Tuesday 12 January 2010

Unst Airstrip

During the late 60’s the Royal Engineers embarked on a number of community projects in Scotland. 15 Field Support Squadron of the Royal Engineers was detached to Unst, where they were hosted by RAF Saxa Vord. Their purpose was to build an airstrip at Ordale on the south side of Baltasound. Most of their equipment was shipped to Unst on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Bedivere, arriving in June 1967. A floating raft (known as a Mexe Float) with a large diesel "outboard" motor was used to offload some of the heavy items at the slip by the Baltasound pier but much of it was carried to a beach at Skeo Taing on the south side of the voe. At least one item of heavy equipment went overboard and could not be salvaged. The photos below, shot at the time, were taken by Rita McMeechan (now Carle). (Left click on pictures to enlarge).

The RFA Sir Bedivere was later involved in the Falklands conflict and was lucky to survive an attack in San Carlos Water. She suffered a direct hit from a 1.000lb bomb dropped from an Argentinean Skyhawk. The bomb pierced the steel plating of a 20 ton crane before bouncing off and exploding after entering the water.

Whilst the sappers were on Unst there was plenty of activity (sporting, social & in the NAAFI). In one incident a young RE officer, who had had a number of tricks played against him by junior RAF Officers took his revenge. The main RAF protagonist needed major repairs to the door to his room and a truce was called. Moral of the story – don’t play tricks on those who have access to explosives.

When the Engineers had finished their task Unst boasted a brand new airstrip. Loganair took some time before starting Shetland inter-island services as they had to wait for more rudimentary strips to be completed on other islands. Eventually the official opening took place early in 1970.

Numerous dignitaries attended the opening ceremony, Oil Company Executives, Council Officials and the AOC 11 Group. Not all went well. The AOC arrived in a twin-engine DH Dove (RAF - Devon). Unfortunately on touchdown the brakes were locked, resulting in 2 burst tyres and some red faces. The assembled men in the RAF Guard of Honour were quickly reassigned to pushing the aircraft out of the way so that other aircraft could land. The AOC was reduced to hitching a lift back to the mainland on an Oil Company aircraft after the ceremony was completed. As is typical in Shetland the winds got up and the Dove had to be tied to a 3 tonner to ensure it didn’t get blown away until it could be repaired. I am grateful to Andy Parkinson for the 3 photos below, two of the AOC’s aircraft just after it had landed and the third of the Andover which had to be sent up later with spare parts for the Dove.

The airstrip was a significant development for Unst. When it opened and scheduled Loganair flights began the inter-island RoRo Ferries were still a thing for the future. Flights were not particularly cheap but they helped to make the trip to mainland UK a lot quicker. I'm grateful to Pat Goulborn , who was at Saxa until early 1972, for the copy of the Loganair Timetable reproduced below:

Loganair also provided the Air Ambulance Service – it was the contract for this which made their Shetland Inter-Island operations economically viable. Below are two pictures: the first of Joe McAllister proceeding on leave with a Loganair Islander; the second is of a Shetland Times article about an RAF Casevac carried out in an Andover in the early life of the airstrip.

For a long part of its operational life the airstrip was extremely busy, North Sea Oil and the need to transfer personnel between the mainland and offshore oil platforms created a lot of air traffic. The oil company Chevron paid for the airstrip and its facilities to be upgraded – the runway was increased to 2099ft + a small amount of overrun. Six DH Twin Otters were chartered to carry oil workers from Aberdeen to Unst where they transferred to Bristow S61N Helicopters for flights to and from the rigs. In the first year of Chevrons operation there were nearly 6,000 aircraft movements and 50,000 passenger movements though Unst. Airworks Ltd were engaged to run the airport operations and Bristows had 5 houses built at Baltasound for essential staff. Later Brymon Airways using Dash 7s were contracted to replace the Twin Otters and there was so much activity that it was decided to open a new Air Traffic Control Unit – Shetland Radar – at RAF Saxa Vord (see earlier section of blog).

The last 4 photos came from this interesting site:- 

There was no way that Unst could cope adequately with large groups of oil workers should there be a sudden unexpected change in the weather and they became stranded. Hagdale Lodge (later Hagdale Lodge Hotel) was opened  to provide accommodation for construction workers at Saxa but it went on  to meet this need. The establishment consisted of a number of portacabins joined together but at least it had a bar. It was situated to the west of the Keen of Hamar, near where Mills Garage is today. I did stay there one night and my opinion was the same as the one written and numerous vocal reviews I know of. To say it received a mixed reception is being polite; in my experience no “stars” were awarded. The one written review I’ve seen says that they were charging £60 for B&B in the early 80’s and the author was anything but impressed. The Lodge has long since been demolished (by gales at New Year 1991/2) and to the annoyance of Scottish Natural Heritage much of the debris ended scattered on the Keen of Hamar which is a National Nature Reserve.

Eventually politics and economics took their toll. The Oil Companies decided it would be best to consolidate their air operations at Scatsa near Sullom Voe. The Scottish Ambulance Service decided that their needs could be better met by a helicopter – Loganair lost the air ambulance contract. Because of this the Loganair Inter-Island services were deemed uneconomical so they have ceased. This led to the closure of the airstrip - the effect of this on employment on Unst, whilst not as significant as the closing of RAF Saxa Vord, was extremely important.


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