Since September 1987, Banjul International Airport (BIA) has been among four selected locations in the world designated as augmented emergency landing sites and recovery locations for the United States Space Shuttle. B1A is adjacent to the capital, 13 degrees north of the Equator, on a flat plane, seven miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. NASA space shuttles, launched eastward in a ballistic trajectory over the Atlantic, fly directly over Banjul, thus making it an ideal location for emergency landings. In addition, The Gambia’s dry season from November to May provides favourable weather conditions, with generally good visibility for emergency landings.
But it is not only geography that has made BIA a logical choice for NASA. The Gambian airport boasts an ultra-modem $l0-million passenger terminal, a new nine-floor Air Traffic Control Tower, newly installed security systems, and upgraded airfield lighting and navigation systems. The runway is over two miles long (the third longest in Africa) and complies with all International Civil Aviation Organisation requirements.
The next century will bring even more dramatic changes to the airport. In June 1999, the Gambian government signed a $10-million loan agreement with the Director-General of the Kuwaiti Fund for Arab Economic Development for financing the Banjul International Airport Improvement Project. The project agreement will be completed in VNO stages, ending in 2003 and 2008. Improvements are to include civil-engineering works for the apron and taxiways; overlay of the runway; roads, parking and fence works; and erection of power-generation equipment as well as for the improvement of the distribution and lighting systems. This is the fifth loan to The Gambia by the Kuwaiti Fund to finance projects in various sectors.
The Gambia’s Civil Aviation, Authority (GCAA) works closely with The United Space Alliance, which is responsible for operating the Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites for every -NASA shuttle mission. BIA is equipped with state-of-the-art navigation and landing aids and an automated weather station, as well as shuttle-specific ground support tools to assure a safe landing in the event of an emergency during the ascent flight phase. Three satellite circuits are used for communication, along with two commercial Gambian telephone circuits.
During the week preceding a shuttle launch, a team of NASA mission-support specialists and medical personnel from the United States Department of Defence arrives in Banjul to activate the TAL site. They work closely with BIA’s twenty specially trained security officers, and with the Gambian Fire and Rescue Service, which remains fully operational during this period. With the time lapse between the declaration of a T AL and landing estimated at twenty to twenty-five minutes, Gambian and U.S. personnel are trained to work efficiently to clear the airspace and ensure a safe outcome after the shuttle’s supersonic descent from an altitude of about 360,000 feet.
With consistently high ratings from NASA, Banjul International Airport is well on its way to assuring that The Gambia becomes the trade gateway to the sub-region in the next century .As BIA’ s Managing Director notes, “If this airport is good enough for the space shuttle, it should be good enough for any other airport operation.”