A flight to the "Outer Hebrides"
    
Stephan Weidenhiller, 27/07/2008
   
 

It’s Monday morning 06:30 o’clock. Thick clouds lie over the awaking airport of the Scottish city Glasgow. On the departures board, there are several destinations, you won’t find in other parts of Europe: Stornoway, Islay or Benbecula. The latest is my destination today. Benbecula is a small island on the Outer Hebrides, the north-western most islands of the British isles. It is 820 kilometres away from London and 254 kilometres from Glasgow. The island is framed by the bigger Hebridian islands of Northern and Southern Uist. At 07:00 o’clock it’s time to board the aircraft. Out of 1960s terminal’s Gate 1 25 passengers walk towards the British Airways flight 8807 operated by Loganair. With this amount of passengers, the Saab 340B G-LGNA of the Scottish regional airline has a good load. After a few minutes the flight is fully boarded, the aircraft pushed back and the General Electric turboprop engines are started. 5 minutes later I took already off Glasgow’s runway 05, climb through the thick clouds and head toward north-west. Loganair is still a franchise of British Airways. The entire aircraft interior is like the interior of the London based British flag carrier: The seats, safeties and the catering. Also the stewardess wears the pretty uniform of the Speedbird. Effective winter timetable 08/09 the franchise with BA will be halted and flyBE will become the new partner of Loganair. First Saab aircrafts wear already the basic colour scheme of the British low cost carrier.
 
After a 30minutes flights the clouds become lesser and you can have a look on the Isle of Skye. Over the “Small Minch” all the clouds disappeared and you have an unobstructed view. After a total flight time of about an hour I touch down on the runway 06 of Benbecula’s island airport. Already during approach I noticed the wild and harsh vegetation and the few housing estates. A few minutes before our landing, a Shorts 360 of Streamline arrived, which brought post, newspapers and other cargoes to the island. It’ll stay at Benbecula until the evening. Quickly all the passengers left the airplane and now wait in the terminal building to reclaim their baggage. The bags are handed back fairly quick: Instead of a conveyor belt there is just a ramp where the suitcases roll down. I don’t have to wait for any bags, as I’m just on a day trip: But my main destination is not Benbecula, but the island Barra.
  
For the flight from Benbecula to Barra, the counter agents at Glasgow couldn’t give me a boarding pass yet. Checked-in for my connection flight, I ask the agent about any sights, which could be visited during my 2,5 hours stay. The lady had to think about it, and said that there is nothing to see, but some minutes walking from the airport there is the main village. Maybe there is something worth seeing. So I began discovering the village. Beside a school, a post office and a supermarket, there isn’t really very much. But nevertheless while walking through the village you get a good impression how life on the islands is like. Only seldom the isles see such lovely weather, as I have today. There isn’t even a stationary bank branch, just a reconfigured van, cruising through the streets. During my walk back to the airport a Highland Airways Jetstream 31 coming from Stornoway landed
.
 
An hour later my connecting flight, the Dash 6-300 G-BVVK of Loganair coming from Barra arrives. Shortly after the arrival of the aircraft, all passengers are called forward to go to the security check. Boarding is a bit delayed, as the Jetstream is now also ready (it waited for connecting passengers from Barra) and taxies out. But the small delay doesn’t bother anyone here, as the clocks go a bit different here on the islands. Including me, four passengers climb the Twin Otter, to fly 52kilometers to the south to the island of Barra. On board the aircraft there isn’t a stewardess and so the copilot has to show the safety demonstration.


  


Saab 340s of Loganair operate between
Glasgow and Benbecula

 
 


Flight over thick Scottish clouds


 

The terminal of Benbecula. Note the
different way of newspaper sorting
in front of the terminal
The interior of Benbecula’s terminal A typical house on the Outer Hebrides.
The owner just has to clean up its garden
     

Rush hour at Airport Benbecula:
Streamline Shorts 360,
Highland Airways Jetstream 31
and Loganair Dash 6

Flight over Southern Uist

 

Approaching Barra over the Atlantic Ocean

 

     
Barra’s terminal and the beach of North Bay

Twin Otter on final approach into Barra

A landing on the beach: water and sand fly around

     
A few minutes later we are airborne and head towards the beach airport of Barra. The airport is a speciality: It is the only airport worldwide being flooded twice daily. There isn’t any concrete runway, as you land on sand. The beach of North Bay is a bay which is open to the east and is ideally suited for an airport beach. At the western end of the beach there is the terminal building. 3 runways are marked in the sand and they are used according to the wind direction.
  

The Twin Otter „hops“ over the beach
to the terminal

Welcome to Barra

View over North Bay

     
The baggage reclaim hut 

Ground handling – Barra style

A worldwide unique sign

    
 
 


View from the tower over the beach


 

After a 20 minutes flight over South Uist and other small Hebredian islands we are already on final approach. In low altitude you fly over a dune, along the terminal and then you touch down softly on the sand. Some water splashes up the gear, as it is left from the last high tide. In contrast to a landing on concrete or asphalt, the touch down is ways softer. After a short distance to break, the aircraft turns and hops over the sandy hills towards the terminal. The building just consist of a large combined check-in and waiting area inclusive a small coffee shop. Baggage reclaim takes place in a small hut resembling a bus stop outside the airport terminal. About 20 minutes later, the Twin Otter is ready for its onward flight to Glasgow. Along the beach there are several tourists waiting to watch the spectacle “take off from the beach”. Until the engines are running the spectators take the time to collect some empty mussels. The spotters are indicated via a wind sock, if they may stay on the beach or not. Whenever the windsock is flying, flying operations are going on and you have to keep off the beach. If the windsock doesn’t fly, no flights are expected and you can walk freely across the airport beach. In the meantime both mighty Pratt and Whitney Canada engines are running and the Twin Otter hops again over the sand to it’s holding point. A few seconds later and throwing around some sand and water, the aircraft heads toward Glasgow.
 

  
  

I do now have 3,5 hours to discover the islands. Quickly the very nice station manager of Loganair organized me a competent guide with a car to show me round. The history dates back very long, as the Vikings were already on the islands. Some ruins are well over 1500 years old and tell about the long history of Barra. The main village of Castlebay is dominated by the Kismuil Castle, which is located on a rock right in the middle of the bay. About 1200 men and women do live on the island. The most well known thing about the isle is the book “Whisky Gallore” written by Compton MacKenzie. After a 2,5 hour long intensive island tour, I’m back at the airport.

After check-in I do have the possibility to visit the tower. Both controllers tell me about the specialities of this unique airport. The timetable is different every day, as operations can only take place at low tide. Flights have to be planned according to the tide. Therefore there is the small but important remark in the BA timetable booklet: “Timing are subject to tides at Barra”. Only on 10 days in the year, the weather is this lovely, as it is today, but the airport is closed just a few times per year. The minimum visibility of 800metres is given on most of the days. With a few minutes delay, just before 15:00 o’clock my aircraft, again the G-BVVK, arrives from Glasgow. After a short turn around and a coffee for the crew, boarding takes place. A last walk over the beach and it’s time to say good-bye from this inherent natural beauty. This flight is now nearly fully booked, but that isn’t a problem for the Dash 6. The take-off run lasts 16 seconds and now heads towards Glasgow again. Now there is again silence on the beach and it’ll take two floodings until the airport opens next morning again. Slowly but smoothly I cruise over the Hebridian Sea and pass by the islands of Coll and Mull, the Firth of Lorne and the harbour of Oban till I land at Glasgow again after an hour flight. Now I’m back in civilisation. Mobile phones, which don’t even work on Barra and Benbecula, take now charge of the life again. I do now have 4 hours of time till, my onward journey brings me unspectuarily with an A319 of easyJet to Belfast.
 

 
   

Idyllic Barra: Mobile phones doesn’t work here

Kismuil castle in the Bay of Castlebay  View over Castlebay
     

Boarding fort he flight back to Glasgow

The Twin Otter taxies to the holding point

Take off to Glasgow

     

The last islands of the Outer Hebrides

Approaching Glasgow’s airport

The Twin Otter on stand at Glasgow Airport