and already dark - on a typical mid-November day.
Ambulance Islander G-BLDV is making an approach to runway
06 at Fair Isle - a remote island lying halfway between Orkney and
Shetland, the island groups off the north coast of Scotland.
There is only the short, rough, hard-core runway 06/24 no
fixed lights or landing aids whatsoever.
It is a very dark night with little in the way of reference
points for the pilot even to find the airstrip, never mind make an
approach and land. Delta
Victor claws in over the island, battling against the turbulence
caused by the near gale-force easterly wind gusting to 50 miles an
hour. Rain squalls
drive across the island, reducing the visibility to a mile or so at
times. Well aware
that out to his left the ground is rising to the islands west cliffs
the pilot, using the beacon of the South Lighthouse, the few illuminated
windows of a handful of croft houses and the help of a few succinct
observations via the ground/air radio, maintains a good heading.
After what seems an age the pilot finally has the feeble glimmer
of the flickering flames of goose-neck paraffin flares,
around the strip, dimly in view through the driving rain.
Suddenly the threshold markers appear in the glare of the
powerful landing lights and he flares the Islander into a near
perfect crosswind landing, despite the atrocious conditions.
This is not a
life or death medical emergency, but urgent all the same the
patient has a piece of metal in his eye.
The casualty needs little encouragement and is soon on board and,
following a quick turnaround, the lights of the aircraft soon disappear
into the darkness. With
the patient safely on his way to hospital in Lerwick, we reflect on the
important rle that the pilots and support staff of Loganair - together
with the fleet of BN Islanders - have in the day-to-day life of this
tiny island of some 80 souls.
Thankfully, not all emergency medical flights are carried out in
such inclement weather conditions - 0300 on a fine mid-summer morning,
the sun above the horizon and visibility in excess of 80 miles, is no
problem in these northern latitudes!
Next day the
crosswind is even worse and, with no improvement in prospect, the
scheduled Loganair/BA flight is cancelled for the day.
By the following morning the low is now centred right over the
top of us, so it is virtually flat calm and Loganair is able to fit in
yesterdays schedule. With
a very heavy sea still running, the Good
Shepherd IV, the islands small mailboat, is still stormbound and
unable to make the nauseous two and a half hour journey across the
infamous Sumburgh Roost to the Shetland mainland.
The shopkeeper quickly makes alternative arrangements and, with
only two passengers including the returning patient some seats
are removed and Delta Victor is converted for a dual rle,
bringing in the three or four hundred kilos of our more urgent supplies
such as milk, fresh fruit, etc.
On departure back to Tingwall there is just the pilot and two
large dogs (an Alsatian and a Boxer), safely contained in travelling
crates, on board causing some humour when the pilot passed his
souls on board!
As well as carrying
around two thousand passengers a year on the scheduled flights,
including the handful of island children making their monthly visit home
from High School in Lerwick, over the years the Loganair Islanders have
carried a wide range of livestock into and - to a lesser extent from -
the island: three Shetland ponies on one flight tranquillised but one
still managing to drool down the pilots neck - pigs, sheep, poultry,
cats, exotic small reptiles (no alligators!) and dogs.
As well as shop goods, spares for the Good Shepherd, for tractors, cars, the aerogenerators, etc are also
carried. Freight can
include plumbing goods - even long lengths of copper pipe - craft items
from the island: spinning
wheels, straw-backed chairs but as yet not a traditional Fair
Isle yoal. Even a
replacement engine for Charlie Alpha was brought in from Orkney,
when a sticking exhaust valve immobilised that Islander on the island!
The fact that an
engine replacement can be undertaken in the field
shows just how
rugged and suitable for island-flying the Islander is.
This ruggedness was also in evidence when, way back in May 1976,
G-BFNV landed rather heavily short of the 24 threshold.
Making an approach in rain, low cloud and a gusting crosswind,
November Victor was forced down into the valley, the side of which
is the 24 threshold. Despite
a quick recovery by the pilot, the aircraft touched down just below the
top of the slope, bending the main undercarriage and damaging flaps and
some other components. The
aircraft was subsequently jacked up on empty 45 gallon barrels, pallets
and car tyre packing and repaired on site to a sufficient degree that it
could be flown (flapless) down to Bembridge a week or so later!
To the people of
Fair Isle and, no doubt, those of the other remote islands off the coast
of northern and western Scotland, the BN Islander and pilots are a
trusted and respected partnership on which we have come to depend a
great deal. Without
them life on the edge would be that bit more difficult, perhaps
even impossible. How many of us would wish to remain living here without
the confidence that, when required, we can be in hospital within the
Fair Isle Airstrip
article first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Islander News, the
Quarterly News from BN Historians and BNAPS. www.bnhistorians.co.uk