Live monkeys in the cargo, slugs on the runway and ‘schizophrenic’ weather conditions are all in a day’s work finds Rob Crossan.
‘The weather is one thing, but cows can also make things tricky,’ discloses Nair Tete, who admits that being a pilot for the delightfully arcanely named Isles of Scilly Steamship Company required a very different skillset to those needed to fly for British Airways or Ryanair.
‘Once, I wasn’t able to land because there had been a storm and some frightened cows had crashed through the perimeter fence and found sanctuary on the runway and around the terminal building,’ she recalls.
‘Then, there was the time there was a slug infestation on the runway. The technicians weren’t sure what a slug would do for our braking ability, so somebody had to pick them all up.’
Such is life when you’re providing what, during winter at least, is the sole form of transportation between the Isles of Scilly and the British mainland. Flying as many as half a dozen round trips a day between Land’s End airport and St Mary’s (the main island of the Isles of Scilly), the 15-minute journey, in the three years Mrs Tete flew for the airline (up until last month, when she took a new pilot’s job in the Caribbean), threw up more than its fair share of excitement and strangeness.
‘It was a wonderful feeling knowing that we were providing not just a plane, but a genuine social connection for people,’ explains Mrs Tete. ‘The plane I flew only takes eight, so you really did get to know the passengers. I didn’t have a weather radar on board or a co-pilot, so it was a serious responsibility, especially with the weather around the Isles of Scilly, which can be schizophrenic. It was real flying, that’s for certain – not like on a mainstream airline, where I’d just be pushing buttons.’
Mrs Tete, who was born in Angola to Portuguese parents, worked as an auditor for a bank in Belgium before beginning her flying career in the Namibian desert. After moving to Cornwall, where she lived near Land’s End airport with her husband and three children, Mrs Tete often felt sad when inclement conditions curtailed flights. ‘It was terrible. I felt so guilty and it was awful when the weather grounded flights. I knew how many people on the islands and on the mainland depended on me. In the winter, there aren’t any boats at all from the islands to the mainland, so if I didn’t fly, nobody could move.’
In the past, bad weather meant that Mrs Tete had to spend up to three days marooned on St Mary’s until it was safe enough for her to take to the skies again. ‘It’s pretty crazy. I didn’t have a change of clothes, so I washed my shirts in the sink and dried them under a hand-dryer. It was a risk I took, but I always knew that it was worse for the customers than it was for me.’
Those passengers take many shapes and forms: the pilot and her colleagues have transported a live seal, crates full of hundreds of crabs, a billy goat and a monkey on board their planes during the past few years. ‘I’m not sure who got to fly the monkey to the mainland,’ Mrs Tete smiles, ‘but I remember saying hello to it at the airport.’
Mrs Tete’s relatively unusual status as a solo woman pilot (now she’s gone, the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company employs just two female pilots) meant she experienced some less than enlightened comments from male passengers. ‘It could be hilarious,’ she laughs. ‘I remember one man asking me, when we were already going down the runway, if I was the pilot. I told him that I was the stewardess and that I’d be serving the wine on our 15-minute flight. The scary part was that he believed me until we took off.’
Putting passengers’ fears at ease is, with bigger airlines, the flight attendant’s job. However, for Simon Williams – a former air-ambulance paramedic who’s been a pilot for the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company for the past eight years – it’s a role he has to take on himself. ‘Very often, people say “ooh, it’s a bit small” and we explain that small airports with small runways need small planes,’ he laughs. ‘Although I do tell them that it’s built like a tank and has operated everywhere from the Antarctic to the jungle.’
Once airborne, rather than being above the clouds, Mr Williams and his passengers enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the marine life below. ‘My happiest encounters are flying into the islands when I happen to look down and see a whale minding its own business in the sea – it’s so humbling,’ he enthuses. ‘And spotting a “baitball” of tuna, formed by the dolphins chasing them, is like something straight out of Blue Planet.’
At the opposite end of the UK, as a 64 year old with three decades of commercial flying experience behind him, Stuart Linklater of Loganair has a host of stories relating to the in-flight dining options on his flights. ‘The worst is when a passenger, who hasn’t flown on one of my very short routes before, asks when they can see a menu,’ he relates. ‘This can happen on a flight that lasts about 90 seconds, so I know it’s just a wisecrack, but then you can guarantee that the man’s wife will turn to him and say “I bet the pilot’s heard that before”. She’s always right – I’ve heard this gag 1,000 times.’
Flying to some of the most remote routes in Scotland, Loganair’s itinerary features the shortest commercial flight on Earth, between Westray and Papa Westray on the Orkney Islands. Mr Linklater’s record time for flying this route stands at 53 seconds – the average is about two minutes.
Having retired at the end of 2017, this born-and-bred Orkney Islander admits that he misses the skies. ‘It’s all about the community for me,’ he reflects. ‘There’s a sense of being something of a lifeline for islanders. Of course, there’s status that goes with the job, but, for me, it’s more about the feeling I had when I didn’t consider most of the people in my plane to be passengers – more often they were acquaintances or friends.’
With plans to spend his retirement continuing to run his sheep farm on Orkney, which Mr Linklater proudly admits he’s been privileged enough to fly over on Loganair duties (‘it’s a good way to combine both jobs – to fly one over the other’), he divulges that the most rewarding parts of the job were on flights that, ideally, wouldn’t have been scheduled at all.
‘There was huge psychological pressure when we did ambulance flights,’ he confesses. ‘There have definitely been times where I’ve thought to myself “if this was a commercial flight, I’d have cancelled as the weather is so fierce”. However, sometimes you just have to go for it, like the time I got a woman to hospital and she gave birth just 30 minutes after landing. Or the guy who had an industrial accident and got an iron bolt stuck in his eye. The discomfort he was in, I just had to get him to hospital in Aberdeen.’
Three decades of connecting some of the most lonely, remote, sparsely inhabited communities in Europe have come to an end for Mr Linklater, but the stories of his years being a genuine saviour of the skies seem destined to remain evergreen. ‘I remember having Simon Yates, the mountaineer who wrote Touching the Void, on a flight with me a few years ago to Kirkwall on the Orkneys. It was the last trip of the day and when I was on my way out of the airport at the end of my shift, I saw him waiting for a taxi. It didn’t look like one was coming, so I gave him and his family a lift to their hotel. My guess is that the pilots at Heathrow probably don’t do that.’
Flights of fancy
- In 2016, Newquay was England’s fastest-growing airport, with passenger numbers up 47% on the previous year
- At 2,231ft, Barra in the Scottish Hebrides has the shortest runway in Britain and the fifth shortest in the world. Made of sand, it’s the only commercial airport in the world on which the pilot has to be aware of how the tide could affect the landing
- Sharing a plane with a reindeer is now a thing of the past. In October 2017, Alaska Airlines retired its last ‘combi’ plane, which could hold passengers in the rear and live cargo, including frequent shipments of reindeer, in the front
- The world’s most remote airport is considered to be Mataveri on Easter Island, a mere 2,336 miles away from the next airport in Santiago, Chile