(CNN) — The pilot, only inches away from his passengers’ eyes, grabs the toggle switches to fire his engines. The windows on each side show two propellers that spin loudly into life.
For a few hundred metres, the little plane sprints down gravel. As the pilot pulls back on his yoke, the little aircraft skims up the gravel and banks to the right, making a large turn back. Below, the ground is replaced by aquamarine water.
Loganair Flight LM711 is not the most comfortable.
Eight passengers can fit into a cabin as big as a VW campervan. The engine noise is constant. You can’t even use the inflight toilets. Except that there isn’t enough space to cross your legs.
Yet, there is something special about this flight. It’s obvious about two minutes into your journey. It is very unlikely that the plane will still exist after two minutes of the journey.
Guinness World Records claims that this is the world’s most efficient scheduled airline service. The trip covers just 1.7 miles (2.7km) in less than what it takes for passenger airplanes reach cruising height. It takes only 53 seconds on a good day with light luggage and favorable winds.
It is possible to travel up to three times per day from Westray, which is an island at the northern edge of Scotland’s Orkney archipelago to Papa Westray, on the smaller and more remote island.
It’s the lifeline of the approximately 80 people who call the island, which covers four square miles, year-round. In summer, tourists come to the island, mostly day-trippers, to experience the plane ride, and discover Papa Westray’s many delights.
Visitors should start their journey at Kirkwall airport, Orkney’s cheerful capital and largest island. Before the final record-breaking hop, it is a quarter-hour flight from Kirkwall to Westray.
They first enter the tiny cabin of Loganair’s Britten Norman BN-2 Islander in Kirkwall.
Flying enthusiasts, particularly those who are able to grab the first row of seats for passengers, will enjoy being able to see a pilot in action. You don’t have the option to choose where you want to sit. Allocations are based on equally distributing weight throughout the plane.
A windswept outpost
Journey’s end: Papa Westray.
After a brief over-the shoulder safety briefing by the pilot, takeoff is a frenzy of dials, switches and radio squawks. The view from the window is almost as thrilling as the spinning of the analog altimeter or tilting of the horizon on an attitude indicator.
But the window view is always the best. As we cross the islands of Gairsay, Rousay, and Rousay in early August it’s a combination of a summer-green patchwork from Orkney farmland with green-blue Atlantic water.
After only 15 minutes in the air the plane lands at Westray Airport. This windswept outpost consists of a small building and a gravel runway. It also has an asphalted taxiway. We take a short pause to let one passenger board for the last leg of the trip.
This is the record breaking portion of the trip, which is shorter than most major airport runways.
There’s no need to have seat back screens that show you the route map. You can see out of your window where you’re going before you take off.
It is a slow day due to the wind direction, with the stopwatch starting at the moment the wheels are lifted off the ground. It took just two minutes 40 seconds.
Another excitement-filled moment is landing. We land on Papa Westray’s main, gravel runway. It has two other runways mown with grass and wildflowers for landings in windy directions.
Two brothers volunteer to operate a firetruck and drop their farm work during the plane’s flights. The woman at the control tower is dressed in a Royal Mail jacket, and then jumps into a van for the delivery of the post.
As the plane’s engines fade away into the distance, the tiny airport is silent. The only sound that can be heard is the strong sea breeze blowing through the orange windock above the field. There’s not much to see from this point. The island is almost deserted and without trees.
However, it is not. Despite its size Papa Westray (or Papay as it is also called) is truly magical.
Nobility or witchcraft
The church of St. Boniface.
It’s almost seven hours until the return flight. However, there are plenty of things to do.
Ford begins with a drive on Papay’s only road loop. We get to hear about local lore as we pass islanders who make a point of making the most of the season’s lull in the harsh weather.
To prevent them from blowing away, we pass caravans that have been bricked with cinder blocks. The school on the island (numbers of pupils: 4 — 2 nursery, 2 primary). You will find small cottages and large farmhouses. A vast area of arable land is enclosed by dry stone walls hand-built, with one wall featuring red and white stripes marking the runway’s end.
The Holland Farm is our first stop. It is the largest farm on the island. A trail through the cattle fields leads to the coast. There, we will also find the Knap of Howar archaeological site, an ancient homestead that dates back to 5,000 years and is believed to be the oldest still standing structure in Europe.
It is a remarkable spot. It is possible to see the remains of two chambers connected, which are sunk into ground. These were once homes for families that lived before the construction of the pyramids in Egypt.
The best part is that the Knap’s past occupants used a smooth mortar rock to crush grains for flour. The actual pestle is found lying on top of it, which is also smooth.
Holding something that may have been in the hands of someone on this very spot anywhere up to five millennia ago is a real hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment.
Next on the tour is another historic location dating back to 8th century. St. Boniface, a restored chapel with step-gabled architecture, hints at Hanseatic influences coming from mainland Europe. Ford suggests that the tombstone, which is covered in lichen, could have been used by a witch or nobility.
Last of the great auks
Bye bye birdie. Tributes to the last great auks.
After lunch, we take a walk through Papa Westray’s North Hill Nature Reserve to look for wildlife. It is a protected coastal heath managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds of the UK. There are dozens of migratory birds that can be found here.
We see kittiwakes, seagulls and a fulmar chick as we walk along the shoreline. The gull-like bird can projectile vomit a foul-smelling substance in order to repel predators.
A sad memorial to the great auk is also on display. This large, flightless bird was hunted until its death in the 19th Century. Papa Westray shot the bird in 1813. This bird is believed to have been one of the last breeding great auks in the British Isles.
Even though it is only a short coastal walk away, the weather can change constantly. The skies quickly turn from blue to grey with the appearance of rain clouds. The water becomes silvery-gray in the light. Ford says it’s only a brief glimpse of Papay’s mercurial temperament.
He says, “I like that things change all of the time.” “But it takes time to see the changes. And I like that I can stay here all year long to see the birds and the seasonal changes.
“I also enjoy the polar opposites in the year. The almost 24 hour daylight in summer has an amazing effect on my body. When you realize you can’t quit working, it is incredible. You just can’t stop working and everyone gets a little strung out.
He says, “That’s why I came here.” You really need this sense of community. You can’t live on birds alone, I think. …” could be, but I don’t think so.
Loganair pilots have a knack for handling difficult weather.
As the final departure flight for the day approaches, it’s time to see the community back at the small airport. Firefighters Bobby Rendall and David Rendall once again patrol the runway in their truck.
Ford says that the BN-2’s engines will soon be audible as Colin McAlister (a senior pilot with 17 years of Orkney flying experience) brings the plane in for another flawless landing. Ford also notes that Ford and McAlister can manage tricky winter conditions.
He says that while they can almost operate on autopilot in summer, they are unable to do so in winter. “I have seen the plane land almost sideways,” he said.
Ford believes that the plane, regardless of season, is a vital link to the outside world.
While the island does not have a fast boat service, it has essential medical and social services that can be reached quickly. There is also an air link to Kirkwall which allows for quick access to vital services. Many of us take these things for granted, such as haircuts, cafes, and jobs. The school bus is available for older children.
“It certainly helps me to see there’s another universe outside of the island,” he said.
McAlister is at the controls and the plane is ready to return on its return journey. With the wind at our side, it’s faster this time — almost to its maximum speed, 150 mph (240 km/h).
Every moment is a new experience once you’re airborne.
There’s something thrilling about riding in a small plane and watching the pilot maneuver the controls. The joy of looking straight ahead to see the horizon is what you will enjoy. The beauty of Orkney’s land and seascape is the best part.
We’re now back on terra firma, exactly eight minutes and eight seconds since our wheels left the ground.
The world’s most short flight home is just a little shorter.