verde, and the residents have been left somewhat stranded.

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Image caption Ascension Island was the major staging post in the Falklands War in 1982

"Well basically it was the hub, so all the flights came here before they went on to the Falklands - the planes, the ships came here," said Jacqui Ellick whose husband's job brought them to the island 22 years ago.

She's an elected island councillor, volunteers for the local newspaper and manages the interns who come each year to monitor the turtles.

"There are other planes that can land here, just not the A330. At the moment the American planes still land here and the MoD have a C17 once a month for their own people, but for the rest of us there is no way off except for the ship."

"It's such a big question. I don't think there's anyone in the foreign office or the government with the time and inclination to sit down and sort it out," says Caroline Yon.

"But it would be a shame if the island couldn't continue."

A UK government spokeswoman said: "We know that the rerouting of the South Atlantic air bridge flights has caused difficulties for those on Ascension Island and we are working closely with relevant parties to find and agree alternative access arrangements as quickly as possible."

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