As part of a recent trip to the Isles of Scilly, I had the opportunity to fly on a 40-year old de Havilland Canada DHC-6 ‘Twin Otter’ turboprop. These 19-seaters are the largest aircraft in Isles of Scilly Skybus’s fleet, which also includes the eight-seat Britten Norman BN-2 ‘Islander.’ My trip from Land’s End to St Mary’s with the airline was eventful but memorable.
The airline and its routes in a nutshell
Isles of Scilly Skybus is a small regional airline headquartered in Penzance, in the far southwest of the UK. It plays a vital role in connecting the Isles of Scilly to the British mainland by flying to the archipelago’s largest and most populous island, St Mary’s. Its parent company is the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, which provides a ferry-based link.
The airline serves St Mary’s (ISC) from three destinations in the southwestern counties of Devon and Cornwall. Exeter Airport is the carrier’s most distant destination, with flights from St Mary’s taking an hour. These services operate from March to November. Meanwhile, Newquay is served on a year-round basis, with a flight time of half an hour to St Mary’s.
However, Isles of Scilly Skybus’s most prominent route is the 20-minute hop between St Mary’s and its main operating base at Land’s End Airport. Tomorrow alone will see 12 departures on this route, all of which are fully booked. In fact, OAG reports that Land’s End-St Mary’s was the UK’s busiest airline route in April 2021 (compared to 31st in April 2019).
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As with any trip report in the current climate, it is worth considering the extent to which the ongoing coronavirus pandemic impacted the nature of the journey. The UK government lifted COVID-19 restrictions on July 19th, leaving it up to individual transport companies to implement and enforce their own policies regarding aspects like masks.
In the case of the Isles of Scilly, operators serving the archipelago have elected to retain the previous policy of mandatory face coverings onboard. The islands have managed to keep case numbers low, and the BBC reports that they didn’t have their first COVID-19 case until September 2020. Isles of Scilly Travel (covering air and sea services) explains:
“Face coverings will remain mandatory across all our services until further notice. This is to protect our passengers, staff, and the Isles of Scilly community.”
The airline’s policy is understandable, given the limited scope for any form of social distancing onboard small aircraft like the Twin Otter and Britten Norman Islander. That being said, visitors to the islands are not required to take a test before traveling. The airline also offers passengers refunds or transfers if guidance prevents them from traveling.
A delayed departure
Unfortunately, our trip with Isles of Scilly Skybus didn’t get off to the best start. My partner and I were booked on the 11:20 departure from Land’s End (flight IOS43), and arrived an hour beforehand on the easily bookable transfer bus from Penzance station.
26/07/2021 @ 09:17
Skybus flights are on hold this morning due to low cloud and poor visibility at Land's End and Newquay. Thank you for your understanding.
— IOS Travel update (@IOSTravelupdate) July 26, 2021
At this stage, the small terminal building was comparatively busy, as poor visibility in the area had delayed or canceled all of the morning’s flights so far. While this was frustrating, it was, of course, completely out of the airline’s control. The waiting game began, and, in fairness, the terminal was a perfectly nice place to sit out a delay.
After a while, visibility improved enough for operations to commence. In the end, our flight was the second to leave, after the more heavily delayed 10:00 departure. We were called to the pre-flight briefing room just before midway, where a safety video was played.
26/07/2021 @ 12:43
Some Skybus flights have now departed from Land's End airport, and we are now operating with delays up to 2 hours due to the poor visibility this morning.
— IOS Travel update (@IOSTravelupdate) July 26, 2021
Having walked the short distance from the briefing room to the apron, our aircraft, G-CBML, was waiting right outside. According to RadarBox.com, this particular Twin Otter is 41 years old. Clambering aboard the old turboprop, it became evident that the cabin’s low ceiling wasn’t too forgiving for my 6-foot frame. Also onboard was a dog, who had no such issues.
As seen above, my partner and I were seated in 3A and 3B. These spots were to the right of the 1-2 configured cabin. Interestingly, row 4 had no seats, but rather a pet box, in which sat the aforementioned canine passenger. The plane left the stand just after midday, around 45 minutes behind schedule. However, the delays were not over yet.
A second delay
Owing to the delayed start to the day’s operations, our flight was the aircraft’s first on the day in question. As such, it was subjected to a series of engine checks once we were onboard. These eventually revealed an unnamed technical problem, which forced the plane to return from the end of runway 25 to Land’s End’s all too familiar terminal building.
Once again, we found ourselves back in the terminal at Land’s End, awaiting an uncertain departure time while staff looked to resolve the plane’s technical issue. After around an hour’s wait, we were called back to the briefing room at around 13:15.
It turned out that the technical problem had forced Isles of Scilly Skybus to remove the aircraft in question from service. Luckily, with Land’s End being its primary operating base, a replacement was on hand in the form of G-BIHO. This Twin Otter was a shade younger than our original plane, but still a veteran nonetheless at 40 years old.
A short but stunning flight
Thankfully, G-BIHO did not have any technical issues, and its engine checks revealed nothing to suggest that the flight couldn’t continue. Once again, we found ourselves at the end of runway 25, where we sat with the brakes on for a short while as the engines powered up. The result of this was immense acceleration when the brakes were eventually released.
At 13:30, Isles of Scilly Skybus flight IOS43 finally took to the skies above Cornwall. Although our cruising altitude was just 1,500 feet, much of our cruise took place in the clouds. These low clouds had been one of the reasons for the delays at the start of the day. Nonetheless, after not flying for nearly a year, I was thrilled to be airborne again.
Just after having settled into the cruise, the flight’s crew came back on the PA to inform us that our descent into St Mary’s was about to commence. This proved one of the more interesting stages of the flight, as we emerged from the clouds to be greeted with the sight of some of the archipelago’s smaller islands off to our right-hand side.
We made a fairly steep approach into St Mary’s, with the aircraft rocking ever so slightly from side to side as it did so. Nonetheless, our touchdown was smooth enough, and we were back on the ground at 13:44 after just 14 minutes in the air. Our eventful flight (and a special one for me as it marked the milestone of my 100th as a passenger) was over.
All in all, my partner and I spent the flight with smiles beneath our face masks. While the two delays were frustrating, the airline kept us well informed throughout. I also noticed that delayed passengers from much earlier flights were given food and drink vouchers.
Flights on Isles of Scilly Skybus between Land’s End and St Mary’s start at £93.25 ($130) one way. However, this can be reduced when booking a ‘Fly+Sail’ day trip itinerary, whereby you can fly to St Mary’s and return to Penzance by boat for as little as £84 ($117) return.
This was the option that my partner and I took, and the day out as a whole was well worth the money despite the eventful start. Interestingly, the ferry back was busier than normal, as poor visibility had hit Land’s End again that afternoon, causing further flight disruption. In any case, the experience as a whole is one that I would thoroughly recommend!
Have you ever flown on a DHC-6 Twin Otter before? Perhaps you’ve even done so with Isles of Scilly Skybus? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!