This article first appeared in the travel section of Airliner World Magazine, alongside my photography of the short jump from mainland Britain to the Isles of Scilly.
The Britten-Norman BN-2A Islander is an aircraft that captures the spirit of the rugged western coast of the British Isles perfectly. It could never be classes as an elegant aircraft, but has long ploughed the skies of some of the more remote areas of the world with remarkable poise and has done so whilst winning both pilots’ and passengers’ hearts. The author was lucky enough to experience Flight IOS002 on an Islander in September, travelling on the Isles of Scilly Skybus from Land’s End Airport (LEQ) to St Mary’s on the Isles of Scilly (STM).
Arriving at Penzance railway station, the complimentary shuttle bus was waiting to pick up some of the passengers for the 7 mile (11km) trip to Land’s End Airport. The airport is actually located near St. Just, and has grass runways with a terminal, hangar facilities and space for five or six light aircraft. The Isles of Scilly Skybus shares the airport with MSH Flight Training, which operates a small fleet of Cessna 152s and 172s.
On busy summer days this makes for some busy radio traffic, with around ten Skybus flights plus private aircraft coming and going from nearby tourist areas such as Newquay, a 20-minute flight away.
The check-in area at the airport is situated immediately inside the main entrance. The basic facilities are totally different to those one is normally accustomed to with busy departure lounges, corporate style check-in desks and occasionally over-officious staff. The warm welcome of the local employees set the tone for the rest of the trip, while outside, the cafe affords views of the aircraft airside, two Islanders (one of which, G-SBUS, was the allocated aircraft for the morning), a de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter and two Cessna 172s were parked on the field. After a safety presentation, ground staff escorted everyone to the Islander - passengers have to stoop to get into the small seats at the back; this certainly isn’t a large aircraft by any means. Luckily, the flight wasn’t full, and all seats offered excellent views as well as the ability to see up front, where the sole pilot was readying the aircraft.
To unaccustomed travellers, it can be a surprise just how quick the pilot’s pre-flight checks can be on a relatively small aircraft. After an external inspection and a quick control surface, magneto and avionic check, the engines were started and the aircraft was trundling and bumping across the grass for a departure from Runway 25. Following a short ground run, the flight was airborne very quickly, the smooth air and excellent visibility affording fantastic views port-side to nearby Sennen Cove. Maintaining a climb rate of 900 feet per minute and about 120kts ground speed, the vibration from the twin Lycoming engines (producing around 300 horsepower each) brought life into the whole aircraft. In many ways, this is flying as it should be: basic, hassle free and exhilarating. The white horses of the waves below looked a long way off, even at the transit height of only 1,000ft, a level that was reached in very little time at all.
With only a 15-minute planned flying time, the descent soon commenced and was followed by a virtual straight-in approach to Runway 32 at St. Mary’s. The excellent visibility and the small airport’s position high up on Telegraph Hill ensured it was easily identifiable on an island which is only a couple of miles long and home to a maximum of 2,000 inhabitants. There was a was slight crosswind from the left, but the landing was smooth and precise, although the braking action was more fierce than expected from such a small aircraft.
After a short taxi to the terminal and engine shutdown, friendly staff were again on hand to open the door and guide passengers to the small terminal which forms the base for Isles of Scilly Skybus operations. A bus was on hand to take those who needed it on the five-minute drive to Hugh Town, where a small community gathers and also where the majority of the island’s facilities lie.
It is refreshing that, despite all the necessary security and safety procedures that surround flying, there are still places within the UK where it can be regarded as an ‘experience’ rather than simply a means of getting from A to B. Of course, for the individuals who live on the island, it is merely a necessary means of transport, but the air and sea links are part of the Isles of Scilly’s daily life and a familiar sight throughout the archipelago, providing year-round passenger, freight and postal journeys.