24 hours of travel for a 90-second flight: What it was like to be on the world’s shortest flight
Being an AvGeek doesn't just mean flying in first class, doing mileage runs and being able to spot plane types. It also means getting thrills out of flying unique and rare aircraft, travelling to off-the-beaten-track places and making a flight the sole reason for taking a trip rather than the destination.
My most recent TPG adventure was exactly the latter — to fly the world's shortest scheduled flight, on an aircraft I'd never flown, operated by an airline I'd never flown. And to top it off, it would include a brand-new destination to tick off my list. It's safe to say this trip will go down in the books as one of the best I've ever had.
What is the world's shortest scheduled flight?
According to Guinness World Records, the world's shortest scheduled flight is between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray — or WRY and PPW, by their airport codes. They are two of 70 islands that make up the northern Scottish archipelago of Orkney, which is around 10 miles north of John o' Groats on Scotland's mainland. When I asked friends, family and even AvGeek colleagues at TPG how long the flight must be to have been given its title, their guesses didn't even come close. Ninety seconds was the answer they were looking for. That's right, a flight from takeoff to landing that only takes around a minute and a half. But why?
What's the point in a flight lasting 90 seconds?
Good question. Well, first of all the alternative option to get between these two tiny islands is a 20-minute journey on a fisherman-like boat. I am absolutely not a sailor, so believe me when I say that my worst nightmare came true when my return flight back to the mainland from Papa Westray was cancelled due to bad weather and I was faced with two boat rides back to Kirkwall. Spending 20 minutes on that boat on a "calm day" was enough to make me never want to set foot on another boat again. The boat rocked so violently from side to side I was sure we were going to capsize, so I can see why a 90-second flight is deemed necessary.
The Papa Westray to Westray flight is just one of dozens of inter-island routes that connect the islanders to friends, family and even their jobs. On my adventure I met a group of teachers who regularly fly around Orkney to give math, drama and PE lessons in various schools. If a flight is cancelled, it simply means that children don't get their education and the teachers don't get paid. Sometimes these flights provide convenient and quick transport for the elderly who might not be able to handle a rocky boat ride, as was the case with a flight that arrived before mine. An elderly lady, the only passenger of this particular flight, was kindly helped off of the aircraft and into the terminal by Loganair staff.
To be able to fly the world's shortest commercial flight, I would need to get myself to either Westray or Papa Westray, to make the 90-second journey between them. After some research, I realized it would be no simple feat and I would need to take three flights to get to the fourth and final, the world's shortest.
1. London to Aberdeen
Due to the location and schedule of the route, it took a bit of planning to make sure timings matched up. For the first leg, probably the most straightforward, I simply flew Flybe from London Heathrow to Aberdeen. Other options would have been London to Edinburgh (EDI), Glasgow (GLA) or Inverness (INV).
2. Aberdeen to Kirkwall
For part two of my journey, I needed to get from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, the main Orkney town. For this I had to catch a regional Scottish Loganair flight, which took 30 minutes.
Deplaning on to the tarmac at Kirkwall, there was no hiding just how far north I had come. Lashed by wind and rain with no protection whatsoever, I walked directly into the terminal, which looked more like a small storage depot from the outside. It was definitely the smallest airport I'd ever been in. Due to the timings of the flights, I had to stay overnight in Kirkwall and come back to the airport the following morning for my first flight of the day at 9:40 a.m.
3. Kirkwall to Westray
After a cozy night's stay at Heatherlea Guest House, I was back at the airport bright and early.
Loganair's inter-island flight check-in area is separate from the main check-in area for flights back to the mainland. The few times I was in the airport, there were only two people working in the tiny office. It seemed that they do everything from making bookings over the phone to speaking with the pilots en route, checking in and even taking the bags out to the plane.
The plane, a Britten-Norman Islander powered by two piston engines, is so small that even standard sized carry-on bags are weighed and stowed in a small cargo compartment because there is no space inside the cabin.
The bags are then stored on a conveyor belt until the aircraft arrives.
The departure area felt like more like a 1990s surgery waiting room than an airport. As I heard frequent flyers on this tiny plane chatting about how bad the weather was and how it would affect the flight, I started to get the same nervous feeling in my stomach that you might actually get at the doctor's.
After a small delay of around an hour due to weather, my tiny chariot arrived. She was G-BPCA, one of Loganair's two Islander aircraft. The same employee who checked me in and weighed my bag then took the checked luggage out to the aircraft in a wheeled cage.
Before we boarded, I asked if I could get up close and personal to take a few pictures, and Captain Colin was happy to oblige.
No seat numbers, and definitely no priority boarding status. The order of boarding was decided by whether you would be deplaning at the first stop in Westray or staying on board until Papa Westray. Getting into the plane was more like clambering into the back of your mate's 1988 Citroen Saxo than boarding an aircraft. There's one door at the front right of the aircraft, which gives access to the front four seats, and then a second door at the rear of the left-hand side, which gives access to the rear four seats.
Inside, the plane was cozy. Four rows of two seats with legroom so limited that I don't think TPG himself, 6'7" Brian Kelly, would have been able to sit down. Up front, there were two more seats for the pilot and a co-pilot or a passenger — or as was the case for the second flight from Westray to Papa Westray, me.
As with any kind of flight, whether it's a tiny inter-island propeller aircraft or an Airbus A380 flying halfway around the world, safety is always the number one priority. Once we had all boarded and the doors had shut, Captain Colin did his pre-flight checks followed by a full safety briefing with the same safety cards that you'd find on a normal commercial flight.
With final safety checks complete, we taxied a few hundred feet to the runway and it was only a few seconds after going full throttle that we were up in the air.
I'm no stranger to a bit of turbulence, but this flight was the bumpiest I had ever taken in my life. The flying conditions weren't great due to patchy fog, wind and rain -- pretty much everything you don't want when flying in a tiny propeller aircraft. The addition of the noise and the vibrations of the aircraft sent me into a nauseous daze. All I could do was focus on my breathing while clutching onto a sick bag. I quickly noticed I wasn't the only one suffering. Maybe I wasn't the hardened AvGeek that I once imagined.
The navigation system on the BNI is very basic, which means that pilots have to use only their sight to fly the routes. Due to the conditions, this meant we had to fly very low over the sea for the duration.
After the longest, most nauseating 15 minutes of my life, the runway at Westray airport came into view like a desert oasis in the Sahara. I have never been so pleased to see a landing strip.
I left my unused sick bag in the plane and had a quick stretch of the legs to check out the scenery. Remember what I said about Kirkwall being a tiny airport? Westray instantly taxied into the number one spot as the smallest airport I'd ever visited.
4. Westray to Papa Westray
Just after we had landed, and four of the passengers disembarked, it was time to get back on board the plane to fly the second leg and the main reason for this adventure -- the shortest scheduled flight in the world.
My enthusiasm had clearly rubbed off on Captain Colin, who invited me to sit up front with him for the 90-second flight -- copilot goals! Either that or he took pity on me from the greenish-grey color of my face after the first flight. The adrenaline was pumping by the time we reached the end of the runway, and within seconds we were up in the air and flying.
There was just enough time for a quick selfie before banking hard right and descending into Papa Westray a mere minute or so later.
But there was no time for nausea on this flight -- it was all about taking in the sights and sounds from the cockpit of this tiny plane and soaking up one of the most unique flight experiences in the world. Upon landing, passengers had to pick up their own luggage from the cage before walking across the exposed tarmac that was being pelted by the Orcadian elements.
As always with aviation, safety is a priority, even in an airport that sees on average three flights per day. There is a dedicated onsite fire and rescue unit that does a check of the runway before any aircraft is due to land.
And just in case you were wondering how much time in advance you need to arrive at the airport, as long as you're there with your bag a mere 10 minutes before departure time, you'll be fine.
Even though I have the memories, videos and countless photos, I wanted to make sure I got the official certificate. Naturally, it was the same chap who did my check-in and baggage check the day before who presented it to me.
How to book
London to Scotland
There are many ways to get from London to Scotland. You can fly, drive, get the train or even spend almost an entire day on a bus. There are flights to Kirkwall from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness, so it doesn't matter which of those you decide to fly to. There are also a number of airlines that fly routes from every London airport (City, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, Southend and Stansted) to Scotland, including British Airways, EasyJet, Flybe, Loganair and Ryanair. If you've got some spare Avios, you can get an economy one-way flight for as little as 7,500 Avios and £0.50.
I decided to fly Flybe from Heathrow to Aberdeen on the airline's Dash 8 aircraft. Flybe will soon rebrand as Virgin Connect after recent investment by Virgin Atlantic, which could be another option for getting to Scotland by using your miles.
Scottish cities to Kirkwall
Again, there are two options. The first option is by flying Scotland's airline, Loganair. If you're in Aberdeen, however, you can opt to get an eight-hour overnight ferry instead. The short 30-minute flight hop north does not come cheap, with average year-round prices at around £137 return from Aberdeen and £192 from Edinburgh. This is likely because of the monopoly Loganair has on the routes. These tickets are easy to book on the Loganair website, though there are no points and miles redemption options.
This part was a little trickier, as you must consult the inter-island schedule online before booking to make sure you've booked the right flights. I booked the below flights from Kirkwall to Papa Westray and back for a total of £36. Though there is no mention of Westray, I knew from checking the schedule that each of the journeys would include the shortest scheduled flight in the world between Papa Westay and Westray.
Unfortunately, for this short-haul flight, there are no mileage redemption options with Loganair. However, given the relatively inexpensive cost of a cash fare, it's manageable.
Would I recommend the world's shortest flight? If you're an AvGeek and want to do something cool, absolutely. Even if you're not an AvGeek, I would definitely visit the beautiful islands that make up Orkney -- there's something about the islands' remoteness that helps you disconnect. I was completely and utterly charmed by the hospitality of the Orcadian people who I met during my adventure.