Flights here are something of a social occasion, attracting tourists and locals who sit on the grassy banks of the dunes behind the vast cockle strand.
Tràigh Mhòr (Big Beach) airport is well named, and a landing here is high on the bucket list of aviation enthusiasts. Barra airport describes itself as ‘the world’s only commercial airport that has runways washed twice daily by the tide’ (a phrase that distinguishes it from other beach landings around the world). Three runways are marked in the hard sand of the beach, and since these are under water at high tide, the flight timetables vary significantly.
The flights are something of a social occasion, attracting tourists and locals who sit on the grassy banks of the dunes behind the vast cockle strand. Although procedures are refreshingly relaxed, it is easy to forget that this is not Trumpton: regulations about trespass apply when the aircraft approaches, lands, idles and then takes off, something that takes as little as 15 minutes.
The Glasgow–Barra route is served by a 19-seater Twin Otter light aircraft. These can only fly in crosswinds lower than 25 knots; if you’ve not flown in such an aircraft before, it can be an exhilarating experience for some, disconcerting for others, as the vibrations, noise and movement can take you by surprise. The safety demonstration is given by the co-pilot, and in even moderate winds, the aircraft can slosh around, leaving you feeling like the marble in one of those handheld games where the aim is to ease the ball into a hole in the centre.
The journey is stunning in cloudless weather, with views of Mull, Staff a, Col and Tiree. The landing on the ridged beach is bumpy and the aircraft small enough that you can look out of your window and pick out individual cockles on the sand and onlooking oystercatchers. It’s easy to over-egg things, though, and it is worth bearing in mind the excellent safety record of the runway – the last time an aircraft was written off at the airport was 1951. Furthermore, the Twin Otter’s record in the UK is first class; the pilots who ply this route are vastly experienced and have flown in similar and tougher conditions the world over.
Captain Fabio Giovacchini gives an insight into the special role the flight plays in island life, and the challenges it can throw up for pilots. ‘You might look at the beach and think it is a wide landing area, but actually we treat it like a proper runway,’ he explains.
Having landed seaplanes in Alaska and more locally on Loch Lomond, Fabio is attuned to the unique demands of the flight and landing. ‘Every flight involves a lot of investigation. We can know the times of the tide, but sometimes the tide doesn’t quite do what we expect it to do; perhaps there’s a storm surge, nature just decides to do something else. This is much more interesting for me.
‘But flying this route is a real privilege. We are more than just another airline – this is more than just another flight. Yes, we bring tourists here, but we also take islanders to the mainland to meet relatives, to have medical treatment. We have a social role to play, and it seems right that we do that.’