You’ll have to take a military plane but a trip to the Falkland Islands is worth the effort
Could this be the most unusual airline route in the world? Twice a week, at precisely 2359, a Ministry of Defence charter flight slips out of RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire bound on a 18hour, 8,000-mile flight south to the Falkland Islands. Windblown and treeless, this remote archipelago of 778 islands lies around 400 miles east of the southern tip of South America and has a population of just 3,200 – plus an awful lot of sheep, penguins, seals and seabirds.
Known as the South Atlantic Airbridge, this epic service linking the UK with the British Overseas Territory has been operating for more than 30 years and is a collector’s item for fans of aviation and adventure. While the flights are primarily filled with personnel and freight bound for the Mount Pleasant military garrison on East Falkland, a small number of civilians are also allowed on board – although getting a seat is by no means easy.
There is no online booking system. Potential passengers must first submit a flight request to the Falkland Islands Government Office in London well in advance – in my case, five months ahead of travel, as I am using this novel route as a way to explore these far-flung islands before joining a cruise south to Antarctica. During the southern summer season from October to March, the capital – Stanley – is a popular port of call for both large ships cruising the coast of South America and expedition vessels offering intrepid voyages to South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.
No tickets are issued for this idiosyncratic flight, but ten days before departure you will be given a passenger reservation number and told when to report at the airfield. The MOD reserves the right to change its schedules, and delays seem to happen frequently. My flight was put back a day at just 24 hours’ notice, but don’t expect anyone to inform you of such a change of schedule – it is the passenger’s responsibility to check the RAF Brize Norton website to discover such things, even though a one-way ticket costs a handsome £1,111 per person. The return fare is simply double this, while residents of the Falkland Islands pay around a third less.
Arriving at RAF Brize Norton four hours before departure, it is clear that I am catching one of the most security-conscious flights in the world open to civilians. After being issued with a bright orange pass permitting access to the heavily protected base, we are taken by coach to a functional terminal where I meet my fellow passengers – around a hundred mostly young, principally male soldiers with severe haircuts and camouflage-patterned backpacks. Only 31 seats are generally made available for “Non Mil Pax” (nonmilitary passengers), as the green luggage label tied to my suitcase puts it. Nationals from 13 countries – including Russia, China, Taiwan and Vietnam – are excluded from purchasing tickets. On average only five passengers per flight are tourists like me, the rest of this select band being business travellers, relatives and islanders. Everyone is remarkably friendly – within minutes I’ve met the local dentist and tanner and already feel part of the community, while the young soldiers are quiet, courteous and helpful.
It is a long and tiresome wait to get on board. Screens in the terminal reveal the parallel universe of the military, showing the time in Cyprus,
Everyone is remarkably friendly – within minutes I’ve met the local dentist and tanner
Dubai and the Falklands. The only flight due for arrival is coming from Kabul. The final security checks are carried out alphabetically by surname, while bus transfers to the plane are organised by seat number.
Operated by Airtanker, a British charter airline that supports the UK Armed Forces, our grey Airbus A330-200 is surprisingly comfortable, with 291 economy seats in a 2-4-2 configuration plus two hospital beds at the rear. The seat pitch is a generous 34 inches, which is better ( by two inches) than the economy seats on the new Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner service connecting London and Perth, a journey of 17 hours. All seats are pre-allocated, and there is no business class or premium economy. IFE is limited to TV screens that drop down from the centre of the aircraft ceiling to show films from days of yore, such as Wall Street, so most passengers bring their own tablets plus a back-up power supply as there are no USB sockets. Headphones, a cushion and a rug are provided, along with an Airtanker-branded amenity kit with earplugs, eye-mask and socks. There is no alcohol and the food – which ranges from basic (filled rolls and muesli bars) to dire ( battered cheese and ham croquettes) – is handed out in white paper cartons with plastic RAF cutlery by uniformed (nonmilitary) flight crew who are polite and efficient. You won’t go hungry – in a lifetime of travel, this is the first flight I’ve been on where you get offered seconds of the main meal.
Until June last year, this globespanning flight touched down to refuel on Ascension Island, another British Overseas Territory lost in the South Atlantic Ocean. As a result of problems with the island’s runway, this routing has been suspended until 2020. Instead, after a six-hour20-minute night flight, we touched down on the pancake-flat desert island of Sal in Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa. The two-hour break inside its modern commercial terminal created a mad dash for the smoking zone and power-charging points, while some soldiers – clearly used to all this – unroll their sleeping bags and grab some kip on the floor. As dawn breaks, we look out wistfully at the palm trees and blushing sky and savour the rising tropical heat – in the sub-Antarctic Falkland Islands, the average summer temperature is 10ºC, falling to 2ºC in winter.
Back on board, we now face a day flight of ten hours 20 minutes. “If you like looking at the sea you’re in for a treat,” Captain Oliver drolly comments, “because there’s nothing else to see.” By now the flight is only half-full – some passengers bound for Ascension Island have disembarked
to catch a smaller plane that is capable of landing there – which allows the remaining travellers to spread out. Yet more food comes, followed by plentiful jugs of water and lemon squash as if it’s school sports day. While this isn’t the most pampering of flights, the Airbridge serves its purpose well, providing you factor the likelihood of delays into your travel plans. The only other way to reach the Falkland Islands is a round-the-houses route via Chile that involves stops in Santiago and Punta Arenas. This can be cheaper, but takes more than 24 hours – and the once-a-week connection on to Mount Pleasant Airfield is often sold out well in advance during the summer season.
At long last, we begin our final descent to these enigmatic specks on the other side of the world. Constructed after the 1982 war with Argentina, Mount Pleasant Complex is home to some 1,300 servicepeople who live as a selfcontained community 38 miles west of Stanley. Transfers to the capital are initially on unsealed roads bordered with peaks and bays that became familiar names during the 74-day conflict in 1982. Wireless Ridge, Mount Tumbledown, Bluff Cove... this traumatic episode may have happened over 35 years ago, but it is fresh in the minds of many islanders. It’s well worth booking a half-day battlefield tour to learn about what went on. Along with three local civilians, 255 British and 649 Argentine troops died in a grim struggle fought in severe winter conditions. The remains of destroyed helicopters and hill-top dug-outs used by the invading troops can still be seen, while abundant memorials pay tribute to those who were lost.
These days the Falkland Islands are a much happier place. The excellent Historic Dockyard Museum in Stanley tells the story of its growth from an isolated band of sheep farms to a thriving, self-sufficient economy (excluding defence services) primarily based on fishing. Oil was discovered offshore in 2010, and while its current low price has stalled exploitation, it promises revenue. According to statistics issued by the Falkland Islands Tourist Board, the annual number of business travellers to the islands has bubbled around 1,500 for many years, with a similar amount of land-based leisure visitors. The latter is forecast to grow by five per cent by 2020, while cruise ship visitors average around 55,000 a year. Most of these only spend a few hours here – admiring the king penguins at Volunteer Point, sipping pints of Iron Lady IPA in the Victory Bar, taking selfies beside Stanley’s red phone boxes and bust of Margaret Thatcher – but anyone who stays longer will discover somewhere very special.
Few people realise how large the Falkland Islands are – they are almost the size of Northern Ireland and laced together by a plucky combination of ferry, supply ship and domestic flights operated by the Falkland Islands Government Air Service. These use a venerable fleet of ten-seater twin-prop BrittenNorman BN-2 Islander aircraft, originally built in the Isle of Wight, that sport a smart livery of red, white and blue. Flying low across an austere landscape of peat fields and sheep-speckled hills, their destinations include grass strips on outlying islands such as Pebble, Carcass and Sealion that are home to deserted white sand beaches and a glorious array of wildlife including elephant seals, sea lions, five species of penguin and huge colonies of black-browed albatross. While the Falkland Islands might take some reaching, once you get here you’ll never regret it.
ABOVE: The Airtanker Airbus A330-200 en route in Sal, Cape Verde
LEFT: Port Stanley Airport
OPPOSITE PAGE: The Airtanker Airbus A330-200 en route in Sal, Cape Verde CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: King penguins; Historic Dockyard Museum; memorial bust to Margaret Thatcher
ABOVE: Colourful homes brighten the capital, Stanley
LEFT: Welcome sign in the harbour of Stanley / Falkland Islands