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In Orkney, a short hop between sleepy isles gets you airborne, briefly

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PIEROWALL, United Kingdom - Turning in the cockpit to face his passengers, pilot Colin McAllister sounded apologetic.

The duration of the Loganair flight was the issue: not how long it would be, but how short.

"It will only take about a minute and a half to get across the water," said McAllister, 48, before taking off from Westray to Papa Westray, neighbouring Orkney islands north of the Scottish mainland.

"Is that all?" someone asked in a voice loud enough to be heard over the thrum of spinning propellers.

"That's it, I'm afraid. It's not very good value for money."

But no one complained about not getting their money's worth. The preflight banter over, it was time to enjoy the ride.

Loganair bills its service between the two islands as the shortest scheduled flight in the world. According to its official timetable it's a two-minute hop, but some pilots, helped by a tailwind, have zipped across in less than a minute. The distance between airfields is just under three kilometres.

The airline presents passengers with souvenir certificates signed by a pilot.

"We have people coming here from the other side of the world just to take that flight," said Premysl Fojtu, a Loganair customer service agent in Kirkwall, Orkney's capital.

"A couple of years ago a gentleman flew in to Orkney from Japan, took the flight between Westray and Papa Westray and then flew straight back to Japan."

Loganair, based in Glasgow, has operated an inter-island scheduled service in Orkney since 1967. The network has evolved to become a lifeline for a half-dozen outer isles that benefit from subsidized fares. Some Orcadians use the flights to commute to jobs on Orkney Mainland, the largest and most visited island in the Scottish archipelago. Teachers, students, health-care workers and medical patients are also regular passengers.

For tourists looking to explore more remote parts of Orkney, the flights offer a quicker alternative to the ferries that ply its firths and bays.

The hop from Westray to Papa Westray — or Papay, as locals call it — takes you from a sleepy island to one that is utterly somnolent. Both lure bird watchers, hikers and hard-core tranquillity seekers.

"The other day I saw two people and I thought, 'It's so busy today,'" said Rachel Wakeham in the Papay grocery store where she works, answering a visitor's questions on a day in mid-July. "It's remote in a good way here. It's a more natural life, I suppose."

Seven kilometres long and one kilometre wide at its narrowest, Papay has just 75 to 80 residents. A low, flat expanse of cattle and sheep farms, it seems to have barely risen out of the sea.

A bird sanctuary covers the north end of the island, a marvellous place for a walk along a wild, rocky shoreline. Along the way you pass a cairn erected in honour of "one of the world's last great auks," a bird shot here in 1813.

Closer to the airfield, the Knap of Howar archeological site reveals a neolithic farm dwelling more than 5,500 years old. Nearby, 12th-century St. Boniface Kirk, surrounded by mossy grey tombstones, seems virtually brand new by comparison.

On Westray, bigger and more populated (the island has 600 residents), a cliff walk skirts overhanging precipices at Noup Head, a point that juts into the north Atlantic. As you peer over — ideally while lying on your stomach so vertigo, or a gust of wind, doesn't send you plummeting 75 metres to the sea — there's the astounding sight of myriad seabirds whirling raucously and nesting on ledges. Across the island at the Castle o'Burrian sea stack, puffins congregate in large numbers and seem unperturbed by photographers who come close with their cameras.

Westray's airport terminal is a three-room hut situated at the end of a one-lane road amid green farm fields. There are no metal detectors to walk through, no boarding passes to present and no worries about bringing a water bottle onto the plane from outside the building.

It all feels like a throwback to more easy-going times in aviation. Show up 10 minutes before departure and you're fine.

Booked the day before over the phone, Loganair Flight 343 departed at 9:49 a.m., returning the same day from Papay at 4:53 p.m. The round-trip fare: 21 U.K. pounds (about C$39).

So what does a 90-second flight feel like?

The eight-seater, twin-prop Britten-Norman Islander rumbled like a Harley-Davidson as it sped down the runway.

It took off heading straight for Papay, gained altitude over the channel separating the islands, banked sharply to the left and then dropped down fast to Papay's landing strip. The flight was basically all takeoff and landing with no boring parts in between, which made it feel like a roller-coaster that had flown off the rails.

As passengers disembarked, McAllister was asked what altitude he had reached.

"I'd say 350 feet, that's my minimum altitude — so yes, we'll call it 350 feet," he replied through his open cockpit window.

The pilot seemed to enjoy the over-before-you-know-it flight as much as his passengers did.

"This beats working for a living, let's be honest," he said with a grin. "Yeah, it's fun."

One of the passengers, Richard Stillwell, 65, of Oxfordshire, England, set out to explore Papay on foot. Asked what he thought of the flight, his reply was succinct: "Short."

———

If You Go...

Getting to Orkney: Flybe has flights to Kirkwall, Orkney's capital, from cities in mainland Scotland. As well, Loganair has a codeshare arrangement with British Airways, allowing for connecting flights from London. There are also ferry services to Orkney from several Scottish ports. Details at http://bit.ly/XR2ILB.

Outer islands: From Kirkwall, use Orkney Ferries or Loganair to get to Westray, Papa Westray and other isles.

Ferry schedules: www.orkneyferries.co.uk.

Loganair schedules: www.loganair.co.uk. The airline flies daily between Westray and Papa Westray, most days in both directions.

Travelling with a car: Not particularly useful on tiny Papay, but very handy on some other Orkney islands. To bring your rental car as you go island hopping, you'll need to use ferries.

Accommodations: Very limited on some outer isles. VisitScotland offers a search function at http://bit.ly/XR2zaQ.

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