Having spent the last couple of years writing a spy thriller set on Ascension Island I was interested to see this mysterious bit of British volcano surfacing in the news recently, once as a place the Home Secretary thought might be good to send asylum seekers, once turning up on the UK’s Green List of holiday destinations that required no quarantine.
Those who explored it as an option for a getaway might have been disappointed. An eight square mile lump of rock in the South Atlantic, halfway between Brazil and Angola, Ascension is one of the most remote islands in the world. Anyone researching their trip to its beaches would have seen that it contains a lot of satellite dishes, a golf course made of ash, two military bases (US and UK) and a village with a school and convenience store. But they’d also learn that potholes on the runway have meant that all MOD flights from Brize Norton (previously the only straightforward way to reach the place) have been suspended for the past four years, and you now need to get three flights in each direction (available once a month), or buy yourself a yacht. You also need permission from the island’s Administrator to stay there. And the only hotel has recently closed down. All of which provokes the question: what’s there? And why?
It was this enigmatic oddness that me think it would be a great setting for a novel (Ascension, pub. this month by Little, Brown). In the name of plugging it to the esteemed readers of Hush Kit, I present five vaguely flight-related nuggets about the island.
1. The name refers to the flight of Christ
Although the island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1501, it was so unappealingly barren that no one bothered to pass on the news, which meant it had be re-discovered two years later by the naval officer Afonso de Albuquerque who spied it on Ascension Day, the church feast day that celebrates Jesus flying up into Heaven after his resurrection.
It was still too unappealing to claim, though. No one wanted it until 1815, when the British came along, having incarcerated Napoleon on St Helena a few hundred miles away. A small British naval garrison was stationed on Ascension to deny it to the French. For administrative reasons, the island was classified as a stone ship – ‘HMS Ascension’ – to be operated at the discretion of the Admiralty. This made the commandant of the island technically a ship’s captain, with all the legal powers that the role implies. Every child born on Ascension from 1815 to 1922 was officially recognized as having been born at sea.
2. The US built the runway incredibly fast
During the Second World War, it was decided that an airfield on Ascension would be a good idea. The US and UK settled on a location in the south-west of the island named Wideawake Field after the numerous sooty terns (also known as wideawake birds) that inhabited the area.
The U.S. Army’s 38th Engineer Combat Regiment arrived in March 1942 and spent the first 27 days unloading 8000 tons of equipment they had brought with them. A lack of sand and stone to make cement meant they had to use volcanic ash mixed with sea water and bird droppings. The operation proceeded 24/7, with soldiers working under camouflaged lighting systems at night so as to shield their activity from enemy ships.
The runway – 6,000 feet long and 150 feet wide – was completed in just 91 days. Its first visitor was an American Consolidated B-24 Liberator by the name of Our Kissin’ Cousin en route to Natal (in South Africa) from Accra in Ghana. As a refuelling station, Wideawake Airfield facilitated indispensable aviation support for British troops in North Africa when Rommel was launching his offensive on Cairo. It also provided a base for anti-submarine raids, sinking numerous German U-boats and dampening Axis naval pursuits in the South Atlantic. One of the biggest dangers, however, involved the wideawakes themselves. Pilots had to take caution when landing and taking off, as birds could get caught in aircraft engines or break a window. During the height of their breeding season, the airfield had to shut down.
3. Birds on Ascension
The island provides one of the most important homes in the South Atlantic for several species, including the sooty tern, the red-footed booby and the Ascension Island frigatebird, but things haven’t always been easy for its feathered population. In 1815, the British introduced cats to sort out a rodent crisis arising from rats that had got aboard from ships in the early days. But the cats were far more tempted by the seabirds, and soon the bird population had been decimated, with survivors only hanging on in cat-inaccessible locations. In 2000, a project to eradicate feral cats from the island was begun (using traps and cages) and within two years they’d been largely destroyed. So had 38% of the domestic cat population, causing some public consternation. But all in all it was a happy ending, and five seabird species have now recolonized the mainland. The wellbeing of the rats remains unknown.
4. Falklands usage
On 5 April 1982, Nimrods were deployed to Wideawake airfield to support the war against the Argentinians, first being used to fly local patrols against potential Argentine attacks, and to escort the British Task Force as it sailed south towards the Falklands, then as communications relay support for the Operation Black Buck bombing raids.
Operations Black Buck 1 to 7 involved extremely long-range ground attack missions by RAF Vulcan bombers against Port Stanley Airport in the Falkland Islands, then occupied by the Argentinians. The raids, at almost 6,600 nautical miles (12,200 km) and 16 hours for the return journey, were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history at that time.
Because the Vulcan was designed for medium-range missions in Europe it lacked the range to fly to the Falklands without refuelling several times. The RAF’s tanker planes were mostly converted Handley Page Victor bombers with similar range, more often seen refuelling fighters scrambled in response to incursions into British airspace by bombers from the Soviet Union, so they too had to be refuelled in the air, involving relays of aircraft. A total of eleven tankers were required for two Vulcans (one primary and one reserve), which would have been an impressive logistical effort even if they hadn’t all been sharing the same runway.
In the end, the raids had minimal impact on Port Stanley airport, and the damage to Argentine radars was quickly repaired. It has been suggested that the RAF wanted to be involved in the conflict as a guard against further budget cuts.
Although the US initially abandoned the airfield at the end of the Second World War, they returned in 1956. The runway was lengthened and widened to allow for larger aircraft, and later to provide emergency landing for the Space Shuttle. At the time, it was the world’s longest airport runway.
This was just the start of Ascension’s role in the space program, though. In 1967, NASA established a tracking station for Apollo and other spaceflights in a remote area of the island known as Devil’s Ashpit. There are rumours suggesting that the island was used for training the astronauts as well – getting them used to isolation – and even that its surreal rockscape served as the backdrop for a faked moon landing. While these remain unconfirmed, it’s a matter of record that the Devil’s Ashpit station was the first on earth to receive the words: ‘The Eagle has landed.’
NASA staff kept a pet donkey named J.J. outside the operations building, a descendant of donkeys left on the island by Portuguese sailors two centuries earlier. ‘She was there at the tracking station to greet us every morning,’ Harry Turner, a data and antenna programmer wrote in 2003. “We were in the middle of the Apollo 11 mission and we lost all hydraulics to our antenna, meaning that within a short time we would lose the signal from the spacecraft. We ran out to the antenna and found that J.J. had backed her butt into the emergency stop switch.’
Ascension’s remote location continues to make it a good place to keep an eye on things up above us. The new US Space Force has a unit on the island, operating a Meter-Class Autonomous Telescope as part of a space surveillance system for tracking orbital debris (amongst other things?). They also use the Global Positioning System monitoring site at Ascension, which involves one of the four dedicated ground antennas that GPS relies on (the others are on Diego Garcia, Kwajalein (Marshall Islands), and at Cape Canaveral). Meanwhile, post-Brexit, the two European Space Agency Galileo Sensor Stations located on the Falklands and Ascension Island are being removed. The stations host cryptographic material which, in accordance with the EU security rules, can’t be located in non-EU territory.
All of which makes for an odd moment in the history of this British lump of lava. Will it end up in US hands entirely? Is it already? Is the long-overdue repair to the runway connected to plans for a new spaceplane? Or a desire to keep the island inaccessible? Any attempts to put the island’s business on a more democratic footing – for example, by granting citizenship to some of its more longstanding residents – have been quashed. Half a millennia after its discovery, Ascension remains as mysterious as ever, just a lot more busy.
Ascension by Oliver Harris is published by Little, Brown on July 15 (and by HMH Books in the US on the same date).