What it’s like to fly the world’s shortest scheduled passenger flight

(CNN) — The pilot, only inches away from his passengers, reaches up and presses the metallic rocker switches that ignite his engines. Two propellers, visible through the windows on either side, spin noisily into life.

The small plane sprints down the gravel for a few hundred meters. Then, as the pilot pulls back into the yoke, it jumps into the air and begins to bank to the right in a wide swing back on itself. Below, the earth slips away, to be replaced by aquamarine water.

Loganair flight LM711 is not the most pleasant experience.

Eight passengers squeeze into a cabin the size of a VW motorhome. Engine noise is relentless. And there are no facilities on board – if you need the toilet, the only option is to cross your legs. Except there’s no room to cross your legs.

And yet there is something very special about this flight that, if you didn’t know before, you’d realize about two minutes into the journey. For two minutes into the journey, it is highly unlikely that the plane will still be in the air.

According to Guinness World Records, this is the world’s shortest scheduled airline, a trip that covers just 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) in less time than it takes most airliners to reach cruising altitude. On a good day with favorable winds and light luggage, it takes 53 seconds.

The journey, made two to three times daily, connects Westray, an island on the edge of Scotland’s North Orkney archipelago, with the smaller, even more remote island of Papa Westray.

All year round it is a lifeline for the approximately 80 people who call the four square kilometer island home. In the summer, it also brings tourists, mostly day-trippers, looking to experience the flight and discover Papa Westray’s many delights.

The real start of the journey for visitors is at the airport serving Kirkwall, the Orkneys’ cheerful capital on the archipelago’s largest island, known as the Mainland. From here it’s a fifteen-minute flight to Westray before the final record-breaking jump.

It is in Kirkwall that they first climb into the box-shaped cabin of Loganair’s small Britten Norman BN-2 Islander.

Aviation fans, especially those who manage to snag the first of the four rows of passenger seats, will appreciate being able to see a pilot at work. But you can’t choose where to sit. The allocation is based on an even distribution of weight around the aircraft.

Wind-swept outpost

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End of the journey: Papa Westray.

Barry Neild/CNN

Take off, after a terse over-the-shoulder safety briefing from the pilot, is a flurry of switches, dials and radio squawks. Watching the spin of the analog altimeter and the tilt of the horizon on the attitude indicator is almost as exciting as the view out the window.

The window view wins though. It’s only August, so a summer green patchwork of Orkney farmland alternates with green blue Atlantic waters as we pass over the islands of Gairsay and Rousay.

After just 15 minutes in the air, the plane lands at Westray Airport, a windswept outpost consisting of a small building, a gravel runway and a tarmac taxiway. There is a brief pause to allow one passenger on the final, short leg of the trip, and then we’re off.

This is the record-breaking leg of the journey, a flight that is less than the length of the runway at most major airports.

No need for seatback screens to show you the route map – you can look out the window to see where you want to land even before you take off.

With the stopwatch running from the moment the wheels are off the ground, it’s proving to be a slow day for the world’s shortest flight due to wind direction. It clocks in at just two minutes and 40 seconds.

Landing is another flurry of excitement. We land on Papa Westray’s main dirt runway (it has two others set into grass and wildflowers to allow for landings when the wind blows in the wrong direction) and the island springs to life around us.

There is a fire engine on standby manned by a pair of brothers who drop their nearby farm work during the plane’s visit. After the plane has departed, the woman manning the control tower puts on a Royal Mail jacket and jumps into a van to deliver the mail.

As the plane’s engines fade into the distance, the small airport falls silent, the only noise the stiff sea breeze flapping through the orange windbag overlooking the field. From here there is not much to see. The treeless island looks bleak and almost deserted.

However, it is not. Despite its size, Papa Westray, or Papay as it is also known, is a truly magical place.

And while the plane’s record-breaking thrill ride alone might be worth the price of the $20 ticket, the real attraction is the island itself. Especially when Jonathan Ford is around to act as a guide.
A resident for close to eight years, Ford is employed as a “Papay Ranger” — a job that includes running and boating, organizing events, creating art projects and keeping an eye on the island’s wildlife through long, dark winters and endless days of summer.

Nobility or witchcraft?

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St. Boniface Church.

Barry Neild/CNN

There are almost seven hours to kill before the return flight, but there is plenty to fill it.

Ford starts with a drive around Papay’s only loop of road, filling us in on local knowledge and gossip as we pass islanders diligently making use of the seasonal stillness of the harsh weather they often experience.

There are tales of a burial site found under a house and a Viking sword find. Of lively nights in the community hall, which is the island’s social hub and the location of a hostel for overnight stays. And about the seaweed industry, which until the beginning of the 20th century saw local people working in harsh conditions to harvest seaweed used for glass and soap production.

We pass caravans walled in with cinder blocks to stop them blowing away. Øens school (number of pupils: four – two kindergarten, two primary). Small summer houses and larger farmhouses. And acres of arable land bordered by hand-built dry stone walls, including one wall painted with red and white stripes to mark it as the end of a runway.

Got 80 seconds to spare? That’s all the time you need to fly commercially across the Orkney Islands. The word’s shortest direct flight is a short hop between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray in the United Kingdom, just 1.7 miles (2.7 km) apart. For the past 50 years, Scottish airline Loganair has transported islanders between the two archipelagos and has become an integral part of many passengers’ daily commute. With a time of less than two minutes, this is perhaps the fastest and sweetest way to get to work.

Our first stop is next to Holland Farm, the largest on the island, where a path through a field of cattle leads down to the coast and an archaeological site known as the Knap of Howar, a 5,000-year-old farm said to be the oldest standing building in Europe.

It is an extraordinary place. Fully open for all to explore are the ruins of two connected chambers sunk into the ground where families once lived before even the pyramids of Egypt were built.

Best of all, in one corner sits a smooth mortar stone on which Knap’s former residents crushed grain to make flour. Lying loosely on top of it, also smooth, is what appears to be the actual thruster that would have been used.

Holding something that may have been in the hands of someone in this very place, anywhere up to five millennia ago, is a real hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment.

The next stop on the tour is another historical site dating back to the 8th century. St. Bonifatius is a restored chapel whose gabled architecture suggests Hanseatic influences from mainland Europe. In the lichen-covered graveyard is a tombstone whose occupant, Ford says, may be linked to nobility, or perhaps witchcraft.

Last of the auks

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Bye bye birdie: Tribute to the last of the auks.

Barry Neild/CNN

After lunch we go in search of wildlife on a stroll through Papa Westray’s North Hill Nature Reserve, a coastal heath maintained by Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, where some of the dozens of migratory species that visit the island can be seen.

As we stroll along the coastline, followed out into the water by a curious gray seal, we see kittiwakes, jays and a baby seabird, which we steer well clear of. This gull-like bird is capable of vomiting a foul-smelling substance to ward off predators.

We also visit a sad monument commemorating the great auk, a large flightless bird hunted to extinction in the 19th century. A bird shot on Papa Westray in 1813 is believed to have been the last breeding auk in the British Isles.

Even on this short coastal hike, the weather is constantly changing. Blue sky is quickly covered by rain clouds. The light on the water drifts from gold to silver. It’s a very brief taste of the mercurial temperament that, Ford says, is one of Papay’s main traits.

“I like things to change all the time,” he says. “But you have to be here for a certain amount of time to see it, and I like that I can be here throughout the year to see all the changes that happen, especially the birds as they come and go with the seasons .

“I also like experiencing the polar opposites of the year – the almost 24 hours of daylight in the summer, which has an amazing effect on your body when you realize you can’t stop working. Everyone gets a little tense and you just not tired.”

While the birds – including puffins, puffins, auks, vipers and oystercatchers – are another key attraction for Ford (check out his stunning Instagram feed), it’s the island’s people and their good-natured determination to keep this remote island going.

“That’s really why I came here,” he says. “You really need that sense of community. I don’t think you can live on just birds. I mean, you could, but . . .”

Sideways landings

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Happy landings: Loganair pilots are used to dealing with difficult weather.

Barry Neild/CNN

As the last departing flight of the day approaches, it’s time to see the community in action back at the small airport, where firefighting farmers Bobby and David Rendall once again patrol the runway in their truck.

Before long, the BN-2’s engines can be heard cutting down as senior pilot Colin McAlister, a 17-year veteran of Orkney flying, brings it in for another perfect landing – something he and his co-pilots can even manage in difficult winter weather conditions, says Ford.

“In the summer they can almost operate on autopilot, but in the winter they make their money,” he says. “I’ve seen the plane land almost sideways.”

Regardless of the season, the airplane is a vital connection to the outside world, says Ford.

The island has a slower boat service, but the air link to Kirkwall means essential medical and social services can be quickly accessed, plus things many of us take for granted such as hairdressers, cafes or jobs. For older children, it is the school bus.

“It definitely helps me as a means of seeing that there is another world outside the island,” he says.

With McAlister at the controls, the plane is ready for the return journey. This time, with the wind in our favor, it’s a faster ride – close to its top speed of 150 mph (240 km/h).

Once in the air, every moment brings fresh joy.

Again there is the thrill of driving a small plane and watching the pilot deftly handle the controls. There is the joy of being able to stare straight ahead and watch the horizon hurtle towards you. And most of all there is the beauty of the Orkney land and sea.

And then, exactly one minute and eight seconds after our wheels left the ground, we’re back on terra firma.

On the way home, the world’s shortest flight is just a little bit shorter.

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