Flying by the seat of their pants


Air travel to the Aran Islands is 40 years old, and has transformed the lives of the communities it serves

IT STARTS as a buzzing noise in the distance. The heads of paddling children shoot skyward to search for a little black dot in the sky. At the nearby airfield, a fire truck taxis up and down the runway, sending rabbits and donkeys scattering, and an orange windsock flaps in the wind. The buzz becomes a growl, the growl becomes a roar, and a propeller-driven aircraft makes a perfect landing on Inis Oírr.

Air travel to the Aran Islands is 40 years old this month, as is Aer Arann, the company formed to make it possible. Electricity, post-primary education and industry all came to the islands as a result of the flights, along with hundreds of thousands of tourists. One hundred in 1969 became 14,000 in 1976. Now 25,000 tourists fly to the islands each year.

The daily newspapers, post and perishable goods all make their way by air, and the terminally ill have been flown back to die in their own homes when nothing more can be done for them.

There are 3,600 flights per year to the three Aran Islands, and 23 staff work between the four airfields. Many islanders have worked for the airline. As an occasional resident of the islands in my childhood, I worked there myself as a teenager. My cousin Colm and I earned our first pay racing the airport dog Streak up and down the runway to clear it of rabbits.

Dr Marion Broderick has been the doctor on the Aran Islands since 1981 and has seen first-hand the medical and social boon bequeathed by Aer Arann. “A lot of people wouldn’t be able to live here without it,” she says. “People came back to live on the island with their families who would never have entertained moving back were it not for the plane service.”

Before the scheduled flights, the 1,000-plus residents of the islands faced a 30-mile journey to the hospital in Galway. The infirm were taken in a tiny lifeboat, through crashing black waves and wailing winds, with a tiny cabin for protection. Pregnant women were tied down.

“There was always an issue with stretchers,” says Broderick, “and people had to be lowered down a long way to the boat, using ropes. Sometimes, because of the tide, they had to be brought out in a currach, as the lifeboat couldn’t get into the harbour.”

Simple dental work or a big shop required a three-night stay in Galway, sometimes more if the weather was bad. It took three hours to reach the islands by ferry and, depending on which way the craft sailed, travellers could be up to six hours on board as she pulled into each port to unload her cargo.

Colie Hernon, coxswain of the Galway Bay lifeboat (and this writer’s grandfather), first voiced the idea of an airline for the islands. He had applied for and been refused a helicopter in 1963, but in 1968 received a small government grant made available to isolated communities to build airstrips to replace suspended rail services. Refused further financial aid, he wrote to the Connacht Tribuneand attracted the attention of four Galway businessmen.

Capt Hayden Lawford was operations manager of Aer Arann in the very early days. “The Naomh Eannawouldn’t bring the equipment they needed to level the airfield at Killeany, so they charted a small cargo ship out of Kilkerrin. We had to demolish stone walls to get up the road.”

There was a problem establishing grass, due to the sand blowing across the runway, and there was a rabbit infestation in the middle of the field.

Lawford and fellow pilot Bill Wallace lived in one of two camper vans at the Oranmore airfield site near Galway, which doubled as a tool shed and a booking hall during the day, while on Inis Mór Colie Hernon worked out of a 16ft caravan with no telephone on the airfield. One night, the caravan blew away in bad weather.

It was, and is, according to Hayden, “seat-of-the-pants flying. This is not what guys in the commercial airlines are doing. You have short runways, bad weather and basic navigation.” Often, Lawford and Wallace had to trust Hernon’s intuition as the Atlantic weather was so unpredictable. “Being a sailor, he knew all about the weather and he’d tell us if we could get in safely or not.”

There have been many hurdles: the loss of the Oranmore strip within the first year and a 20-year battle for emergency lighting equipment, not to mention the recent closure of the Inis Meáin airfield because of a dispute with the local co-op (flights started operating again on July 9th).

There was constant financial insecurity in the early years, which forced the founders to bring in an investor, Johnny Mulcahy, in 1971. They eventually sold their shares in 1981 to Manchester-based businessman Tim Kilroe. Galway native Padraic O’Ceidigh bought Aer Arann in 1994.

Flight is still integral to the community. “Even today, in the middle of the night, when there is an emergency flight, the staff will come down and light the airstrip for an incoming helicopter. It’s a voluntary thing, and they are often left there in the cold for several hours as we get the patient ready to go out,” says Dr Broderick.

On one occasion, when the airstrip on Inis Meáin wasn’t complete, locals drove their cars and tractors on to the left-hand side of the runway, brandishing torches and lighting fires so that Bill Wallace could make a medical evacuation. And on the night in 1996 when Colie Hernon was airlifted off the island to be treated for the heart attack that killed him, he rose up off his stretcher to get the airfield ready. He was the only one who knew how to turn on all the lights.

There will be a small community celebration on Inis Mór, at noon on August 15 to mark 40 years of scheduled flights to the islands