There are some airports in the world that are on the bucket list of every aviation geek. Some are on the other side of the world, such as the beach at St Maarten, or landing on the side of a mountain in Nepal. Some are closer to home, and for me that is the case with Barra.
Barra is a small island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It has a dwindling population of just 1100 people, and covers an area of just 22 square miles. It also has one of the most unique airports in the world.
The airport at Barra is situated on the cockle shell beach of An Tràigh Mhòr (The Great Beach) at the north end of the island. It’s the only airport in the world where aircraft regularly land on the beach. Flights are scheduled around the tide times, and are only able to land at low tide. It’s been voted the world’s most scenic landing location, and is one of the most sought after places in the world for aviation geeks to visit.
It’s usually served twice a day with a direct flight from Glasgow with Loganair, onboard a Twin Otter. This varies according to the tide times – sometimes two aircraft land at once, and sometimes there are no flights at all.
I originally attempted to get to Barra two years ago. Unfortunately, shortly after takeoff we suffered engine difficulties and had to divert back to Glasgow. Barra is not a place where an airline wants a grounded aircraft – particularly as the tide comes right up to the terminal when it’s in!
The seat map on Loganair’s Twin Otter is particularly amusing.
I headed to Glasgow Airport on a sunny June morning. I was due to fly out on the morning flight and back on the afternoon flight.
All passengers on the Barra flights take advantage of a ‘Fly Flex’ ticket, which is essential due to the fact that the service is a crucial air link back to the mainland for the islanders, and also for the fact that the weather can often turn for the worse at Barra and result in cancelled flights. The Fly Flex ticket also offers another benefit – access to the Upperdeck Lounge at Glasgow.
The lounge is spacious and decorated in tartan. There’s a fully stocked bar and a good range of food and drink – as well as great views over the apron.
Loganair flights depart from the domestic Scottish gates at Glasgow Airport. These are down a set of stairs and feel more like a small waiting room than an airport.
Our aircraft arrived in from her flight from Campbeltown, Scotland. We were soon allowed to board, with no ID checks necessary for domestic Scottish flights.
Our plane to Barra today has a long history – being delivered to the Norwegian airline Widerøe in 1980. It was eventually bought by Loganair and operated in British Airways’ livery, followed by Flybe’s livery, and finally Loganair’s own when they stopped operating flights for Flybe.
We were welcomed aboard by the first officer, and took our seats in the tiny cabin of the Twin Otter.
The safety briefing was carried out by the first officer, before the engines powered up.
Twin Otters aren’t pushed back by a tug at Glasgow, rather they use reverse pitch to ‘power back’ from the gate. It’s a great experience and proved just how self-sufficient these aircraft are.
After a short taxi to the runway, the props spooled up and we were airborne within a few seconds, and climbing towards Barra.
Of course there is no ‘airshow map’ available on the Twin Otter, but with views from the cabin right into the flight deck it’s easy to see your progress on the GPS display.
We headed towards the island of Coll.
Eventually, the clouds cleared, and the islands of the Outer Hebrides came into view in the distance. The islands had greeted us with a beautiful spring day, giving some fantastic views as we came into land at one of the world’s most scenic airports.
We swooped in low over the north end of the island, getting some great views of the turquoise seas and white sandy beaches. It almost looked more like the Caribbean than a remote Scottish island.
We landed over the tiny terminal building and touched down softly on the sandy beach of Barra, a lifetime ambition complete.
We splashed through the water as we taxied back towards the terminal. It’s strange looking out of the flightdeck window and seeing nothing but water ahead of you!
We taxied right up to the terminal building, and were able to disembark onto the beach. There’s a concrete ramp from the beach up to the terminal to allow access to ground vehicles.
We entered the terminal and followed the signs to baggage reclaim – in reality just a bus stop at the side of the terminal where the bags are brought in a Land Rover!
I watched the Twin Otter take off back towards Glasgow, splashing through the sea before getting airborne and leaving me here on the island.
Barra is a truly beautiful island – I only wish I could have stayed to see more of it. I took a walk to a nearby beach which was truly awe inspiring.
The runways at Barra are marked out with orange markers and wooden board. There are three runways in a triangle configuration. There’s no lighting at all on the runways which make night landings a problem. Occasionally the Air Ambulance will need to land at night to transfer sick passengers to the mainland. To light the runways, a Land Rover will be dispatched to the end of the runway to guide the aircraft in with their headlights!
The beach is popular with walkers and Cockle pickers, which can prove a hazard to inbound aircraft. There are signs up around the airport warning people not to go on the beach while the windsock is flying.
The airport cafe seems to be a meeting place for islanders and visitors alike. They serve a good choice of hot food. Of course I had to try a cheese and haggis toastie, which was delicious.
After a few hours in paradise, and a lovely lunch in the airport cafe, I spotted the familiar sight of a Twin Otter on final approach to the beach. This time I was to ride on a Viking Twin Otter, the same one in fact that had the engine issues the last time I flew on her.
Viking bought the license to build the Twin Otter from De Havilland, and it is essentially an original Twin Otter with new engines and updated avionics. This particular aircraft is owned by HIAL (Highland and Islands Airports Limited) and operated by Loganair on their behalf on Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes around Scotland. It’s painted in a very patriotic blue and white livery, the colours of the Scottish flag.
We went through security (which is actually just a boarding pass check, there is no checkpoint here).
Once again we were welcomed onboard by the first officer, and I boarded the tiny aircraft to take my seat.
Doors were closed, safety briefing undertaken and once again the engines powered up to take us back to the mainland. This time we took off towards the beach as the winds had shifted – something that happens very regularly on the islands.
We splashed through the sea and soon got airborne, making a right turn over the beautiful island and back towards the mainland.
We took a slightly different route this way, flying south of Coll, overhead Mull and back towards Glasgow.
The clouds had built up in Glasgow and we had a really bumpy approach into the airport, which caused one particular passenger to start screaming and shouting ‘We’re all going to die’!
We didn’t die though, and the cloud soon cleared as we made a safe landing at runway 23 at Glasgow.
The Twin Otter is a great little aircraft to fly on, and landing on the beach is a must for any aviation enthusiast. You can check out the timetables and book directly on Loganair’s website. It’s possible to fly out and back on the same aircraft if you check in online – but I’d really recommend spending a little time on the island. Having had a taster I can’t wait to go back and spend a few days there.