Barra is a lovely place to visit in its own right, but for me the unique flight experience was a big part of the attraction in visiting the island.
The airport is unique, being the only one anywhere in the world where scheduled flights use the beach as the runway. The airport opened in 1936 and is now operated by HIAL (Highlands and Islands Airports Limited). HIAL operates most of the smaller airports around the Scottish highlands and islands.
So how does it all work? The airport is located at the northern tip of the island at the wide shallow bay of Traigh Mhòr (“Big Beach” in English). The beach is set out with three runways in a triangle, marked by permanent wooden poles at their ends. At high tide these runways are under the sea and flight times vary according to the tide.
Loganair operates the flights – to and from Glasgow twice daily in the summer except on Sunday when it is a single flight. They use an 18 seat DHC6 Twin Otter which has the capability to take off and land on the short “runways” and on wet sand.
For most travellers a flight in such a small aircraft is an experience in itself. The co-pilot supervises boarding and disembarkation. He/she does the safety demonstration. You have no cabin crew (or toilets). The cockpit is separated from the cabin by a bulkhead, but there is no door and so you can see almost everything which is going on in the cockpit even from the back row. I had flown on the aircraft type before – on the Tiree service.
On my trip to Barra the landing was very smooth and routine, in good calm weather.
Seconds later you get off the plane, walk 50 yards across the beach to the terminal, spend 30 seconds passing through the terminal (more if you stop in the toilet) and then pick up your bag from baggage reclaim – a bus shelter type structure in the car park. I reckon it took 5 minutes from landing to get onto the bus to Castlebay.
Don’t linger in the toilet or you’ll miss the bus and have to wait 2 hours for the next one – or call a taxi and pay £15.
Leaving the island was different. The weather was wet and windy.
The bijou terminal (it’s not much bigger than a double garage) has a popular cafe and flights are an attraction for tourists, so it’s a busy wee place – especially when in that weather and folks want shelter. Check in “formalities” are relaxed and security does not exist.
We all got wet on that short walk to the plane. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to wear my hiking shoes as the beach was under a couple of centimetres of water. The plane was rocking about in the wind even when it was stationary prior to takeoff.
As we waited while the crew did final checks, from my window seat I could see the seaweed floating past. Take off was rough in the wind and through that layer of seawater. On the other hand it doesn’t last long – that’s the point – a very short runway and a tiny plane which takes off at low speed.
The experience of a lifetime.
ⓒ iain taylor, 2018 🏴