Flying in the Scottish Highlands

A Cessna 150 embarks on a whistlestop flying tour of the Scottish Highlands

By Christina Belton & John HardyIt had been a typical British summer – blink, and you miss it. When August arrived, the Cessna 150’s CofA had almost run out, but when an anticyclone hove into view in Scotland it was too good a chance to miss: just time for a quick trip round the top and back.Our first stop was Fishburn. With many of the aircraft in individual hangars,including seventeen modern T-hangars, Fishburn must be an aircraft owner's dream. Short of storing all their household junk in their hangars people can treat them as a home from home. The next day we flew over dozens of little grey castles before coasting out over the Firth of Forth and past what looked like a snow storm: it was Bass Rock, surrounded by a huge cloud of sea birds. At Dundee we refueled for the second time: as we have got older and acquired more home comforts for the trip, we have reached the point where we can no longer carry full fuel. Inverness provided an opportunity to meet the Highland Flying Club and friends, includingHamish Mitchell and his C172 floatplane, about to set off for a trip down the GreatGlen. At least you can get a good idea of the weather along this route: you cansee half way down the Great Glen from Inverness and half way up it from Oban. With the safety margin for our flight to the Orkneys gone, instead we got permission from the owner to land at Fearn, the old military airfield just across the Moray Firth. We set up camp in the warm autumn sunshine near the impressive ruins of the enormouscontrol tower. Behind us lay Nigg Bay, where they make wind turbines like the ones we could see lounging idly on distant mountain tops. Itwas fine as we tracked alongside the busy coast road towards Wick, then coasted out over the Pentland Firth near John O'Groats, where the North Sea and the Atlantic meet. Underneath us the chilly waters roared andtumbled through this eight mile gap between the Orkneys and the mainland, the fastest running tide in the British Isles. At times like this I wonder if people rushing past on IFR flights, with their heads in the clouds, fully realise what lies in wait to swallow them up. I climbedanother thousand feet for comfort! A FLEET OF SPACE SHIPS

Heading for the flare stack on Flotta, we flew over Scapa Flow where the ships of the German fleet were captured at the end of WWI, only to be scuppered by their crews. Since theywere built before the nuclear age, and then protected by the water, the steel theyare made from contains no radioactive isotopes, and as such it is worth a fortune for specialised uses. Some of the Kaiser's fleet have been recycled as space ships. As we flew on, we faced an advancing wall of sea fog. I firewalled the throttle and raced towards Lamb Holm. It was a dead heat and as we taxied up the runway the sky went dark. We were huddled up later in our tents in the wind and the rain when Tom Sinclair, who owns the island, turned up to take us to the pub. We commiserated over his Europa: the constant speed prop hadfailed, in flat pitch, resulting in a hard landing. By the next morning the "haar" or sea fog had finally melted away, but the high pressuresystem was running out of steam: we needed to get going while we could. We did a short diversion over the fabulous Neolithic standing stones, the Ring of Brodgar, and pressed on to the Shetlands. With no Mode Charlie, I had had toring for permission to go through the Sumburgh CTR to get to Tingwall (Lerwick). THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

In the morning we jumped at the chance of a trip to Foula, which means "fowl island", in one of Directflight's Islanders. But there was no avoiding the next swath of bad weather, and after this unexpected diversion the big question was not if, butwhere, we were going to be stranded! We were being well looked after at Tingwall, and the aeroplane was safe, but even in my nice room with a view at the local inn I didn't fancy hanging around waiting for the storm. I'd rather push on. We knew Fair Isle only from the shipping forecasts, which always seemed to start "There are warnings of gales on Fair Isle But for the moment this tiny island, half way between the Shetlands and the Orkneys, was bathed in sunshine, a pastoral idyll with gangs of happy, laughing people making hay and drivinground on vintage tractors like in the socialist propaganda films. It is a World Heritage Site, and seasonal labour is provided by the "work camps", which consist of paying visitors who come to help keep the traditional way oflife going. GROWING ATTACHED TO FAIR ISLE

A whole new world awaited us the next day. As the wind rose we gradually stepped up the defences: by evening the Cessna was tied down with concrete blocks, containers of liquid on the seats and the fire engine parked infront for good measure. Its photo appeared on the Fair Isle website with the slogan: “You can grow attached to Fair Isle!” And this, I was assured, was only a beginner’s storm. Everyone on Fair Isle has at least one alias: the lady who ran the Post Office also drove the fire engine, and Dave Wheeler, the airfield coordinator, was also the resident meteorologist: he had been awarded an MBE for his work in the South Atlantic. In his professional opinion we would stuck there until Saturday. Even when the worst of the bad weather had abated, there would still the direction of the wind to consider: no-one, but no-one, fliesout of Fair Isle in a strong north-westerlybecause of the downdraughts and turbulence from the hill on that side. But there was always "Fair Isle Thursday” to look forward to at the Bird Observatory bar, with the ferry captain on guitar. And we also had to go and examine what looked like a bleached skeleton on the hillside: the “bones” turned out to be the wreck of a Heinkel reconnaissance planeshot down in 1941. GRADED HARDCORE RUNWAYS

The weather behaved exactly as Dave had predicted, and we left Fair Isle on schedule. We flew over North Ronaldsay for a photo of the seaweed-eating sheep.They have been exiled to the seashore so that the cattle, which are more valuable, can have the pasture land. Then we flew a tour of the other islands in the pouring rain. The prop suffered a couple of “dings” from the graded hardcore runways – but at least there were no landing fees! Finally the twinkling lightsof Kirkwall airport appeared out of the gloop,and by nightfall we were tucked up in our tents back on Lamb Holm. We decided to give up the struggle against the weather – even the solarpowered radio hadgiven up the ghost – and set off for home. But the seeds of discontent were sown at Inverness when someone mentioned a fly-in on the beach at Sollas, on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The route was clear, it was a week of neap tides (so thebeach was dry all the time), the organiser would bring us a jerry can of fuel – and the sun was shining: what more couldwe want? Our route took us through the mountains to the west coast and past Loch Kishorn, where the largest movable man-made object ever, the 600,000 tonne inian Central Platform, was constructed in 1978 and floated off to its new life.Three thousand people worked on the project, many of them housed on retired linersmoored in the loch. Now hardly a trace remains. I was wary of the Sollas runway’. I am deeply suspicious of beaches: back home in Lincolnshire they have a habit of opening up andswallowing unwary aviators. But two departing microlighters kindly showed us where it was safe to land. John MacLeod organises this fly-in every year, bringing everything over in an old van on the ferry from Stornoway. Sometimes the event falls victim to bad weather, but this year they were having the summer of a lifetime in the Western Isles – if only we’d known sooner! Even the solar-powered radio came back to life nd a cloud of mosquitoes danced to the skirl of the pipes. This remote place ecame our busiest campsite of the trip. Right up until nightfall - which at this latitude was very late - a continuous stream of people appeared, seeminglyfrom nowhere, to see the spectacle of the beached aeroplanes. We woke up the next morning to a glorious sunrise and set off across the strange waterylandscape of North Uist, described as “island full of lochs, lochs full of islands”. I was on my way to show John the Isle of Mull. Tracking along the coast we passed the gaily painted town of Tobermory – or Balamory as it is now better known. Dave Howitt and his family haveoperated the Glenforsa strip since it was built as an exercise by the Royal Engineers from Rippon, and opened in 1966 as an air ambulance facility. As we swapped stories we were joined by Ian Drake, formerly CFI at Netherthorpe, whonow lives on the island. Leaving Glenforsa, we detoured via Staffa Island for pictures of Fingal's Cave with its hexagonal basalt entrance pillars, before dropping in at Oban for fuel. There we met Paul Keegan, who has done so much over the years to keep aircraft in these isolatedparts safe and topped up with fuel – and pilots topped up with jammy dodgers. We were stranded one last time, at Carlisle, because of low cloud and a thirty knot crosswind back home. It could have been worse: after a belly-busting breakfast at the charming little airport cafe we spent the next day sunbathing!

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