On Tuesday 26 November 2019, I checked off one of my avgeek bucket list items, as I flew on a Loganair Twin Otter from Glasgow to Barra and back. Barra is a Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides, roughly about 226 kilometers (122 nautical miles) from Glasgow. What makes Barra so unique is that it is the only place in the world where scheduled flights land on a beach.
Here is my trip report, so you can relive these two special flights to and from the beach runways at Barra Airport. So fasten your seatbelt, put the table in front of you in the upward position and enjoy this trip report.
In May 2019, I had made plans for a city trip to Glasgow, Scotland. I had booked my flights from Brussels to Glasgow and vice versa and had made hotel reservations for a visit during last week of November. After these plans were made, I started to look for some nice things to do in and around Glasgow.
For some reason, I started to look into the world’s shortest commercial flight, from Westray to Papa Westray in Scotland and operated by Loganair. Unfortunately it seemed a bit too complex to arrange a day trip out of Glasgow. However, as I was surfing the internet, I noticed an article about flights to Barra in Scotland. I already knew that Barra was special as it is the only place in the world where scheduled flights land on a beach.
Flights to Barra are operated from Glasgow. Together with the Glasgow-Tiree route it is one of two public service obligations (PSOs) imposed by Transport Scotland. PSOs are obligations imposed by Transport Scotland on a carrier to provide a set level of service on a particular route in order to ensure that the service satisfies fixed standards of continuity, regularity, capacity and pricing. PSOs are basically an essential way to support certain Highlands and Islands air routes and to make sure they are commercially viable.
Since the PSO route to Barra is operated from Glasgow, this would definitely allow for a day trip during my city trip. So I checked Loganair’s website and immediately booked a return flight, as fares were very affordable (a return ticket would cost me just over 100 euros). So I booked my seats onboard flights LM451 GLA-BRR and LM456 BRR-GLA on Tuesday 26 November 2019.
Loganair LM451 GLA-BRR
Flight LM451 from Glasgow to Barra was scheduled for a 10:15 departure on Tuesday morning. So I booked a taxi that would pick me up at 08:15 at my hotel in the city centre of Glasgow. After a 15 minute drive, the taxi driver dropped me off at the terminal building at Glasgow Airport. As I entered the airport, I checked the flight information screens and noticed that my morning flight to Barra would operate as scheduled.
I had already checked in online for both Loganair flights few days earlier (on Friday 22 November, which is four days before departure) and was only travelling with my camera bag, so hence I could immediately proceed to the mandatory security screening. After a smooth security screening, I made my way to the tax free shops, bar and restaurant area of Glasgow Airport, which looked quite desolated at this time of the day. I guess morning rush hour had already passed. I decided not to go to one of the bars, but just to buy a bottle of cola at one of the many tax free shops. The departure gate for my Loganair flight to Barra was not yet displayed, so I took a seat and read some online news articles and checked some posts on social media.
At 09:35, the flight information display screens (FIDS) finally announced the gate for my flight, which was gate 1. I made my way to the gate, where I arrived at about 09:40, just five minutes before expected boarding time.
I immediately noticed that the gate for my flight to Barra was quite empty as well. Only four passengers would be flying to Barra this morning. The female Loganair gate agent and a Stobart Aviation Services agent (Stobart Aviation Services is the ground handling services provider for Loganair at both Glasgow and Edinburgh airport) were doing their normal preflight preparation duties and started to check the luggage of the passengers, i.e. to see if we would be able to take them in the cabin.
At 09:45 (the planned boarding time), we were not allowed yet to board our aircraft. Instead, I noticed a Loganair Embraer aircraft arriving at its stand just in front of our gate, and the crew and pax got off the aircraft just few moments later. Meanwhile, I noticed one of the Barra passengers heading to the gents restroom. This reminded me of the fact that my one hour flight to Barra would not have any restroom facility available. Hence, I also headed to the gents restroom.
At 10:15 (our scheduled departure time), the Loganair gate agent finally announced that our flight was ready for boarding. All four passengers (I was the first one, of course) headed to the counter and the gate agent checked my digital boarding pass (I used the excellent Loganair app) and wished me a nice flight. I passed through the door leading to the tarmac and made my way towards the aircraft. After a one minute walk, the path being clearly indicated by ground markings and my walk being monitored by the Stobart Aviation Services agent, I arrived at the aircraft for today’s flight from Glasgow to Barra: Viking DHC-6-400 Twin Otter G-HIAL, operated by Loganair but painted in a Scottish Government livery.
After another check of my digital boarding pass before boarding, I was allowed to board the Twin Otter. I had reserved seat 02A but since there would only be four passengers on today’s flight, I was kindly requested by the First Officer, who was doing the preflight external inspection, to use seat 03A, as row 2 on the Twin Otter is the emergency exit row, and for some reason he did not want me to sit in that row. I didn’t really mind so I agreed and boarded the aircraft. I immediately noticed the big difference compared to the ‘regular’ Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier or Embraer aircraft that I fly: a low cabin ceiling, basic seats, no packed overhead bins, no cabin crew welcoming me onboard this aircraft and so on. In other words: it felt great! In the past, I had flown in the Twin Otter just once (a sightseeing flight over the Grand Canyon in the United States).
Shortly after boarding we were welcomed by our First Officer, Richard. Once all passengers were seated, Richard gave us some more information on the flight and also gave us the mandatory safety demonstration. He also informed us that there would be three pilots onboard today’s flight to Barra: Our Captain John, First Officer Richard and a new Loganair pilot who would observe both John and Richard and their flight operation duties during the flight.
After all necessary flight preparations were done, the doors were closed and the flight crew was cleared to start up the two Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34 engines. Engine number two was started first, followed by engine number one. After two good engine starts, the before taxi checklist was completed and clearance was received to taxi to the runway.
At 10:29 our Twin Otter moved away from the airport building. However, instead of being pushed back by a truck, the two engines were put into reverse thrust. The Pratt & Whitney engines spooled up, and the aircraft moved gently backwards. I was very impressed by this performance, and the sound of the two turboprop engines as well of course. The perfect beginning of a bucket list flight trip.
Less than two minutes later, we started our short taxi toward the threshold of RWY 05. At 10:35 we were cleared to line up onto RWY 05. Our captain was the pilot flying and gently pulled forward the overhead throttle levers as we lined up onto the runway. Once we were cleared for takeoff, our engines spooled up while our aircraft firmly stood still on the runway. Once the engines were running smooth and stable at takeoff setting, the brakes were released and we quickly accelerated on RWY 05. After just a few seconds, the captain gently pulled back the steering wheel and we rotated. We were on our way to Barra. Less than half a minute later, we disappeared into the low overcast clouds, our pitch attitude was reduced and the engines were set to climb thrust.
By now, our Twin Otter was already flying between some cloud layers and we continued our climb towards a cruising altitude of about 8.400 feet. As we cruised in a northwesterly direction, the Captain, First Officer and observation pilot were discussing various operational items. The four passengers, including myself, enjoyed the exterior views as we flew toward Barra.
As the flight progressed, the weather started to improve and the first patches of blue skies started to appear. Maybe the weather in Barra would not be as bad as the weather in Glasgow?
In the meantime, we were flying over the North Atlantic Ocean and still had a few moments to go before reaching Barra. Once we reached our top of descent (TOD), our flight crew started the descent into Barra. As we decreased our altitude, I continued to enjoy the views of the fabulous scenery below: a mix of cloud patches, some nice sunlight reflections on the North Atlantic Ocean and some beautiful Scottish islands. I moved back and forth between the port and starboard side of the aircraft to make some photos and videos, but always made sure that my seatbelt was on. You never know when turbulence might hit you, especially on a smaller aircraft like this Twin Otter.
At 11:19 local time, we were approaching RWY 07 at Barra and flew over the island on a downwind leg for our landing runway. The airport’s airside surface is located on a beach, but pilots cannot just land on any spot they want. As a matter of fact, there are three runways on the beach, each one clearly marked by a wooden pole. This allows for aircraft to land on Barra, independently of the surface wind direction.
After we had passed the island, we made a 180 degrees left turn to put ourselves on final approach and get fully aligned with RWY 07. Just a few minutes later, we touched down firmly on the beach and the engines were put into reverse thrust again. The sturdy wheels of the Twin Otter splashed up some water as we decelerated and made a right turn towards the airport terminal, located just next to the beach. Our aircraft came to a complete stop just next to the airport terminal, the engines were shut down and the doors were opened. The end of a safe and uneventful, but quite an adventurous flight.
Welcome to Barra!
A quick visit to Barra
As I exited the Viking DHC-6-400 Twin Otter G-HIAL aircraft, I was welcomed by someone of the ground handling team at Barra Airport. I told him that I was not a local on a journey from Glasgow to Barra (I’m pretty sure he knew that already, since he did not recognise me) but one of the many avgeeks flying to Barra for the fun of landing on the beach. We talked a bit more, and I took some more photos (including a selfie of me, posing next to a sign on the airport building, welcoming passengers to Barra Airport).
I entered the airport building and noticed the relative small size. The terminal does not need to be big of course, since there are not even one hundred passengers flying to and from Barra on a daily basis (and that’s even considering two full in / full out rotations on a 19-seat Twin Otter). However, even it’s just a small airport building, it is very comfortable and has a unique, friendly atmosphere. It has a check-in and ticketing desk for Loganair, a nice cafe where you can have a drink or eat something, and some tables where you can sit and relax after landing, or before flying away from Barra. And apart from the mandatory restrooms, that’s basically it. An airport in its purest form. No big shopping malls, no long queues at the security screening, no fancy cars in the middle of a very long pier that only major league football players could ever afford, no first class lounge,…
As the weather was much better than it was in Glasgow when we left earlier that morning, I went outside of the terminal building and decided to go for a short walk. I had a few hours to spend at Barra so it would be a shame to just sit inside, especially since the weather was very good for the time of the year. I had done some research and noticed that you could easily walk from Tràigh Mhòr or ‘Big Beach’ (where Barra airport is situated) to Traigh Eais or ‘Long Beach’ at the opposite side of the island. The views at Traigh Eais are just fenomenal and the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. I sat there for quite some time, made some photos, enjoyed the views and…well…enjoyed the views again.
As I walked back to the airport building, I noticed that the Twin Otter was about to leave again for Glasgow. So I remained outside for a few moments, and witnessed the departure of the Twin Otter. Quite a spectacular and unique sight to see an aircraft take off from a beach.
I still had more than one hour to spend before for my flight back to Glasgow. As the wind was getting a bit stronger, I made my way back inside the airport building, put my belongings next to one the tables, and ordered a healthy sandwich and a drink at the counter of the cafe inside the airport building.
As I enjoyed my lunch, I noticed some locals entering the airport building, picking up arriving passengers from the second flight which was about to land as well as airport employees having a friendly chat with each other. It was becoming very obvious that everyone on the island knows each other. It seemed like a very close community and everyone is very social. Except for me, who sat in the corner, eating a sandwich and looking outside of the window to enjoy the scenery of Tràigh Mhòr…
Just after 13:00, I heard the sound of turboprops, and all of a sudden, a Twin Otter passed next to us and landed on RWY 07 at Barra Airport. The second flight of the day had arrived. The aircraft taxied to the airport terminal building and came to a stop few moments later. The two engines were shut down and doors were opened. The second flight appeared to be quite a full flight as many passengers exited the aircraft. For some reason I was glad that my inbound flight had just four passenger, including me.
Loganair LM456 BRR-GLA
My return flight LM0456 from Barra to Glasgow was scheduled to leave at 13:45. At 13:30, a Loganair employee stood up and asked if anyone in the terminal was on the flight back to Glasgow. I kindly acknowledged, packed my winter jacket and camera bag, and showed my boarding pass. 5 seconds later, I was already walking to the aircraft, Viking DHC-6-400 Twin Otter G-SGTS.
This afternoon’s return flight appeared to be even less crowded than my inbound flight: flight LM456 would have two flight crew members and just three passengers (including myself). As I boarded the aircraft, I was kindly welcomed by our First Officer Daniel. He briefed us on the aircraft’s emergency exits. I asked him if I could take my seat on row 2, and as he did not see any reason not to sit on row 2, I took my seat. I had booked seat 02A, but eventually took a seat in aisle seat 02B, as this one had better views of the flight deck. Bear in mind, the Twin Otter has no door between the passenger cabin and the cockpit, so aviation enthusiasts like me are able to follow the flight operations if they are able to get a seat in e.g. row 2 or 3 (row 1 appeared to be blocked on my two flights, as it is used by the flight crew to put their pilot cases, jackets and other personal belongings).
As the flight crew had finished their preflight duties at 13:33, both engines were started (I really love the sound of these turboprops). After two good engine starts and final checks, brakes were released and we made our short taxi towards the beginning of RWY 07 at Barra Airport.
At 13:39, both engines were throttled up and stabilised, a final check of the runway ahead of us was made (e.g. a visual check that there were no obstacles approaching from the left or right), and the Captain on today’s flight LM0456 BRR-GLA released the brakes. The sound of the engines increased dramatically as they spooled up and about five seconds later, at a speed of 73 knots, the nosewheel was raised and we gently rotated off the beach at Barra Airport. So long, Barra! It was great to visit the island and a unique experience to land and takeoff at the beach.
As our Twin Otter gained altitude, Barra slowly disappeared on the horizon and the flight crew of our flight set course towards Glasgow. By the time we reached our cruising altitude of 8.400 feet, weather conditions started to deteriorate again, as expected by the crew before our departure. After a few moments, the nice views were gone and all we could see were white and grey overcast clouds.
The remainder of the cruising part back to Glasgow was uneventful. Winds were gently blowing from the east, with a speed of about 20-25 knots. I kept watching the flight deck, reviewed some of the many photos and videos I had already taken, and made some notes regarding the flight.
At 14:23, we reached our top of descent (TOD) and the flight crew gently reduced power as we started our descent towards Glasgow’s RWY 05. I noticed the flight crew discussing the expected ground track for the approach route and noticed that soon we would be flying directly into some rain showers. The flight crew however deemed that it was safe and no heavy turbulence was expected.
And indeed, during the later stage of our descent into Glasgow, our aircraft was flying into moderate rain showers and we were all treated to a quite bumpy ride. The bumpy ride only lasted for a few minutes and eventually we were again flying in less turbulent air and continued our approach towards Glasgow.
At about 14:40, our Twin Otter broke through the clouds and we could again see the Scottish ground below us. I continued to look through the windshield of the aircraft’s cockpit and Glasgow’s RWY 05 came into sight as the runway lights were on. After a very impressive final approach in our Twin Otter and a nice view of the approach, our aircraft made a safe landing on RWY 05 at 14:43. Just few seconds later, we exited the active landing runway and began a short taxi to stand number 2, our remote parking position for this afternoon’s flight.
Four minutes after landing, our aircraft came to a complete stop near the airport terminal building. Final checks were made by the flight crew, and fuel was eventually cut off. The two Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34 engines were shut down, lights were set to off, and the door was opened by our First Officer Daniel.
As I exited the Twin Otter, I said goodbye to our Captain and to the First Officer. I thanked them for a nice experience and said that another of my aviation buck list items could be checked off.
I was kindly welcomed on the ground by the same female Loganair gate agent who handled the outbound flight from Glasgow to Barra. She seemed to be surprised to see me back in Glasgow, but as I told her I was on a bucket list trip, she understood. I’m confident I’m not the first one she sees flying to and from Barra on a single day. I told her that our approach into Glasgow got bumpy at a given moment, and she told me that she’d never fly on one of those ‘small planes’. Another thing that I noticed is that the Captain (and possibly also the First Officer, but I didn’t see that) got a security search by one of the ground crew members. As I walked towards the terminal building, I asked the ground crew member why he had to do this, and he said it was mandatory for this flight originating from Barra.
Around 15:00 I arrived back in the terminal building of Glasgow Airport. I took a seat in the arrivals zone of the airport, made a few more notes and checked my photos and videos. Eventually, I went outside of the airport terminal building and took the Glasgow Airport Express back to the city centre of Glasgow. The end of a great adventurous day.
I would like to thank the flight crew of Loganair, the ground crew of Loganair, Glasgow Airport, Barra Airport, Stobart Aviation Services, and the friendly people I met at Barra for making this day so unique and making sure that everything went according to plan. Thank you!
26 November 2019