Eyes wide open: the west from above
After a terrifying sightseeing flight in Peru, the prospect of viewing the Cliffs of Moher and Aran Islands from above is daunting
An aerial view of the Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare, during an Aer Arann sightseeing flight. Photograph: Andrew Downes
Aer Arann pilot Des Collins, who has been flying out of Connemara Airport in Inverin, Co Galway, for 12 years. Photograph: Andrew Downes
The last time I was on a sightseeing flight, it was in Peru, and my eyes were closed in expensive terror most of the time. I am privately hoping this will not be the case again, as I await the ritual weigh-in at the tiny Connemara Airport in Inverin.
At noon each day, weather permitting, one of Aer Arann’s three Britten-Norman BN-2 Islanders departs Inverin for a sightseeing flight. They can’t fly in fog or drizzle but on days when the ferries can’t run due to wind, they’re usually still flying.
They depict extraordinary, gigantic images of monkeys, lizards, birds, spiders and geometric shapes etched into the desert and extending over an area of 500sq km. For obvious reasons, they are best seen from the air, which is how they were discovered last century.
I duly paid up and strapped myself into one of the four passenger seats in the aircraft. What followed was one of the most frustrating half-hours of my life.
I was longing to see the Nazca Lines from the air; you can’t see them from the vantage point of standing on the flat desert floor. I just hadn’t expected to see them from the vantage point of upside down.
For some inexplicable reason – frankly, I wasn’t up to questioning the pilot – he flew sideways, constantly banking, and almost upside down for the entire half-hour.
For all that time, my brain was sending itself conflicting messages. Open your eyes! You’ll never be here at Nazca again and this is your only chance to see these astonishing, mysterious man-made shapes that Unesco designated a World Heritage site in 1994. Close your eyes! You’re falling out of the sky, face-first to the ground, and those lines you were so keen to see for years until this minute are coming up to meet you faster than you can blink. I spent the greater part of the flight with my eyes clamped shamefully shut.
He tells us these aircraft are made in the Isle of Wight, and are specifically designed for short runways. (The three Aran Islands have runways of 500m, all located close to the sea.)
The aircraft lines up behind a white line, whinnying like an aeronautical Connemara pony practising for the Galway Races, and then it gallops down the runway and takes off with a leap. My eyes remain open as we soar over the blue-grey Atlantic. We don’t fly sideways, or upside down. Not so far, anyway.
This daily flight tracks a path in the air over the Cliffs of Moher to Hag’s Head at the end of the cliffs, then back alongside them again and over the three islands.
I grew up in Co Clare and, before I boarded an aircraft of any size, spent many hours of my early life atop these cliffs, staring mesmerised at the seemingly endless horizons that fell away so dramatically beneath my feet.
They are not the tallest cliffs in Ireland – Slieve League in Co Donegal is – but, hell, they’re my cliffs, and now I’m seeing them from a totally different perspective for the first time.
It’s a strange thing to say, but my cliffs look small. A sloping slab of stone platform at the end of a peninsula. Even as we get closer to them, they look unfamiliar to me and somehow wrong. The cliffs I know are loud with birds, and fall before me in a way that makes my stomach lurch and my head sing. These cliffs look like toy imposters.
Before I can meditate any longer on what I am seeing, we are heading over the three islands: Inis Oírr, Inis Méain and Inis Mór.
The pilot points out the Plassey, the wrecked ship that features in the opening credits of Father Ted. I glance at it once, and then just keep staring at the mosaic of fields and walls that spreads itself out beneath; a labyrinth as complex and beautiful as the Nazca Lines.
I could look at the irregular shapes made by stone walls in the stone fields for a long time. It’s a patchwork revealing manual labour, social history, farming, families, husbandry. It’s a language all by itself, as Tim Robinson analysed so brilliantly in his Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth.
From the air, you can almost see the way the wind slices across the surface of the islands. It’s a wonder any houses remain standing atop those high, flat, stark expanses of stone.
The pilot points out the Black Fort to us, a smaller, more remote Dún Aonghasa, and my favourite fort, Dún Eoghanachta, which I first visited on the day in 1999 that John Kennedy lost his horizon and crashed his aircraft off Martha’s Vineyard.
Mosaic of stone
The forts are astonishing to see from above, but what is really impressive is being able to get such an overview of that mosaic of stone. The patterns underneath are works of art, except, of course, they’re not art: they’re the ordinary, everyday constructed fabric of the island. Yet from up in the air, they look like works of art to me.
I’m so busy staring down that I don’t notice the approaching stormcloud from the north until it bashes into us. It feels like being a bird in a nest hit by the wind. You’re never far from changing weather in the west, whether on water or in the air: it comes with the horizons.
We land back in Inverin some 45 minutes after taking off. Everyone will remember something different from a sightseeing flight. I will remember that, from the air, the stone fields of Aran are, in their way, as fantastical and mysterious as the Nazca Lines I only half saw, half a world away.
Aer Arann departs Connemara Airport in Inverin daily at noon for a 45-minute sightseeing flight over the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands. Flies all year round, subject to weather and availability. Flights seat a maximum of eight. Additional times on request. Seats cost €60. Call 091-593034 or see aerarannislands.ie