Schedules subject to tide
Scotland / / / July 2016
wo propellers, a cabin like a straightjacket and a whole lot of noise – this is real flying, pure and unadulterated. With 13 passengers onboard, Captain Alex Brand is flying the DHC6 Twin Otter, cruising at 3,000 meters above Scotland towards Barra, a small island at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides. It takes Brand roughly one hour to cover the 220 kilometers from Glasgow to the outpost of the United Kingdom.
In the land of the bagpipes, the weather is a capricious phenomenon for most of the year. This afternoon, however, is sunny, making up for all the rainfall seen over the past few days. Some clouds are causing minor turbulences but captain Brand and his cargo make a successful landing at their destination – and this destination is one of a kind.
Tràigh Mhòr, a beach at the northern end of Barra, is easy to spot, even from afar: an expanse of Caribbean sand stretches in front of turquoise-colored sea, framed by the green of grass-covered dunes. Loganair, which was founded in 1962, is the world's only airline with a scheduled air service that lands on a beach. Which has landed it an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. Besides, it holds the world record for the shortest flight time between two airfields – the flight between the Orkney islands Westray and Papa Westray only takes two minutes from start to finish.
“Welcome to Barra” – last year, Loganir carried over 15,000 passengers to this small Hebridean island
"It can get pretty stormy out there, especially in winter" is how Alex Brand describes the difficult conditions prevailing on the islands. "Our biggest problem is the strong crosswinds." Last year, one of Brand's colleagues was hit by this weather phenomenon on Lewis and Harris up north. Strong gusts pushed his Saab 340B from the runway just as he was about to take off, breaking the front part of the landing gear and causing the propeller to hit the ground. The plane finally came to a standstill after 250 meters. Although no one was injured, the aircraft, one of the 29 airplanes that currently make up the Loganair fleet, was a total write-off – the airline's first accident in over ten years. Colin Munro, contract manager at Loganair, is still impressed with what happened next.
Every year, Loganair flights transport approximately 650,000 passengers. The airline is one of more than 50 companies to be collectively insured under Europe's largest fleet policy. This includes Lufthansa and its subsidiaries, such as Lufthansa Passage, Lufthansa Cargo, Swiss and Austrian Airlines, as well as Star Alliance Partners like Turkish Airlines or Polish airline LOT. Albatros, a company of the Lufthansa Group, acts as broker representing the interests of member airlines. Allianz is leader of the insurance consortium. "Allianz provided indemnification for the damage immediately," says Munro. "The support we received from the insurer and from Albatros was just tremendous."
To Alex Brand, it doesn't matter that National Geographic has dubbed the beach runway at Barra one of the world's most treacherous airfields – he still sees it as the most beautiful place to land. Especially on a day like this. Loganair took over this route from British Airways in 1975. The fact that Glasgow-born Brand has been flying this way for 20 years doesn't lessen his fascination with Barra. "Just look at that," he says, pointing at the sandy runway spread out beneath him. "Isn't it fantastic?"
Tràigh Mhòr – twice a day, Loganair airplanes land on the Big Beach
The Barra beach has served as a runway for 80 years
The baggage conveyor belt, probably the most photographed one in the world, looks more like a bus stop than anything else
Loganair-Team: Colin Munro (Contracts Manager), Andy Thornton (Director of Flight Operations), Barry Stone (Director of Engineering), Graeme Abernethy (Flight Captain) (from left)
Yes, it certainly is. Last year, Scotland’s oldest airline carried over 15,000 passengers on this route, including tourists who had booked the flight purely to get the chance to land on a beach and who hopped on the next plane back to Glasgow before you knew it. For those living on the island, on the other hand, this connection is vitally important, which is why the Scottish government is subsidizing around 115 pounds (145 euros) of every ticket – about half of the actual price. "It's our government's policy to support these remote municipalities as far as possible," explains Colin Munro. A practice covered by the EU resolutions concerning Public Service Obligations to maintain an adequate level of provision for the population in the member states. Although there are ferry links with the Hebrides, whoever sets out for Glasgow from Barra by car and ferry needs almost nine hours, instead of the one hour it would take to fly. That's half a day on the road.
Too long when it's a matter of life or death. Up to ten years ago, Loganair pilots used to fly rescue missions to the remote Highlands settlements and the outposts off the coast of Scotland. The pilots would guide their planes up into the air under the most unfavorable of circumstances to save people's lives, and not all of them made it back home. In 2006, the contract was awarded to another airline, putting an end to that particular aspect of Loganair's work. A dark day in the history of this small company, whose employees always felt ambulance flights were more than just any old job. After all, in the just under 40 years, 22 babies came into the world onboard Loganair planes – including a set of twins born 40 miles apart. Alex Brand still is a bit sad this is no longer the case. "It was a very fulfilling job," he says. "You had this deep sense of really being able to help the people out there."
Back then, the former rescue pilot would often head for Barra, at night if necessary. And this despite the fact that the sandy airfield is not actually designed for nighttime flights. The pilots have to fly on sight, which can sometimes prove difficult even during daytime. Captain Graeme Abernethy, a colleague of Brand's, also describes landing on the island as technically challenging. "Sometimes, you can't even see where the waterline is because the visibility is so bad. What you need to do then is fly over the terrain several times and from different directions, so that you can see where it's safe to land." And whenever a northeasterly wind drives the sea into the bay and floods the beach, even though the tide is out, flights have to be cancelled. "This, however, doesn’t happen all too often," says Abernethy.
After each high tide episode, specialists check whether larger objects have been washed ashore, which could pose danger for an airplane trying to land. The ground crew in Barra often act as a fire brigade for take-off and landing, as well as being responsible for loading and unloading the baggage. They also chase shell collectors or those going for a run on the beach away from the airfield whenever they miss the wind socks displayed as a warning. That happens on a regular basis. Today, however, everything comes together: no ramblers with their head up in the clouds, no dogs romping about – and no birds. Every now and then, whole flocks of birds assemble around the waterline and appear to do nothing other than wait for an airplane to start its descent. Alex Brand, one of 160 Loganair pilots, a number which now includes many women, also had some close encounters in the past.
As the captain guides the nose of his Twin Otter towards the ground, Tràigh Mhòr, Gaelic for "Big Beach", stretches before his eyes, vast and unspoiled. Only for a few days a year does the island live up to its honorific title "Barrabaidos". Today is one of these days. It's sunny, the sand is wet and solid, and the landing so soft that you can hardly feel the wheels touching the ground.
At 1.45 meters, Alex Brand is Britain’s shortest commercial pilot
Before our departure from Glasgow, Barry Stone, Loganair's Director of Engineering, explained to us that "the Twin Otter is the truck of the sky. With the fixed landing gear it is just made for these sorts of terrains – simple, robust and indestructible. It weighs just the right amount, which means it doesn't sink into the sand, it needs relatively little space for take-off and landing and its rugged engines” – at this point he looked over to Graeme Abernethy – “can cope with some of the things that pilots do to them."
Captain Brand taxies his plane over the airfield, which the sea had vacated for a few hours, bringing it to a halt directly in front of the tiny island terminal. The two Pratt & Whitney rotors stop turning, the monotonous humming noise that we'd almost become accustomed to dies down. "Welcome to Barra." There have been cases of passengers in the past dropping down to their knees and kissing the sand. Still, even though rookies see the landing as something truly special, enthusiasm doesn't quite stretch that far today: all passengers remain standing.
Captain Alex Brand is the last to exit the airplane, and it's only then that you realize that he's not exactly the tallest of guys. We estimate him to be just under 1.50 meters tall – and are not far off the mark. "1.45, to be precise", says Brand with a chuckle, "I guess that makes me Britain's shortest commercial pilot."
Most likely he is the shortest pilot in the whole world. That alone would be worth an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.