Celebrating 75 years of Scilly Isles connection
It was in March 1903 that Cornishman Richard Pearse made aviation history by becoming the first person to fly and land a heavier-than-air machine. Nine months later, American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright carried out a similar feat.
A mere 33 years after that epoch-defining moment, regular flights began between mainland Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Speaking at a celebratory lunch at the weekend to mark the 75th anniversary of fixed-wing flights to the archipelago, Isles of Scilly Steamship Company chairman Andrew May talked about the role the airport has played during those years, both as a vital link for islanders and also for visitors from across the world.
"As a company we have been serving the islands for more than 90 years, but 1936 was a transformational moment," he said.
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"You have to live on the islands to appreciate fully the value and importance of the link that has been forged between Land's End Airport and the Isles of Scilly. It is a link which has endured for 75 years and is evidence of the airport's success and of its value to the communities it serves."
A temporary exhibition was staged in a hangar at the airport to mark the occasion and featured images of many of the historic aircraft that plied the route over the years. There was also a screening of a Pathé News colour film, believed to be from the late-1950s, showing the islands and its people from another age.
Plans for a fly-past by a De Havilland Rapide – a common sight at Land's End during the 1950s and 1960s – had to be called off at the last minute because of poor weather and technical problems.
The groundwork for an air service from Cornwall to Scilly was begun in 1935, when Cobham Air Routes secured landing rights for a commercial service between Penzance and the islands. The following year, these rights were sold to Olley Air Services, which founded Channel Air Ferries.
In June 1937, preparations for a new aerodrome were under way at a site between Little Kelynack and Brea Down – just south of St Just. The site consisted of a field with a 2,100ft runway, a secondhand hangar – transported from an airfield near Blackpool – a booking office, fuel store and basic servicing facilities.
The aerodrome quickly became known as Land's End Airport and on the inaugural flight on September 15, 1937, Captain D L Dustin flew four passengers in a DH84 Dragon G-ADCR to St Mary's. The flight took off from Land's End at 9am and arrived on St Mary's golf course 20 minutes later.
At first the service offered just one flight a day in each direction, but by April 1938 its popularity grew and there were three return flights on a Saturday, with an additional Sunday afternoon service on request. Scenic flights also became available and the purchase of another light aircraft enabled the launch of services to Plymouth and Bristol. In the summer of that year Channel Air Ferries was acquired by Great Western and Southern Airlines, which allowed the service to settle into a schedule pattern of several return trips each day.
With the outbreak of the Second World War and despite flights being reduced to three per day, the Land's End to St Mary's route was the only UK air service to be flown throughout the war years. And there was drama in 1943 when a B-17 bomber force-landed after running short of fuel following a raid on Nantes.
Two years after the end of the war in 1945, the route became the responsibility of British European Airways and during its ownership the route was said to be the company's busiest domestic flight. In 1953, more than 36,000 people travelled with the company between the mainland and the isles. Due to its popularity, a full scheduled service was put in place during the 1950s, with flights departing every hour between 8am and 6pm.
In 1966 a new airline, Scillonia, started flights from Land's End and was the last commercial operator of De Havilland Rapides in Europe.
Between 1971 and 2009, Westward Airways ran a flying school at the airport. Using Cessnas and a Piper Cherokee, the school trained more than 100 pilots. Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, which now operates the airport, bought a Britten Norman Islander G-BFNU for charter work in 1984 and a new airline, Skybus, began commercial passenger flights the same year. Today, Skybus operates three De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters and three Britten Norman Islanders, with a fourth Twin Otter due to be delivered soon.
Passengers can now fly from Land's End to the Isles of Scilly six days a week throughout the year. A new terminal building, due to be ready for the 2013 summer season, will include a modern baggage-handling facility, a dedicated arrivals area and a new air traffic control tower.
Speaking of the future, Isles of Scilly Steamship Company chairman Andrew May added: "We have listened to the concerns of people on the islands and have tried to find ways to accommodate their requests. We are working hard to implement changes and improvements so that people are still able to do all they have done before. We have already put a number of changes in place and will continue to do so during the coming months.
"The integrated transport system by sea and by air is far more sophisticated today than it was 75 years ago. And this system will continue to evolve. We will step up to the plate, as required by our customers and the community, as we have done for the past 90 years.
"We have a 'can-do' attitude, and we will find solutions."