Heads up, beachcombers! Scotland has two quirky superlatives related to flying: the only commercial airport on a beach and the world’s shortest scheduled flight.
Crunching and crackling, the all-terrain vehicle crosses the beach, its wheels leaving tracks and a trail of crushed shells in the wet sand. On the far side of the dunes, a seemingly South Seas vista opens up, complete with turquoise waters and a snow-white beach. Small wonder that the Scottish island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides is jokingly referred to as “Barrabados.” On sunny days, it indeed beckons with close to Caribbean charm – if it weren’t for the temperature. “Even 18 degrees is a warm day for us here,” says Joe Gillies, who is wrapped in a thick, high-visibility parka. The workday begins at 9 a.m. for this Barrachian, as the people of Barra call themselves, with a bizarre tour of inspection of a most unusual airport. “Often I have to remove seaweed or trash lying on the beach. That could endanger aircraft, otherwise.”
Gillies officially works as a fireman, but at Barra Airport, where he has been since 1999, he does a little bit of everything, including helping out in the tower and in the tiny terminal. “First we put the windsocks on to make people aware that the airport is active,” he explains. Barra Airport opened in 1936, and it’s the only airport of its kind. It has three officially designated runways, the longest of which is roughly 850 meters long, but all you actually see in front of the terminal building on the bay of Tràigh Mhòr (Big Beach) is an expanse of hard-packed sand with poles marking either end. Barra can only operate at low tide and is the only commercial airport in the world to be situated on a beach. “These flights are the lifeline for the 1200 or so people on the island, and tourists come from all over the world to see this,” says Gillies proudly.
I often see orcas from the cockpit, sometimes even breaching
The first of two daily flights will be arriving soon. Coming from Glasgow, it takes the twin-engine Twin Otter about an hour to reach the beach. “The strobe goes on when the aircraft is ten miles out to let walkers and cockle pickers on the beach know that a landing is imminent,” explains Gillies. Very often, he or a colleague still has to drive out and disperse onlookers who have strayed too close to the runway. Just before the first landing, a coach arrives and a group of visitors alights to crowd the fence, cameras in hand.
They are eager to see the Twin Otter come in, a Canadian-made propeller plane sporting the Scots colors, blue and white. Construction of this workhorse of the air was resumed about ten years ago. The pilot tilts the plane’s nose downward and starts banking to the left. Weight restrictions for the flight to Barra mean that Cochrane may only take 13 people in the 18-seater, since the fuel would not be sufficient for the return flight otherwise. He is assisted by the Belgian copilot Laura Roper, whose hair is tied back in a blond ponytail. One of only two women among the 13 island pilots, she has been flying to Barra up to five times a week since 2016. With her left hand on the thrust levers, she slowly throttles the power of the two Pratt & Whitney engines, and the drone of the propellers diminishes.
Looking down, first-time passengers on this route could easily become anxious: Where is the runway? The Twin Otter continues its descent over the seemingly endless expanse of sand. On the right, the terminal building whooshes past beneath the wings, but all you see out of the cockpit window (there’s no door between the cabin and the cockpit) are pools of water and tidal flats. Then the unique event that draws people all the way from Australia occurs: A scheduled flight lands on a beach.
With a little hop, the Twin Otter touches down. Even in the cabin, you can feel the plane shudder as it rolls over the sandy riffles created by the water. It’s low tide, but still there’s water on the “runway.” The water sprays waist-high from both wheels of the main landing gear, but the aircraft plows right through it like an off-road vehicle and quickly brakes. Then the pilots bring the plane to a full stop on the dry sand beside the terminal. Flight LM451 from Glasgow has arrived right on time.
Joe Gillies drives up to the plane. Now working as a baggage handler, he unloads the passengers’ luggage. The pilots don’t have much time on the ground. Roper gets herself a soft drink and potato chips from the airport café. Then it’s off back to Glasgow. Not long afterwards, the second flight of the day arrives. Then it’s time for a little break during which the three runways disappear – as they always do – beneath the rising tide. Joe Gillies still has work to do, however. “We are always busy and no day is the same,” says the all-rounder, laughing.
Nearly 350 kilometers away to the northeast: another group of islands, just as remote. “I often see orcas from the cockpit, sometimes even breaching,” says Colin McAllister enthusiastically. He is one of only three Loganair pilots who regularly flies to six of about 20 inhabited Orkney islands from Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney archipelago, which is located about an hour’s flight north of Glasgow. McAllister loves his job: “I don’t want to be locked away in a big jet,” he says, “I want to fly with a smile every day, see the pleasure or fear in my passenger’s faces.” McAllister takes off and lands 10 times a day. Each flight is a really short haul taking no longer than 15 minutes. In his small twin-engine Britten Norman Islander, he flies mostly Orkney islanders back and forth.
For people here, island hopping is like taking the bus, and it’s much faster than the ferry. Many commuters know the pilots so well they consider them good acquaintances. Visitors come to the Orkneys from far and wide, but it’s not primarily to see these islands. They come to take the scheduled hop between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray that has been on the flight timetable since September 1967. The distance between the “terminals” on each island is a good 3000 meters, and the flying distance between them, roughly 2700. For comparison’s sake, this is about the length of Frankfurt Airport’s shortest runway. In 1974, the chief pilot at the time came up with the idea of promoting the route as an attraction and entering “the world’s shortest scheduled flight” in the Guiness Book of World Records. Passengers even receive a certificate for the flight. “With so much interest from tourists it’s often not easy for locals to secure a seat,” Colin McAllister explains.
As you wait for your flight, you can see the plane approaching from afar. Today, flight LM348 from Kirkwall lands on the smaller island of Papa Westray (PPW) first. After a little hands-on help from a ground crewman (actually a farmer), McAllister turns the aircraft’s nose into the wind, accelerates and lifts off. Green grass, boulders and a short stretch of water rush past beneath the belly of the plane before the captain lands on Westray (WRY), calling out proudly: “66 seconds.” After about two minutes, his passengers can disembark. The record crossing on this route is actually 53 seconds, but pilot and passengers beam broadly nevertheless.
In February, Lufthansa flies daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and up to five times weekly from Munich (MUC) to Glasglow (GLA). From there, there are two daily Loganair connections to Barra (BRR) – or via Kirkwall (KOI) to Westray (WRY) and Papa Westray (PPW). Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app