June 20, 2024

Flying to the Islands

As one flies to more and more remote places stuff becomes smaller and smaller- a bit like a tree; the further from the trunk, the smaller the branches. At Birmingham airport, unused to flying by myself, I paced the departure lounge until my flight was called. We descended one of those large square tubes that attach themselves to the side of the aircraft. When we got to the bottom, instead of the expected aircraft door, we turned left, though an exit door and down a set of steel steps to the runway. I helped an old lady with her bag, and then rounded the corner to our aeroplane- so small the tube couldn’t curtsy low enough. This plane had two propellers and a high wing; it looked like it was shrugging. I like flying in propeller planes, it reminds me of the war films I used to watch. The starting of the engines is a lot more dramatic than in a jet, and as the propellers start to turn, the whole aircraft begins to buck and sway on the ground as if eager to be aloft. We took off, a swelling push in the back, and climbed. Flying low the length of the country, through breaks in the cloud, we could see landmarks. I recognised lake Windermere, and the wake of yachts cruising north.

An hour later the plane thumped onto the runway at Inverness. I was expecting the same sort of thing as Birmingham, but instead there was a terminal building looking like nothing so much as a modern primary school. No customs, two minutes after the plane taxied to a halt I was in the arrivals lounge. The bar and restaurant at Inverness has a huge glass window looking straight onto the apron. The plane I flew in on was ten yards away from me. I had a slow pint and watched the activity, small planes taking off for the islands, the air ambulance, buzzing Cessnas, the man with the ping-pong bats waving them in. All airports used to be like this.

The connecting flight was called. Across the tarmac again, the next plane was even smaller. Two seats side by side, an aisle then one seat. A passenger has a better chance of getting a window seat than not. One stewardess, the strawberry blond Gillian, smart in her red blazer. They had put me in the seat at the front of the cabin, for take off and landing she sat opposite me, our knees touching. She talked in her soft highland voice of the plane to Barra, which lands on the beach. She told me about the shortest scheduled flight in the world, 30 seconds in all, between two Scottish islands (You get a certificate). The turboprops screamed and we shot up, over granite outcrops and the sea. A forty-minute hop this one; no worries about deep-vein thrombosis. Dropping out of the cloud, a flash of seaweed, fields and crofts and we thump onto the runway at Stornaway. One more dazzling smile from Gillian and down the built-in aluminium steps onto concrete. This airport makes Inverness look like Heathrow- the size of a village hall. A baggage carousel the size of a large dining room table.

Then my friend, smiling, his little girl holding his hand.

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