By Bram du Saar
I get to visit airports and airfields on my travels by coincidence most of the time – except of course when I’m flying! They might be marked on the map I got at the petrol station, or they are marked on road signs. However, some are not on any map or noticeable road sign at all. And since they are so small or are just a strip of concrete, you only stumble upon them when you are actually driving on the landing strip or because locals tell you about them.
The latter was the case in the Highlands of Scotland this summer when I visited the town Kyle of Lochalsh, which is nowadays a quiet town and “gateway” to the popular Isle of Skye (one of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland). But it is also the terminus of Britain’s most scenic railway journey: “The Kyle of Lochalsh extension”. It runs along the rugged Scottish coast, between Stromeferry and Kyle of Lochalsh.
After a visit to the small Kyle of Lochalsh Railway Museum (1 pound entrance fee), I asked around for local information on the Isle of Skye (An t-Eilean Sgitheanach in Gaelic). The Lonely Planet is not that lonely anymore! I then heard about a very small private airstrip on Skye – the only airfield on Skye for that matter! The locals emphasized the miniature scale to such an extent, that I first thought I was directed to a field for model aircraft. One local put it this way “It is not much, but there is enough runway to crash on!”
Hearing about it was one thing, but actually getting there was another. To cut a very long story short: after a lot of wrong turns, several dirt roads, obstructing golf-course-like pastures, a lot of asking around and getting conflicting information on any road sign, I finally found it. So, if you are planning to visit Skye and you might want to see this airstrip for yourself, here are some clear directions(!): Cross the Skye Bridge, keep on the A87, shortly after passing the turn-off for Kylerhea, drive a bit slower till you see a red square sign on your right-hand side that states: “Skye Bridge Ashaig Airstrip” and make a right. You cannot miss it!
The Airstrip is operated and managed by the Highland Council or “Chomhairle na Gàidhealtachd” as it is called in Gaelic. The Council covers the largest land area of all Scottish local authorities (26,484 sq km in total), which comprises 33 percent of Scotland or 11 percent of Great Britain. This stretched landscape and the islands of the Inner Hebrides pose unique logistical challenges to the Council in delivering public services across the Highlands. By operating the Airstrip it is possible to keep accessibility and “lifeline” services up and running for the approximately 10,000 residents of Skye and for the multitude of tourists (around 600,000 per year).
As ordered by the former Inverness County Council, the airstrip was constructed between 1969 and 1971 by the Corps of Royal Engineers of the British Army. The strip was opened on April 14th 1972. A plaque near the gate of the airstrip commemorates this occasion.
Also in 1972, Loganair commenced scheduled flights to and from Glasgow and Inverness. Since the airline’s foundation in 1968, Loganair built a network serving the Highlands and all the Islands. The service from Ashaig operated four or five days a week and reached its height in the late 1970s, when construction in the oil industry was at its peak.
As a British Airways franchise partner, Loganair still maintains the Highlands network. But in early 1988, Loganair terminated the scheduled flights due to lack of demand and due to the withdrawal of subsidies (76,000 pounds annually) from the then Scottish Development Department, amid great protest from the local authorities in Portree and Inverness concerned for a drop in tourist trade.
In 1979, the opening scenes of the film Flash Gordon (1980) were filmed at the airstrip. The film was intended as an update of the 1930’s comic strip. The somewhat ‘imaginative’ plot tells the story of a football player and his friends traveling to the planet Mongo and finding themselves fighting the tyrant, Ming the Merciless, to save Earth.
At present, the airfield is an unlicensed airstrip. So, you cannot find Ashaig in NATS’s (British National Air Traffic Services) Aeronautical Information Service directory. It is primarily used by small private aircraft visiting Skye, and by the two helicopters of the Scottish Ambulance Service for medical flights to Inverness. The runway is situated east-west (25/07) and is 711 meters long. The overall condition of the runway leaves to be desired, but it is “usable” according to a local aviator. However, there is currently no maintenance service on a regular basis.
Also, it lacks air traffic control or guidance, so visual flight rules apply. There are landing lights, but due to technical and maintenance problems the system failed several times at the end of 2005 and early 2006. This led to a public debate (read: political outcry) on the way the airport is maintained, as the landing lights are vital for reliable air ambulance services to operate 24/7.
There is a portable cabin at the site, which serves as a small airside HQ. There is no hangar available for visiting aircraft, nor are there any repairing facilities. Therefore, it is recommended to use the available concrete boulders to secure aircraft, as the Highlands are famous for the ‘4 seasons in one day’ weather. The required rescue equipment, primarily for helicopter operations, is stored in containerlike “boxes” next to the parking apron.
Once a year, in the summer, the airport is officially closed for all air traffic, because the airside then serves as an arena for the Isle of Skye Music Festival. The festival has been growing in recent years, hosting more and more artists and visitors. Parts of the runway are used for stages and for parking, and there is a campsite on the green.
The growing numbers of tourists, the developing Skye economy and the airstrip’s present state have given the region much food for thought and has ignited a debate on a possible expansion of the airstrip or even constructing an entirely new airport.
West Highland Air Transport (WHAT) has recently (2002) put forward a proposal to establish air services between Ashaig and Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and London (Luton). WHAT proposes to use 50-seat Dash-7 planes with up to 5 flights per day in total. Recent studies have shown that this is a bit overoptimistic, but a more limited daily service to central Scotland seems to be realistic and feasible.
Expansion is recommended from the emergency service’s point of view as well. As the old Britten-Norman Islander is out of service, the Air Ambulance has no suitable fixed-wing aircraft that can safely land at Ashaig. In case the Air Ambulance helicopters are not available in an emergency, the Service needs to call in a military helicopter. Any expansion or upgrading should therefore enable the airstrip to accommodate at least the new Beechcraft KingAir.
The reintroduction of scheduled flights from Skye is also supported by the Highland and Islands Transport Partnership (HI-TRANS), which is a statutory body that represents several Scottish Councils who have joined forces to pursue improvements to transport services and infrastructure in the Highlands and Islands. Their investment proposals for an improved air service network in the Highlands and Islands include improvements to the Skye airstrip to facilitate the introduction of two daily return flights from Skye to central Scotland.
Now, you might wonder: With that kind of support, why is he still talking in ‘future tense’? First of all, because almost any new service would require better facilities than those presently offered
(a terminal building for example!), as well as the upgrading of the runway and a considerable extension of it. All these plans can in theory be executed with (available) money, but a land purchase of 50 acres (about 20 hectares) is necessary for the extension to actually materialise. Alas, negotiations between the landowner (Sir Iain Noble) and the London-based investors are lengthy. Apart from arguments about the funds concerned – half a million pounds -, Sir Iain Noble questions the plan’s economic prospects and has doubts about the impact of an extension on the ‘neighbours’. An environmental assessment in 2004 concluded that the expansion would have no significant economic impact while a small number of properties would suffer increased noise levels.
Secondly: The Highland Council is divided on the Ashaig plans. Two Highland councilors from the north of Skye have suggested building a brand new airport near the town of Kensaleyre. An airport at this location would lie more centrally within the Skye region and also answer the need of the north. It would lie closer to Portree, the largest town and economic centre of the Island. Portree is now a 45-minute drive away. A big downside to this proposal is that an airport that would lie a bit more to the north would be of less interest to the Lochalsh and other surrounding mainland communities. So this would reduce the already small catchment area even further.
Thirdly: The lack of sufficient and integrated infrastructure! Only one major road runs on The Isle of Skye: the A87 which is a two-way road for 80-90 percent. A bigger airport, regardless of the location, would therefore very easily lead to more congestion on this road and on the surrounding local infrastructure.
And ‘fourth’ but not least: According to a report of the Scottish Natural Heritage, the Airstrip is situated in a geological area of national importance. Ashaig Airstrip lies parallel to it for roughly 800 metres. The report concludes that housing and the redevelopment of the airstrip in the vicinity of the coast have the potential of damaging the scientific value of the site. Housing and re-development of the airstrip should therefore not be allowed wihtin a 5-mile radius of the heritage site. However, if these recommendations are to be followed, it means that the airstrip can only expand when whole new property is purchased. And that is not very realistic from both a political and an economic point of view, as mentioned above.
Other means available
Whether Ashaig airstrip expands or is replaced still remains to be seen. Many reports state that the proposed expansion and WHAT’s plans to re-establish flights between Skye, the Central Belt and England, can have a profound impact on the local community. But is the local community strong enough to finally carry the burden of the road getting there? Time will tell! And speaking of time: perhaps, in light of the earlier, it is not that bad that you still travel by steam trains and historic diesel engines (Class 37) to Kyle of Lochalsh (please visit:http://www.kylerailway.co.uk for more information). And on top of that, there are 3 or 4 daily services (depending the season) with modern First Scotrail trains (Sprinter stock), as part of the ‘hub-and-spoke’ system from Inverness.
– Breakish Community Steering Group (2005), Breakish Feasibility Study: Community Consultation and Evaluation of Development Options
– HITRANS (2003), An Expanded Air Services Network For the Highlands and Islands
– Scottish Natural Heritage (2000), The Coastline between Ardnish and Ob Lusa, near Broadford (SNH Ref No: 1251)
– Several articles from the West Highland Free Press newspaper
– Several minutes of proceedings from The Highland Council, http://www.highland.gov.uk andhttp://22.214.171.124/
– A.J. du Saar
– Photo Class 37 diesel engine at Kyle of Lochals: http://www.class37.freeserve.co.uk