Bri­tish owned and built, the Brit­ten-Nor­man Is­lan­der trans­ports pas­sen­gers around some of the most ex­otic lo­ca­tions on earth

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The Bri­tish-made Brit­ten-Nor­man Is­lan­der takes flight in some of the world’s most ex­otic lo­ca­tions

In the world of avi­a­tion fleet man­age­ment, it’s all about max­imis­ing rev­enue. Seat con­fig­u­ra­tions, range ex­ten­sion, fuel econ­omy, noise re­duc­tion… these are the is­sues that keep an air­line CEO awake at night. But not all air­lines have the same is­sues. There are other pri­or­i­ties for those that op­er­ate in some of the most won­der­ful, and ex­hil­a­rat­ing, parts of the world. Air­lines that con­nect trop­i­cal is­lands, for ex­am­ple. And air­lines that com­mute be­tween African hubs and the bumpy un­metalled strips of sa­fari coun­try. Air­lines such as Lo­ganair, which op­er­ates the short­est sched­uled flight in the world – the two min­utes be­tween Westray and Papa Westray in the Orkneys. Or Bar­rier Air, com­mut­ing be­tween Auck­land and Great Bar­rier Is­land in New Zealand. Or Fly Montser­rat, which con­nects the vol­canic Caribbean is­land of Montser­rat with the out­side world.

These car­ri­ers have a few key things in com­mon: they run es­sen­tial ser­vices in places where fa­cil­i­ties are few, but the re­wards – sceni­cally – are sky high. And they all use one par­tic­u­lar vet­eran air­craft that has a par­tic­u­larly doughty rep­u­ta­tion: the Brit­ten-Nor­man Is­lan­der.

The Is­lan­der has been de­scribed as the “Land Rover of the skies” be­cause of its abil­ity to op­er­ate in chal­leng­ing con­di­tions. In the Orkneys, for ex­am­ple, when the weather cuts up rough and the in­ter­is­land fer­ries seek shel­ter, the Is­lan­der still does its cir­cuit, al­though it’ll be a bumpy ride.


Like the Land Rover it­self, the Is­lan­der is strongly as­so­ci­ated with Bri­tain, and it has been for the last 53 years. Brit­ten-Nor­man is the only re­main­ing pri­vately owned civil air­craft man­u­fac­turer based in the UK, and its air­craft are still as­sem­bled ac­cord­ing to a de­sign first drawn up in 1963. Main­stream avi­a­tion may be fast chang­ing, but in the world of the Is­lan­der, much stays the same.

John Brit­ten and Des­mond Nor­man started the com­pany 64 years ago. Their orig­i­nal in­ten­tion was to cre­ate a slow-fly­ing, low-main­te­nance crop duster that could cope with a life­time of tak­ing off and land­ing on un­pre­pared tracks, and that could do so with­out shak­ing it­self to pieces. The Is­lan­der went into pro­duc­tion at Bem­bridge on the Isle of Wight, where its pro­pri­etary com­po­nents are still made; though the air­frame assem­bly is partly done in Ro­ma­nia (as it has been for 50 years), and then com­pleted in Brit­ten-Nor­man’s large hangar at So­lent Air­port in Fare­ham, Hamp­shire.

In the course of the com­pany’s half-cen­tury of ex­is­tence this pro­duc­tion line has turned out some 1,300 Is­landers, of which a stag­ger­ing 700 are thought to be still in ser­vice – al­though get­ting ex­act fig­ures is hard for an aero­plane whose nat­u­ral habi­tat is re­mote places.

Not ev­ery pas­sen­ger will rel­ish be­ing told that the plane they’re fly­ing in is sub­stan­tially older than them, but then the eyes of the (up to nine) pas­sen­gers who clam­ber aboard are not go­ing to be lin­ger­ing on the wear and tear of the seat trim or the glossi­ness of the in-flight mag­a­zine. In­stead, they’ll be be­witched by the pi­lot turn­ing in his seat to de­liver the safety talk, by the cock­pit di­als laid out in plain view, and by the car­pets of land and sea that un­ravel be­neath the wings.

The guid­ing prin­ci­ples of the air­craft have al­ways been sim­plic­ity and dura­bil­ity. Treated right, noth­ing wears out – ex­cept per­haps the seat cov­ers – which cre­ates a conundrum for a com­pany that wants to sell air­craft. “Our num­ber one com­peti­tor is an older Is­lan­der,” ad­mits Wil­liam Hynett, Brit­ten-Nor­man’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, be­cause the de­mand for new air­craft is mas­sively re­duced when there are still per­fectly good old ones out there. There were times in the 1970s and 1980s when ten air­craft were in the BN pro­duc­tion line si­mul­ta­ne­ously, but these days new-builds are down to three or four a year. In­stead, servicing, refurbishing, adapt­ing and sup­ply­ing parts pro­vides a grow­ing part of the com­pany’s turnover of around £12 mil­lion per an­num – along with a sub­stan­tial con­tract with the Min­istry of Defence.


A great many of the newer Is­landers – some 498 – have passed through the hands of one man, Pete Dow­ers, who has supervised con­struc­tion for the past 40 years. Dow­ers still has the orig­i­nal de­sign draw­ings as his guide, and he’s over­seen a long list of mod­i­fi­ca­tions for be­spoke air­craft, from cocktail cab­i­nets to glass floors. As the per­son who signs off the final prod­uct he has to run a tight ship: “You need to make sure that ev­ery tool that goes on-board dur­ing assem­bly comes out again; when you’re up in the sky there’s no pulling over onto the hard shoul­der to see what’s rat­tling.” And does he keep tabs on all the air­craft he builds? “I try not to. It re­ally up­sets me to see one crash.”

As for Wil­liam Hynett, he’s pretty hands-on him­self. Be­sides the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of run­ning a com­pany of 160 em­ploy­ees, he’s also a pi­lot and per­son­ally gets in­volved in de­liv­er­ing, or re­triev­ing, Is­landers from far-flung places. En route, he of­ten takes the op­por­tu­nity to drop in on cus­tomers past and present.

These trips are not al­ways straight­for­ward. Hynett tells the story of bring­ing an air­craft back from Florida via Green­land, with an ex­tra fuel tank be­hind the pi­lot to in­crease the fly­ing range. “Nor­mally in these sit­u­a­tions the tank fit­ters block off the heat­ing duct un­der the tank, but when the weather re­ally started to get cold I could smell burn­ing rub­ber. It hadn’t been blocked.” So he had to turn the heat­ing off, and com­plete the rest of the journey wear­ing a sleep­ing bag. In the world of the Is­lan­der, you have to be pre­pared to im­pro­vise.

Treated right, noth­ing wears out, which does cre­ate a conundrum for a com­pany that wants to sell air­craft

FROM ABOVE: Brit­ten-Nor­man Is­landers are cus­tom-made for each client; the cock­pit is in plain view of the pas­sen­gers

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