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World’s shortest flight

On The Hop in Orkney

Like the ageing Lothario who rues never keeping a diary, I know that after twenty-some years and maybe five hundred commercial flights, it is too late now to start keeping a log. But airplanes? — I’ve known a few.

I once flew nine times in ten days all over China in everything from a 747 so new it smelled of glue to a 35-seater Chinese Yak that smelled like something its namesake left steaming on a mountain trail; I have marvelled at baby-kiss soft landings aboard superannuated Russian Tupolovs flying the North Korean flag, and bounced to earth on a bucking Tristar in a raging Hongkong typhoon. I have cast a wary eye upon the seamless jungles of Sumatra from a rattling 30-year-old Vickers, and shared a new Airbus over Pakistan with crates of live chickens. Once I even flew upside-down over Scotland’s Deeside in a Puchacz glider.

So for what it’s worth, I’ve seen the inside of a lot of aircraft — and this next one looks like it should be fun.

The Britten Norman Islander might have the air of a relic from a bygone era, but it is, after all, precisely that. Built in the eighties to a 1960s design, this is an aircraft that first turned up for work when Harold Wilson modelled the Gannex and the first coat of paint was still wet on Coronation Street. But when the daily remit is multiple short hops between tiny bumpy strips in a climate flickering between the blustery and the apocalyptic, this sturdy little craft is hard to beat.

The Islander is Loganair’s Orkney workhorse, and sits prepped on the tarmac at Kirkwall Airport. When Senior Pilot Stuart Linklater suggests I sit up front with him, he doesn’t have to ask me twice. Strolling past the main cabin where five commuters sit wedged in intimate discomfort, he opens the rudimentary cockpit door and waves me aboard.

Two seats, two sets of controls, analogue dials by the dozen and silvery toggle switches and pedals and lever things straight from a Biggles book. I try desperately to shroud my growing excitement in a show of nonchalance and buckle up, impatient for Stuart to clamber in the other side and get this baby off the ground. After a minute he opens my door again, and says reasonably,

“Mind if I sit there?”

The penny drops. There is no other door. I’m strapped securely into the pilot’s seat.

Cue suppressed twitters from the commuters in the back.

Cue a McMillan blushing fit to rival an Orkney sunset.

It is not exactly an auspicious start to my three-day aerial tour of Orkney, but Orcadian Stuart is more than gentlemanly about it. He acts as if it never happened — and if he now dines out on the tale of the cocky travel hack’s mortifying pratfall, I can hardly blame him. I would.

Only sixteen out of about seventy Orkney islands are sufficiently populated for ferry services to hazard the seas that for over fifty centuries have so shaped the populated archipelago. Often, island communities are divided by only a mile of water, but at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska and where the ferocious North Sea collides with an Atlantic swell unfettered since it left North America, a mile of water might as well be a hundred.

Winter ferries at northern latitudes hold little attraction for me, and I’m in Orkney for one thing alone: Loganair’s flight schedule, a document that elicits fits of rapture from anorak aviation buffs, not least for its inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest scheduled airflight.

The tips of fearsome propellers roar three feet from my ears while Stuart taxis us towards a runway which from here looks comfortingly long. Scant seconds later, after a take-off so steep it feels near-vertical, I’m looking down at the same runway from three hundred feet — and it still looks long. Outside of a helicopter, I have never experienced anything like it. When I ask Stuart later, he points at an airstrip windsock, which like all Orkney windsocks, hovers rigid at ninety degrees to its pole. Nose an Islander into that sort of wind, he explains, and a ground speed of less than 20 mph is all it takes to leave terra firma behind.

From 500 ft up, the Islander throws an outsized shadow across the slate grey and boiling foam of Shapinsay Sound. To our left the farms and hamlets of Shapinsay island lie like a relief map laid out under a cold blue strip light. At Stronsay airstrip, with less effort than it takes me to park my car, Stuart sets us down on a rutted muddy field. Within minutes, two schoolteachers are squeezed from the cabin and we are off again, destination Westray and another waterlogged airstrip.

Two take-offs and landings, sixteen air kilometres and all of fifteen minutes from departing Kirkwall, the Islander sits on a postage stamp of tarmac in front of the two-car garage that is Westray Airport. A few metres away, an orange windsock tries hard to pull its pole from the earth.

Six hundred souls call this northern isle home, and I am only glad that one of them is expecting me. A family man with two kids, Michael Harcus is a fellow who somehow combines full-time farming with part-time tour-guiding; who is developing the island’s first budget tourist hostel; who plays gigs and cuts CDs in a gospel/country rock band; and who in his spare time maintains and sails a 100-year-old Westray skiff that he restored from the keel up. Whatever this man eats for breakfast, I want some.

My compressed custom tour of Westray takes us first to Noltland Castle, an unfinished 16th Century construction site ordered by Gilbert Balfour, a cohort of Mary Queen of Scots. We pick up the key from a nearby cottage and wander at leisure, marvelling at beautifully-worked masonry holding together huge chimneys and graceful architectural features washed smooth by five centuries of Orkney weather. Towering twenty metres above the damp turf, sheer walls are broken only by over seventy narrow gunloops giving complete control of the surrounding terrain. Mr. Balfour, it seems, made a few enemies on his way to the top.

Two miles away, the clifftop RSPB reserve at Noup Head is one of the most important seabird sites in the nation. Massive waves batter cliff precipices, reaching perilously close to high-rise nest communities that house tens of thousands of Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Fulmars.

Today Pierowall is the biggest community on the island, but a thousand years ago it was a key Viking port whose sheltered sandy bay served the longboats of the world’s best sailors. One millennium down the line, the Pierowall Hotel serves the World’s Best Fish and Chips. It says so on the newspaper clipping framed on the bar wall. After much deliberation I choose the haddock. ‘Caught fresh this morning’ smiles the nice lady, nodding meaningfully towards the bay.

The elderly proprietor and a lone drinker prop up the bar, chatting amicably in an alien tongue. Only when Michael joins in does it dawn on me they are all speaking English — in a dialect so thick you could fillet it with a fish knife. And I thought I spoke Scots.

Before I develop a taste for Skull Splitter Orkney ale (really), we make for the airport to watch the Loganair Islander in action. The strip where I landed this morning is a water-choked farm field only yards from the 1500m of choppy ocean that is Papa Sound. A few hundred metres offshore, waves bite at the Holm of Aikerness, a rocky reef of unmitigated bleakness, yet populated by seals and hardy undersized sheep that somehow survive on seaweed alone. Beyond the Holm is Papa Westray, a low-lying isle whose skyline is broken only by one solitary building. And yet another gravity-defying windsock.

I watch the Islander emerge from the coastal haar and put down on ‘Papay’. It pauses briefly at the tiny terminal, hoists itself back up into the wind to point our way, and in under two minutes the Islander touches down on Westray. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I have the reverse of that flight path, the world’s shortest scheduled flight, to look forward to. And believe me, I do.

But the next morning does not look good for would-be record breakers. The weather has closed in, presenting me with what Orcadians call ‘a verrry thick sky’. Even my cheery hotelier Mr. Stout is doubtful that the flight will be on, but at the airport it is business as usual, and I am told that Stuart and his Islander are due any minute. When I voice concern about the low cloud level, I inspire knowing laughter from the airport’s entire complement of staff. Both of them. They tell me that up here, a cloud base of 350 ft is the flying minimum, and that today it must be nearly 400 ft. How silly of me. Soon after, the Islander appears out of the mist and puts down on Westray.

Stuart fires up the engines, bumps us towards the mud-and-grass strip, pulls off the gravity-defying routine, and I trip the stopwatch. But this is going to be a long one. Prevailing winds force a long 180-degree turn before we get on course for Papay, and never mind that it takes over two minutes to get our wheels in the mud of Papa Westray, there’s not so much as an inflight refreshment, let alone a meal or even a movie.

Papay has only sixty-five inhabitants, and island community life is centred in a row of converted farm workers’ cottages, where a co-operative operates a shop, youth hostel and guest house. Six kids attend the little schoolhouse, and the island Post Office is a chaotic wee room on a nearby farm. Depopulation is an ever-present worry (in 1935 the school had twenty-eight children), but the arrival of settlers from the Scottish mainland and England and beyond has helped in recent years.

With only four miles of roads and no hills worth talking about, Papa Westray is made for walking, so long as you pack good waterproofs and sturdy boots.

Journalist and author Jim Hewitson, whose family has lived on the island for 13 years, kindly shows me around. We walk past Holland Farm, where rock cairns stud the fields, anchors around which haystacks are built to protect them from wicked winds. In 1952, a hurricane wiped out the entire Orkney egg industry, its buildings flattened and flocks carried away, never to be seen again.

In an outbuilding on the huge farm, parts of which date to the 14th century, a tiny museum of Papay life is maintained by a farmer by the name of John Rendall. I recall that yesterday, over on Westray, I was told the reason there are so many Westray Rendalls is that old man Rendall was the first on the island to have a bicycle. Perhaps he had a boat as well.

A few minutes on foot takes us to Knap of Howar, a neolithic homestead that has the distinction of being the oldest standing house in Northern Europe. At nearly 6,000 years old, it predates the Egyptian pyramids by over a thousand years. And it sits in a field on the edge of a remote wee island, its sole protection a fence to keep the sheep out.

Further along the coast is the 12th Century St. Boniface Church, recently restored, the graveyard of which Jim and his wife Morag know intimately well, as cutting its grass is only one of their many jobs. On the crumbling coastline around St. Boniface are signs of a community dating from the 6th century BC to the Middle Ages — all as yet unexcavated. As Jim says, wherever you step on Papa Westray, you’re tripping over history. On nearby Holm of Papay, of three neolithic burial cairns, only one has been excavated. History lessons waiting to happen.

Before I spend a quiet night alone with the Skull Splitter, Jim takes me up to North Hill, where each year migratory Arctic Terns return 12,000 miles to the very tuft of grass where they were born. Skirting North Hill is Fowl Craig, yet more stunningly rugged cliffs where thousands of protected seabirds perch precariously; below them, the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea do battle.

My departure the next morning is of course by Islander. The hop to Westray — all 2900m of it, or 1000m shorter than the main runway at London Heathrow — takes a bare one and a half minutes, the stuff of records. From there I relish another hi-adrenalin low-level buzz back to Kirkwall.

Flight lovers form an orderly queue.