The sedate Isles of Scilly 30 miles west of Lands End their sub tropical climate, white sandy beaches are as near to the island paradises of the Indian Ocean or West Indies as it is possible to get in these colder Atlantic climes.
However one of the most interesting ways to get to and from there has sadly ended after some 49 years and ‘thetraveltrunk.net’ was there to fly on the very last day of the service.
The helicopter ferry flights from Penzance to St Mary’s will certainly have an effect on the lives of residents, visitors and business now that the unique air-link has gone.
Checking in at the small and friendly heliport, the staff many of whom would not be working there in the next few days soon had the baggage swiftly checked-in. Then whisked to the trolley on the hard standing.
The pleasant waiting area at Penzance with snack bar, ‘Jason’s Buffet’, catered for the stream of passengers who were flying on the penultimate day of the operation. Run for around a year by the current incumbent, he like others was unsure of what he would be doing in the months to come.
Since the 1960’s, the island’s have been served by a helicopter that has flown in vital supplies or provided emergency transport links to the mainland when the other services could not get there due to adverse weather conditions.
A VITAL HELICOPTER LINK ENDS
Although extremely beautiful, the island group is fairly remote, similar to islands off the coast of Scotland. But there it appears there is finance to help such links North of the border, but in the South West that monetary support seems it is not there for the current islanders from the UK Government.
The ferry service that was last operated by British International Helicopters, but back in the 1960’s at the very start it was operated British Airways or BEA (British European Airways) as it was then. The helicopter business was at one stage in it’s company life owned by the newspaper magnet Robert Maxwell.
With the loss of the helicopter service to the Islands most of the staff employed by the company in both Penzance and St Mary’s lost their jobs. In an area where much of the jobs are often seasonal part-time work and getting full time jobs may prove difficult for them.
It was a sad at the Penzance terminal to hear various staff members say that it was their last day, be they a pilot, fireman or office clerk. In the waiting area was as selection of British International Helicopter souvenirs, hats, pens, cards and key rings and the staff said “please help yourself”. I found that very poignant.
After a saftey brief it was time to board. The Sikorski S61 climbed into the air after a low level pre-positioning flight in order to make the most of the wind direction. Soon I was above Penzance and glimpsing the pretty ports of Newlyn and then Mousehole. Cutting in across the land again then over stone walled fields heading out over the sea above Lands End.
Slightly overcast weather did give way after another 15 minutes and a brighter weather was certainly on the way. I was soon in sight of the Isles (residents I am told do not like the phrase Scilly Isles!) and the helicopter was descending into St Mary’s airport. Had the weather been perhaps more sunnier it could well of been like other small tropical island airport’s I have flown to around the world, lacking in coconut palms perhaps, but not warmth.
FIXED WINGS FLIGHTS ARE POSSIBLE
The smart modern airport buildings nestle on the highest point of the island and was where the helicopter flights arrived but now only fixed wing aircraft will fly in from Lands End, Newquay and even Exeter in the summer.
Towards the end of their main holiday season the islands are extremely quiet with low visitor numbers. Generally around the end of October many of the tourist establishments, hotels, holiday rentals and bed and breakfasts seem to close for either their own holidays or for refurbishment.
My stay at the Wingletang bed and breakfast in Hugh Town was really convenient, a short walk from the main beach areas, shops pubs and restaurants. The warm granite stone buildings along with white painted ones and plenty of more contemporary style buildings lining the narrow streets made up the compact principle town. Famed for its sub- tropical palms and sun loving plants, there was no doubt that the Isles of Scilly does have a tropical feel, even so late in the season!
I do love out of season places and I do hope that with the demise of the helicopter flights that the tourism department and accommodation providers will do their utmost to ensure that the islands should be marketed as an autumn and early spring destination too.
Popular with ornithologists the islands attract both plenty of unusual birds and the human watchers who study them, located in the warmth of the Atlantic Gulf Stream it’s a popular place for the birds to drop into on their migration routes.
My brief stay was soon over, as was the nice weather for the day of my return flight to the mainland. Warm, windy and a wet start in the early morning for the short taxi ride back to the island airport. Jolly taxi driver Dave negotiated the narrow stone walled lanes pointing out important inland landmarks like the radio station and had me ready at the check-in desk in plenty of time.
The helpful airport staff allowed me under strict safety conditions to photograph the last arriving and departing helicopter flight before mine was due, 2 hours later in the day.
A windy departure when it did come, definitely included an island flypast! Sweeping around the bay and back over the town and airfield I have no doubt it was one way for the pilots and crew to say his thank you to the islands.
VITAL JOBS GO TOO !
Transit back to mainland Cornwall over the wind blown sea with its long streaks of white spray visible over a thousand feet below. Running parallel along the steep cliffs south of Land’s End with coves like Porthcurno and Lamorna hugging the coast as the land above was shrouded in mist. Finally returning to it’s home base the helicopter swooped in over the Morrisons supermarket and the main road into a short hover and tracked back to its tarmac landing spot where machine gently touched down as the undercarriage took the weight for the last time.
A full load of my fellow passengers exited down the steps and away from the aircraft as the rotar’s still whirled above our heads as the warmth smell of the jet exhaust blasted us for a second and then the noise of the helicopter faded as we reached the heliport for the very last time.
When the time finally came to depart it was sad to be leaving, one reason was that there is certainly a great deal more to see on Isles of Scilly and 24 hours is definitely not enough time.
Secondly, having seen the helicopter fly in and out of Penzance over very many years, my first chance to make a full return journey itself was to be on the last day of the service.
Thirdly, I did feel for all those people that had been involved in the running the service for so many years and it just ended so suddenly here today.
It reminded me of wartime merchant sailors who were paid right up to the moment the ship sank, after that they were jobless and the money stopped right there and then!