Island and Highland-Hopping
PUBLISHED: 15:05 05 June 2015 | UPDATED: 15:13 05 June 2015
The mission: to visit 18 Scottish island airfields in 23 days, challenging the elements on the way in a Socata Trinidad.
We tend to remember only the good times, but it is hard to think of the sunshine when you are gazing out at heavy rain and 2,000m visibility, waiting for a chance to take off from Glenforsa Airfield on the Isle of Mull.
Scotland and the Western Isles in particular, offer some of the most magnificent scenery on earth − and some of the fiercest weather. To be fair to Mull, the weather had been spectacular ever since our arrival three days earlier from White Waltham. Following a coffee stop at Huddersfield, our landing at Glenforsa had signalled the beginning of a three-week, eighteen-airfield odyssey around Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. On the trip we would land on grass, tarmac, concrete, hard core and sand, and cover 1,500 nautical miles.
Our 2002 Socata TB20GT Trinidad is a perfect touring aircraft, and with two pilots the load of flying and navigating on an endeavour such as this can be shared. Scotland’s changeable weather, with cloud which is often sitting below the mountain tops, was manageable, as Mike has an IR.
As for that day at Glenforsa? Well, even the fishermen wanted to stay at home so we spent an extra day there. It is a place not to miss, though. If you want to land on one of the most picture-perfect airfields in the British Isles, Glenforsa is hard to beat. Its long grass runway is beautifully maintained, running parallel to the beach beside the Sound of Mull, just over the water from the mouth of the Great Glen (Loch Linnhe) and Oban. The airfield manager, David Powitt, is there to greet you, arrange car hire and share local knowledge. Even better, through the gate and across the lawn you’ll find a warm welcome from flyer Brendan and his wife Alison at the charming Scandinavian style Glenforsa Hotel.
There is a great deal to see on Mull: Iona to the west with its early Christian ruins and abbey, the picturesque town of Tobermory with unforgettable lobster, crab and other local delights at Café Fish, pretty single lane roads and coastal views, and glorious sightings of golden and white-tailed eagles over sea and land.
The weather cleared after our enforced additional day on the island and we set off for our next stop to visit friends on Kintyre. However, we remembered too late that Campbeltown airfield is closed at weekends. An out-of-hours permit, with an indemnity, can be obtained from HIAL, but obviously not at that short notice.
We therefore made the short flight to Oban on the mainland. Our Kintyre-based friends were looking forward to a fly past, but we had to arrive more prosaically in a hire car. On a previous trip we had landed on Gigha, but the runway there can be challenging if the grass has not been mown recently or is wet, and we had had difficulty on that occasion hauling off a heavily laden PA-32 before reaching the perimeter fence. If you are visiting Kintyre (other than at the weekend) Campbeltown, therefore, is a better bet.
Back in Oban after our visit, we filed for IFR to Edinburgh to avoid having to route around Glasgow. Edinburgh is not well served by GA airfields, the nearest being Cumbernaud and Fife, both of which would have involved us in costly transfers to get to the city. We had tried Kirknewton, but it is RAF and open only to locally based aircraft. East Fortune, another possibility, is more a microlight field and not really suitable for fully laden four- and six-seaters.With a strong westerly, our flight north of the Glasgow zone had given us a ground speed of up to 209 knots, but turning final to Edinburgh’s Runway 24 brought that down to below 100. As you would expect, the handling at Edinburgh is exemplary and you get free coffee and tea, but you need an overdraft or a trust fund to pay for it, as landing fees and handling are very expensive - we paid a total of £270 plus VAT for the three days.
After an entertaining few days at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, we headed north for the Highlands, and onwards to Orkney. Flying over the Highlands even in summer can be challenging, with freezing layers usually only a couple of thousand feet above the MSA, and cloud often obscuring the higher peaks. Mike, having his IR, did the flying and we spent most of the trip up to Kirkwall in Orkney in or above cloud. Scottish Information does not have radar, so we elected to use the Leuchars and Lossiemouth LARS, both of which were helpful and accommodating with a traffic service. Passing overhead Wick we then coasted out for Orkney, arriving at Kirkwall after a 150-minute flight with a procedural ILS approach off a DME arc. Good practice for somewhat rusty IFR skills.
The notion then took us to visit the northern islands, where short airfields service the remote farming communities dotted around Orkney. LoganAir fly a daily milk run around the islands in an Islander, which we came across at North Ronaldsay, where we were held for a time to allow the scheduled service to come and go. There are six such airfields, and we thought that we might try to visit them all in one day, as many are less than ten minutes flying time from their nearest neighbours, it wouldn’t be overly ambitious.
So we set off from Kirkwall, starting with a trip south to the island of Hoy, circumnavigating it to view the famous rock pillar known as the Old Man of Hoy, with its spectacular cliffs, home to many bird colonies, including puffins and guillemots. Prior permission has to be obtained from the Orkney Islands Council, but they also recommend contact with each island to check the runway condition and scheduled services, so we needed to make a number of calls to get our planned flights organised. Radio contact is always maintained with Kirkwall, who generally ask you to report when on final at each island. We also took the LoganAir schedule for the day, so that we could anticipate their arrivals and departures.
Many of the airfields we visited had both grass and hard runways, but the grass is often waterlogged and the local rabbit population regularly makes holes in the surface, so we were advised to use the hard each time. Even so, the runways were challenging, being mainly hard core with loose gravel on top. The airfield plates all carried the legend: ‘Graded Hard Core runway possibly unsuitable for light aircraft with low ground/propeller clearance due to loose gravel on surface’. Our flying in Australia on sand or dirt runways taught us always to do rolling takeoffs to prevent stone damage, and the technique was equally useful here. Power checks were always done on the hard-standing of the apron.
At only around 550 metres each, the Orkney island runways require a careful approach, with good speed control, and we did two go-arounds (one after a touch down) when we were unsure of stopping before the end of the runway. We also had fifteen knot cross-winds on most, which made the circuits and final approaches challenging, but the sense of achievement on our return to Kirkwall was palpable.
In all, our tour of the Islands took in Eday, Westray, Papa Westray, North Ronaldsay, Sanday and Stronsay. The shortest hop was in the Westrays. With only about half a mile separating the islands, the flight took less than five minutes from takeoff to landing.
Orkney has a huge amount to offer the visitor. It is a World Heritage Site because of its fine Neolithic remains dating from 3,000BC. The Neolithic standing stones are huge ceremonial monuments. Some, such as the Ring of Brodgar, one of the three leading henges in Britain, are still in their groups. Others, such as the four huge stones at Stenness, are all that remain of another henge. But all these sacred sites are built in natural amphitheatres, as is Maeshowe, a burial chamber constructed nearby some 5,000 years ago. By contrast, there are ‘modern ruins’ around Scapa Flow, where the British navy sheltered during WWII. A feature there is the Churchill barriers which were built to protect the fleet.
The weather continued to offer gale force winds and heavy showers, but we were able to depart Kirkwall for Stornoway, flying across the north of Scotland via John O’Groats to the Hebrides. With winds of up to 35 knots and heavy cloud cover, Mike’s IR again came in very handy. This gave us radar coverage across the Highlands, which is a great comfort when you are in cloud and close to the freezing level, as we were for most of the flight. VFR is difficult in the Highlands, and low level flight is often impossible due to military low level restricted areas. These are not always active, though, so it is worth telephoning RAF Wittering for up-to-date information.
Stornoway has a procedural IFR approach along a ten-mile DME arc to a localiser (effectively an ILS but without glideslope) and with cloud cover as low as 1,200ft we chose the instrument approach. The weather in Lewis and Harris for our three days there continued to be stormy, with gale force winds and heavy rain. We did have enough glimpses of the sun, nonetheless, to give us views of the extraordinary moon-like landscape along the east coast of Harris and of deep yellow sandy beaches along the west.
A highlight was lunch at a remote hotel at Rodel, on the southern end of Harris, with views of Skye as we ate local fish and venison. We had seen seals basking on rocks in a small bay as we drove south, having stopped to take photographs, fortuitously just as the sun came out.
Air traffic control in the Outer Hebrides is very professional. Although there are only a small number of scheduled flights, full service has to be maintained. We benefitted from unfailingly helpful and friendly ATC staff and controllers. The lack of activity at Stornoway when we departed for Benbecula resulted in our being invited to taxi for Runway 36, 24, 18 or 06, at our discretion! The weather for our departure was, as usual, atrocious, making a VFR flight down to Benbecula impossible, but we did manage to remain visual for a low level run down through Loch Seaforth, coasting out from Harris over the island of Scalpay and passing Rodel, where we had lunched the previous day.
The weather called for an instrument approach to Benbecula, a quite complicated VOR/DME procedure with an overhead join and two procedure turns for the final inbound track. As usual, ATC were enormously helpful, and after landing we made a point of visiting the Tower to say thank you to them.
Benbecula is situated in the centre of North and South Uist, islands characterised by strong and imposing hills in the south and a huge expanse of fresh- and sea-water lochs in the north. They are home to a great variety of bird life, including the previously endangered corncrake, as well as otters and seals. The machair, wild flower meadows growing on the sandy soil of the coastal plains, draw scientists and nature lovers from all over the world.
After our sojourn to the Outer Hebrides we were due in Inverness to stay with friends. The Great Glen is always a spectacular flight and so we chose that as our route, stopping on the way at Barra and Tiree. The beach landing on Barra is one of the great aviation experiences. We arrived there just as a scheduled flight was departing, so orbited to allow the beach to become clear. Although the tide was out, the sand was glistening as we came in on final, giving the beach the appearance of being waterlogged. Making the approach very shallow and slow, we touched down gently on a wet but quite firm surface.
The three ‘runways’ are only designated by flags, which are not difficult to spot if correctly lined up on final on the chosen runway bearing, but it is a unique experience not to be missed by anyone flying in the Western Isles.
Our final destination of Inverness has plenty of parking for visiting aircraft, and doesn’t insist on handling, so it is reasonable value as a base for the Highlands. The only downside is that you have to carry your own luggage about 250 metres to the terminal. There is a small GA airfield called Easter across the Moray Firth, but a number of attempts to contact the owners/operators there proved fruitless, so we stuck with Inverness.
We spent the next three days in the heather and peat beating for grouse and fishing for trout on our host’s picturesque loch, surrounded by the majestic hills (topped by the occasional wind-farm) which are home both to eagles and low flying Tornadoes.
Our flight back took us via Cark (Grange over Sands) in the southern Lakes, a parachuting field that nevertheless welcomes visiting light GA and is well placed for lunch at Holker Hall. The last leg back to Waltham was also flown airways, which avoids the complicated VFR routings and low level corridors around Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. The mixed weather gave us as good a demonstration as you could get of the benefits of an instrument rating. We’re firmly of the belief that all pilots should upgrade to the new restricted instrument rating, which will allow flight in airways, particularly if they are already holders of the UKIMC rating.
The trip was a great success, giving us access to islands normally only visited with some difficulty by ferry, to memorable Neolithic and religious sites, and to the stunning and often deserted scenery of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Memories of good times…
Mission accomplished by Michael Whalley and Karen Goldie-Morrison in their Socata Trinidad!