Our holiday this year was to western Cornwall. Two weeks on a remote caravan site with the in-laws sounds like many people's idea of hell, but actually it was a really relaxing break. We were staying miles from anywhere, a 10 minute drive from the nearest major village of St Just. Around here many of the roads are still dirt tracks, you go through tiny hamlets with nothing but a dirt track to drive along. Absolute heaven, particularly before the tourist season kicks off in the UK. Nothing but peace and quiet for two weeks. I digress.....
For the duration of the trip we had seen the Sikorsky S-61s of British International plying the 28 miles across the Atlantic Ocean between Penzance and the Scilly Isles on a half-hourly basis. For those not familiar with the UK, here is a map showing the area we were staying in.
We were staying half a mile on the final approach from Lands End Airport (actually a short grass strip), and because of this had seen the 8 seater Islanders flying over our caravan at 200ft throughout the day. With such aviation treats so close by and readily available, it would be nice to get a new aircraft type in the trip. I had never been in an Islander or an S-61 (or any heavy helicopter for that matter), so either would be a new experience. We visited both the airport and Penzance Heliport for information. We discovered the Islander was £80 per person for the return journey, or we could take the helicopter for £44 per person if we went straight out and back. With the helicopter flight being longer and taking in more of the sights, it seemed like the logical solution.
Helicopters have been flying between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly for many years, making this the world’s longest running scheduled helicopter service, according to the brochure anyway. The helicopters perform a vital air link between the mainland and the islands, bringing them to within 20 minutes of the mainland. With services every hour you are always within 90 minutes of the mainland on the islands.
Here is the route the helicopters fly out to the islands:
When staying in or near to Penzance, it is impossible to not notice the continual drone of Sikorskys going back and forth over Mounts Bay. Anywhere you go along this stretch of coast you can look out to sea and almost guarantee to see the distinctive silhouette of the S61 heading out or coming back. Viewing at the heliport is incredible, all around the heliport is a chest-height fence to look over, or you can view from the other side of the A30 near to the railway line. The helicopters swoop over the bay, coming in over Tescos from the west or Morrisons from the east, before crossing the A30 at low altitude to the shock of some motorists, who are suddenly confronted with a huge helicopter right in front of them!
Here’s a photo I took a couple of days previously to show the location:
The heliport itself is a very simple affair. The heliport is sandwiched between B&Q and Kwik Fit, it is in essence a playing field with a bit of concrete in the middle, and the ‘terminal’ to one side, which is really just a small concrete building.
We telephoned on the morning of the flight to check availability. “We still have 12 seats on the 16:35 out and 10 seats on the 17:00 back from Tresco” said the Worzel Gummidge soundalike on the other end of the phone. We decided to have lunch and then decide if we wanted to go. At about 14:00 we decided we would, and rang the heliport. “There’s still plenty of space” advised the helpful girl on the other end. We booked there and then, before getting the camera ready and piling into the car for the 6 mile trip into Penzance.
Mrs G and “the Mother-in-Law” dropped me and “The Father-in-Law” off at the heliport at 15:10, before heading off for some retail therapy in downtown Penzance. We entered the terminal which was packed, as two flights were leaving in short succession for the islands.
There was a helicopter departing as we arrived, G-VIPZ, a distinctive black S61 that I remember going onboard at Farnborough many years ago, when it had a VIP interior reminiscent of a private jet. No such joy for the passengers these days though, as it has the standard 2-1 fit for the services to the islands. She still looks a treat in Black and Gold though, as she heads out for the islands.
A few minutes later, G-BCEB landed, in the standard British International livery. More passengers headed out before the doors were shut, she lifted up and away.
At 15:45 came an announcement – “Would passengers travelling on the 16:35 service to Tresco please note that check in is now open at desk 2”. We headed round where there were a few passengers queuing for check in. We checked in and showed our driving licenses as ID
. The lady said there were only four passengers on the sightseeing flight, and when we landed in Tresco we could move across to the aisle to the left to get a great view of the coast. She confirmed it was free seating so it didn’t really matter. We obtained our boarding passes, which were basically a drinks mat with a number on them. Ah well I thought, it’s obviously all they need.
We went and sat down with an ice cream, when there was a drone outside, looking out revealed G-VIPZ landing on the pad after her journey to St Marys. Boarding was announced for this flight and within 10 minutes she was airborne again. Ryanair would be proud of this short turnaround!
We were called for boarding at 16:20, and went through to a little room at the side of the waiting area where a British International employee said we would watch the safety briefing. We sat down and watched the safety video on a TV
Inside the safety briefing room:
As this was playing the building shook as our ride to the islands landed outside. The passengers disembarked, before we walked through the automatic door onto the landing area. I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of any officialdom, no security or anything. It’s a lot like flying from the smaller airports in New Zealand, only a lot smaller!
We walked out under the guide of a BI
employee, where to my surprise we boarded on the starboard side of the aircraft, the opposite to fixed wing types. The noise and wind under the blades was deafening, they board the aircraft with the engines running so it is really a case of “hold onto your hats” as you walk underneath them!
21 May 2007
No flight number
Sikorsky S-61NM G-BCEB
Penzance Heliport (PZE)
We boarded through the front doors right behind the flight deck, and turned left heading towards the back. On board was no quieter than outside, just a different tone of noise! Right at the back were two seats that had a window on each side, right in the pointy bit at the back. I took position here as Father-in-Law G sat just to the front on the right.
The sole flight attendant welcomed us all aboard, before going through the cabin and pointing out the emergency exits. She took her seat at the front as the ground crew moved away, and we heard the rotors spool up.
We spun round on the ground to start with, before lifting slightly, tipping forward immensely and hovering to the west end of the field. We spun around, tipping to one side, which felt very odd, banking to one side only feet above the ground and doing about 5 kts! Suddenly we felt an almighty sensation of positive G, only with a difference. Instead of being lateral G force, pushing from behind, this was an almighty thump from below, as we suddenly just shot vertically upwards and forwards! I have been onboard a helicopter once before, many years ago, on a Bell 206B Jetranger. However this feeling was very strange, like nothing I had ever felt before. In no way did it feel disconcerting, it was just totally different to anything else.
In a matter of seconds the terminal building was hundreds of feet below us, yet we had not even gone the length of the field! We climbed out to the east, overhead Morrisons and over the A30 and railway line.
By the time we crossed the railway line we were a lot higher, and the aircraft felt as though it was struggling to climb. Sitting right in the tail there was a lot of lateral motion from side to side, backwards and forth, as well as the fact we were turning and climbing. From this position you could actually see the helicopter yawing from side to side slightly. It was a very strange sensation that took a bit of getting used to! Nothing at all like a Jetranger!
The heliport behind us:
St Michael’s Mount:
(Notice the empty swimming pool on the harbour front that will be opening this summer!)
The stewardess came on to say we would be cruising at an altitude of 1500ft for the flight, which would last around 20 minutes.
We flew across Mounts Bay heading towards Mousehole, then across countryside towards Drift Reservoir, getting closer to our caravan park.
The whole area we were staying in, notice Lands End Airfield on the far left:
We passed it in the distance, but Lands End airfield was a lot clearer to see, with the flashing beacon and PAPIs making it stand out clearly.
We then continued towards Lands End, seeing clearly the theme park that blocks you from actually seeing Lands End itself without paying a small fortune.
Sennen Cove (lovely beach we took the dog to):
More beautiful Cornish coastline:
Lands End (top right), with the theme park you have to go through:
Lands End itself:
Officially outside mainland Britain:
I must stray from the trip report for just a moment to say what a travesty I think this is. Lands End is a hugely symbolic part of the UK, being the most south-westerly point of mainland Britain. You should be able to get to Lands End without paying some private company a fortune for the privilege of seeing it.
Anyway, rant over, we continued across open sea, where the patchy cloud suddenly made way for blue skies. The sea in this part of Britain is turquoise blue, and with no wind at all the sea was like glass. We continued over the sea for about 10 minutes, observing G-VIPZ making the return journey to the east and a lot lower than us.
Sitting here listening to the roar of the engines, feeling every rotation of the huge rotors and tailrotor, flying across the sea really makes you feel like you're on a mission. I imagined this civilian S61 with no seats or carpet, the door open and a sinking ship down below that we were about to go and rescue. The aircraft really gives you a sense of purpose, it's been designed for a purpose, and built strong, sturdy and rugged to face all the elements Mother Nature can throw at you out here at sea.
View for the rest of the trip:
Inside the cabin:
Father-in-law enjoying the flight:
If ever I have complained about the lack of comfort of small turboprop aircraft then I take it all back now! The Sikorsky is one noisy, shaky aircraft! You can’t hold a conversation without shouting into someone’s ear, even the stewardess wore a headset! The aircraft was very shaky, the yawing from side to side continued throughout the flight.
I took a photo of the safety card as I didn’t think I could sneak it out unnoticed, bearing in mind I had no hand luggage!
Before long we started to see yachts out the window, then a lighthouse in the middle of the sea, then the odd rocky outcrop, before the sea turned an electric turquoise blue, then the famous white sand beaches of the Scillies came into view.
Boat racing us in:
We passed several islands as we began our approach. The flight attendant announced we’d shortly be landing, and if passengers were disembarking they should stay seated until the seatbelt light went out, and those staying onboard and returning to Penzance should remain seated with seatbelts fastened.
We passed Tresco to the right and St Mary’s to the left, getting a stunning view. I hadn’t realised just how close together these islands were! The sea here was so clear as well, allowing you to see reefs under the water line. The beaches were white with palm trees hanging over them, reminiscent of the Caribbean!
We suddenly began our descent, suddenly swooping down to the right, over a white sandy beach to come to a hover over one end of Tresco heliport.
Our shadow on final approach:
Final approach – not quite beating SXM
I’d thought Penzance was a small heliport, but Tresco was even smaller! This was more like somebody’s back garden, without even a concrete helipad! We hovered over the pad, turning to face the terminal. From here we settled down very gently onto the helipad.
The seatbelt sign went out and the door was opened with the engines still running. The noise got slightly louder when the door was opened! Most of the 11 passengers got off, us two and another couple stayed on board, as well as a guy at the front. He wore normal civilan clothes but had heavy duty black boots on. He wasn’t on a sightseeing trip as the check in agent told us there were only four, and he looked bored out of his mind. He didn’t look out of the window once during the entire flight! We could only think he must be a customs officer or similar.
Passengers getting off:
21 May 2007
No flight number
Sikorsky S-61NM G-BCEB
Penzance Heliport (PZE)
A few passengers boarded in Tresco, before the doors were closed and we spooled up again for departure. We lifted straight from the helipad this time, climbing straight out over the beaches of Tresco, and towards St. Martins.
Lifting off – watch the people waving us off!
Looking out over Tresco:
Tresco Heliport from above:
The stewardess welcomed us on board again, for this flight the cruising altitude would be just 500ft! Now I knew why they suggested we get good seats for the return flight!
Between Lands End and the Isles of Scilly there is an air corridor called the Lands End Corridor. This keeps all traffic to the islands following a similar track. All flights are conducted under VFR.
We passed the islands and headed out to sea again, following the Lands End Corridor back towards Lands End. At this height the sea is clearly visible in detail, and the sight of a seagull flying right past your window is a common one! I wondered how many have had a close encounter with a set of rotor blades!
I took a photo of the tail rotor from my seat:
After 10 minutes the Cornish coast came into view, and the stewardess began her commentary of the landmarks along the coast. It was clear that she was reading from a sheet and sounded bored to tears of reading the same commentary on each flight!
Lands End was first, before we headed round towards Porthcurno Beach, where thousands of telegraph cables began their journey across the Atlantic to Newfoundland in Canada.
Cliffs on the coast:
From here we continued east towards Mousehole and Newlyn, getting a stunning view of the caves, rocky outcrops and lighthouses along the coast.
Caves in the cliffs:
Pretty little cove:
We then flew straight over Mounts Bay, flying overhead a coastguard vessel that we had previously only seen as a misty boat in the distance from land.
Fishing boat coming into port:
Quarry on the Mousehole road:
Funny lighthouse in the bay:
Penzance came into view and we flew over the harbour, taking a photo of the harbourfront car park with Mrs G and the Mother-in-law loading their shopping into the back of the car! (You can see them on the original when you blow it up!)
Railway station with train:
We flew across the railway line and past Tesco, before coming in to hover over the helipad.
Coming in over Tesco:
Houses on short final:
The mound where you can get awesome photos:
G-VIPZ in the hangar:
We settled into a hover and turned to face the terminal, before settling down very gently onto the pad.
The door was opened and everybody got off, we were last down the aisle and asked if we could take a photo of the flightdeck before we got off. The captain couldn’t hear us of course due to the noise, but pointing to the camera then the cockpit got a thumbs up!
I took a photo that didn’t come out too badly.
We got off the aircraft into the noise, which seemed louder than ever! Incredible noise under the rotors, the noise just fills your head and you literally cannot hear a thing! With the wind thumping down like a pulse as well it feels like you are being beaten around the head, it’s the only way of describing it!
A photo of G-VIPZ sitting in the hangar:
Off across the pad we walked, straight through the open gate and into the car park. I ran down to the far end of the helipad to take a photo of the helicopter taking off to head back to the islands. As I did this Mrs G came cruising past in the car, before coming back with Father-in-law G and picking me up. I managed to get a shot of the aircraft loading, but we had to get going as we were blocking the road! As we pulled out at Tesco we heard the roar of G-BCEB heading back out again overhead, as we pulled out of Penzance heading back towards the sanctuary of our caravan park.
After the rough ride of the helicopter a Ford Mondeo is a welcome improvement, as we got rid of our sea legs and enjoyed the smooth ride through the countryside back to the ‘van, our ears still ringing and ready for a nice cup of tea.
Overall this was a brilliant experience worth every penny - the chance to fly in an S61, the only other time to get in one of those in the UK is if you're being rescued by the Navy from a boat! The short flight is really worth it as you feel you're on a mission due to the different mode of transport flying low and fast over the sea - give me that over a Twin Otter or Islander any day!
We had such an enjoyable experience, and even now, a week later, I'm still recalling that flight over and over in my head - what a brilliant experience and something to remember for a lifetime.