A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

October 2014 

Flying the “Short Hop”

 When we commercial pilots think of the “short hop”, in general it means something in the neighborhood of an hour or two.  A flight from a fishing camp to an outpost lake could be as short as fifteen minutes.   To regionals and commuters, anything under about three hours is a short one.  Domestic flights in most countries are usually under four hours.  Major cities close together, like Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo in British Columbia are easy hops as short as ten to fifteen minutes flying time.

But the world’s shortest scheduled air route is only 1.7 miles, and is traveled in less than 2 minutes.  The commercial flight is between two islands near the north tip of Scotland.

The Orkney Islands are part of an archipelago 10 miles off the coast and consist of about seventy islands.  Twenty are inhabited and the largest one is called “Mainland” although it’s only about 200 square miles in size.   The Orkneys are steeped in history.  Humans have inhabited these islands for 8,500 years, and at this point in time, the population is about 20,000.  The area boasts a comparatively mild climate and is fertile.  There are no forests, in fact a tree is a rarity.  Some of the land is farmed, and although agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, there’s a growing wind and marine energy resource.  Canadians won’t be surprised to know that Orcadians have a distinctive Scots dialect that we could compare with our own Newfoundlanders.

Not unlike the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia, or the San Juans to the south in U.S. waters, the smaller islands of Orkney offer a world of serenity on sandy shores. “Mainland” contains the majority of the population and many attractions including an arts and crafts trail.  Each island has its own unique attraction and culture, a fact that encourages island hopping by ferry and by air.  A company called LOGANAIR operates a local airline providing service to various islands in the Orkney, Shetland and Western Isle groups as well as on mainland Scotland.  Their fleet of Twin Otters, Islanders, Saab 340’s and Dornier’s totals 29 aircraft.

Britten-Norman Islander


It is Loganair that operates the worlds’ shortest scheduled commercial flight, and it goes between Westray Airport and Papa Westray Airport.  Flight 353 takes only two minutes to hop between the two islands, and that includes the taxi time on and off the runways.  Although there’s no time for an in-flight meal, it’s a remarkable trip, part of a sight-seeing excursion for tourists.  Appropriately, Loganair uses a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft.  There is also a scheduled service that locals fly on.  I went to a travel site on the internet and found this review written by a traveler who did it:


I have long wanted to travel on the shortest scheduled air route, having heard about it many years ago.   It is still the shortest scheduled air service anywhere in the World and travellers get a souvenir certificate from the Guinness Book of Records.  We flew up from Kirkwall to Westray, landed and were able to get off for a few minutes, re-boarded and flew on to Papa Westray (this is the shortest route, and we were airborne for 2 minutes and 25 seconds - the Captain told me that this was a bit pedestrian and it can be done in under a minute!!) landed again, had a few minutes on the ground, and then flew back to Kirkwall.   All in all, it was under an hour - but probably one of the best hours of my life.


In what’s become an unofficial competition, several “Space Enthusiasts” have been launching various devices under helium weather balloons and tracking them well up into the stratosphere.  There’s no shortage of these experiments going on, and they’re usually well documented on YouTube. Not surprisingly, aviation experts have warned against doing it because they say there’s always the danger that one could be enough to bring down a plane.

Last year two Canadian teenagers sent a “Lego man” into space under a balloon.  It was equipped with a home-stitched parachute and spare parts found on Craigslist.  The 17-year-olds, from Toronto, made headlines after their “astronaut”, clutching a Canadian flag attached to a balloon went to 80,000 feet – over twice the altitude of where most commercial jets cruise.

The Air Canada Pilots Association expressed concern that there could be damage to an aircraft someday if something headed for space, or on its return to earth, was accidentally consumed by a jet engine.  Most of the “space junk” consists of relatively small items, but there is more floating around up there than ever, and it is getting busier.   Weather balloons account for a big number.   Over ten thousand are launched each week by meteorological organizations around the world.  Many more are sent up by amateurs.  So far, there has never been a report of an aircraft striking a weather balloon.

Most pilots have never seen one of these devices.  The balloon itself is usually about 6 feet in diameter, and often white in color.  By federal law, the entire device cannot weigh more than 12 pounds.  All components should be designed to be ingestible into a turbine engine without causing detrimental damage to that engine.

A Weather balloon can take up to 90 minutes to climb to an altitude between 80,000 and 100,000 feet before it bursts.  The payload, usually weighing about six pounds, can take thirty to forty five minutes to return to earth under parachute.  Where it lands depends mostly on the jet stream.   There are actually four jet streams that circle the earth at altitudes near 60,000 feet.  They can typically reach speeds of 75 mph, and if one happens to be directly over the launch site, the payload could travel some 75 miles before touchdown.  If the jet stream is not above the launch site, typically the recovery can be within 20 miles.

So, from what I have been able to learn, pilots should not need to be worried about coming into contact with a dangerous item sent up by a helium balloon.  However, I take no responsibility if you happen to come home with a damaged aircraft having struck a man-made object at altitude.   We all know what bird strikes can do, and a little black box filled with weather-gathering equipment isn’t something I would like to run in to.


And finally, Some Reflections of Old Pilots:

Pilots are people who drive airplanes for other people who can't fly.  Passengers are people who say they fly, but really just ride.

Before each flight, make sure that your bladder is empty and your fuel tanks are full.

You have to make up your mind about growing up and becoming a pilot. You can't do both.

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