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The Black Bottle Challenge

You know what they say about Scotsmen and generosity? Well, it’s not true – I’ve found some who will give away free bottles of whisky. For the last few years, Highlands and Islands Airports Limited, together with the Scottish Tourist Board, have run the Black Bottle Challenge between June and September. All you have to do is land at Campbeltown, Oban, Tiree and Islay within 24 hours, they’ll give you a bottle of Black Bottle, the local blend of whisky. In other words, you spend some time enjoying wonderful flying over some of the best scenery in Europe, and get free booze for doing it. 

That’s why three of us were gathered around an aircraft at Liverpool on a Tuesday afternoon. The cloud base was 1,500 feet and the rain had just stopped. The satellite radar showed rain over the Lake District, moving slowly north north east. The met men were predicting more showers, heavy at times, with possible CBs - and the next few days looked much the same. It was time to go.

We set off, down the Mersey before heading north along the coast. As we got further, so the weather improved - by the time we got to Barrow the cloud had lifted, and we had some pleasant sunny periods. Sellafield passed us by without incident, and we reached the Solway Firth at Workington in glorious sunny weather. I had intended to track the Turnberry VOR from there, but couldn’t pick up the signal because of the hills of the Southern Uplands. I climbed up to FL 45, but still couldn’t pick up the signal.  

Ahead of us, a wall of cumulogranitus extended above the hills up to about 6,000 feet. I didn’t want to climb any higher, not only because it would put me into Glasgow airspace, but also because I had a passenger who was already short of breath despite being on oxygen. Going through the cloud, even at the MSA (minimum safe altitude), would have meant she would have been very breathless, but there was no need. Instead, I descended and changed course, working around the hills via Kirkudbright and Newton Stewart to remain visual, and we were rewarded with beautiful rolling green hills studded with cotton wool balls. 

The rest of the journey to Campbeltown was straightforward, again with clear blue skies over the sea and cloud over the land. The field was easy to find beyond the town as we tracked up the loch, and we set up for a straight in approach to runway 29. I was surprised to find a fire tender waiting for us at the end of the runway, but it turned out that they meet every arriving flight. But then, the two mile long runway used to be the longest in Europe, with the civil airport at the 29 end and everything else at the 11 end. I’m told it’s still on the list of emergency landing fields for the Space Shuttle – now, that would be worth seeing! We parked on the deserted apron, and within minutes we were on our way to the hotel.

 Wednesday started off with no wind to speak of, but scattered cloud at about 2,000 feet, and heavy showers forecast. We phoned Oban for permission; “We’ll put the kettle on”, said the manager, Paul Keegan, and we set off. As we got nearer, so the cloud increased and the cloudbase came down until we were flying at 1,000 feet to remain visual. As it turned out, a heavy shower passed through Oban just before we arrived.

 Oban has two runways, 02/20 and 04/22, with hills at both ends. The hills are lower at the 20 end, rising to about 500 feet at three miles finals, with a narrow loch between them and the airport. To the north, the hills reach a thousand feet, less than two miles from the threshold. We were approaching runway 02, but even then there wasn’t much space between the tops of the hills and the bottom of the cloud, so I chose a low-level approach up the loch, turn onto short finals, and full flap landing. Interesting.

 Paul was as good as his word, and the welcome from him and Keith couldn’t have been warmer. There were only two other aircraft there, and that was two more than at Campbeltown. The resident PA28 was dwarfed by a Grumman Albatross flying boat staying for the summer. Built for the US Navy and used for SAR in both Korea and Vietnam, it has been carefully restored to its original condition and is often seen at airshows such as Duxford. On days off, its owner uses it to go fishing… Paul very kindly showed us around inside while the heavens opened again, and we had our photographs taken as we sheltered under its wing.

 Next stop, Tiree. From Oban, I could see clouds sitting on the tops of the hills of Mull, but Paul was reassuring, and we flew along the Sound of Mull at 2,000 feet without any problems. In fact, as we got to Mull, the skies cleared and the rest of the flight to Tiree took place in mostly sunny weather, which got better the further we went. The scenery really lit up. Beautiful green islands were flecked with golden beaches and surrounded by brilliant blue-green seas. The brightly painted houses of Tobermory could easily be made out, nestling around a natural harbour at the base of a hill. It could so easily have been the Mediterranean, or some tropical island paradise, but this was Scotland.

 They say that Tiree has more sunshine than almost anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and it certainly did that day. Like every other airfield we visited, Tiree was deserted, the twice daily flight to Glasgow having taken off about ten minutes before we landed. Billy Connolly says his father used to sing drunkenly about the hills of Tiree, “but there are no f*****g hills in Tiree”, and he’s right. Unusually for Scotland, the place is really quite flat.

 Tiree might be flat, but Runway 17 was in use that day and it’s only 600 metres long, so we landed with full flap. Once again, we had the small apron to ourselves. We had a coffee, then a few minutes’ wait while one of the firefighters took another member of staff back to her lodgings - can you imagine that at Heathrow or Manchester? Then we were off again on next stage to Islay, which has to be the last stop of the four, because that’s where you collect your prize.

Rather than take the shortest route, we flew over Iona (its monastery was clearly visible) and Colonsay. Both were very beautiful in the sunshine, with yet more golden beaches, although scattered clouds were starting to form as we flew towards the mainland. 

Like Oban, Islay has hills on the approach, especially to Runway 31, where they rise to over 1,100 feet about four miles from the threshold. Another careful approach. While we were there, we met a woman who had been a passenger on a plane that crashed there some years before, killing its co-pilot. Fortunately, nothing happened when we were there, and in fact only one other aircraft landed.

 Up to the tower, clutching the precious form that was my passport to the whisky, duly signed and timed at each stop. Signs on the stairs said “Out of puff yet?”, and “Not much further”…  That done, and the last signature collected, it was back down to the fire section to collect the prize. I also got the T-shirt, showing a map of the island and its eight distilleries, with the legend “Warning: Please remain seated until the island has stopped spinning.” Wise words indeed!

 After a well deserved lunch, it was time for the short hop back to Campbeltown. By this time, it was beginning to cloud over, and as we got closer to Campbeltown the clouds got denser. The AFIS (radio operator) was, as ever, extremely helpful; before we even landed, he had arranged for a taxi to take us to our hotel, and for the aircraft to be refuelled the next morning.

 Runway 29 was in use, but when we were about five miles away, the wind shifted a little and we were switched to 11, which meant a convenient straight in approach. I could see rain just to the right of the field, and the AFIS told us the runway had become “wet, wet, wet”. He wasn’t kidding. Straight down finals, runway lights on in the gathering murk. The heavens opened just before we entered the flare, but we landed without difficulty and taxied back to the terminal. I was glad the place was deserted - if the building had been more than a few yards away from the aircraft, we would have been soaked by the time we got there.

 Thursday dawned much brighter. The AFIS had arranged for the refueller to come at 10:00, and sure enough he was waiting by the aircraft when we arrived, but we couldn’t get on to the apron. The morning flight had landed, and the security staff wouldn’t let us onto the apron until it had left. It seemed a surprising when they already knew us, but I really couldn’t complain after September 11. While we were waiting, I spoke to the refueller through the fence to tell him what we needed, so at least the job was done by the time they let us through, and all I had to do was pay. 

After that, we were off on the last leg back home. We took off on runway 29, around the Mull of Kintyre to look at the place immortalised by Paul McCartney, and back to Liverpool the way we had come. A most enjoyable trip, successfully completed.

 Finally, a few words of warning. You need to plan this trip fairly carefully – don’t just climb aboard your aircraft and set off. For a start, Tiree isn’t open for long (only from 10:00 to 15:00), while Campbeltown doesn’t open at all at weekends. That means you have to think about where you’re going to go, and when you’re going to go there. And when you do it, keep an eye on the clock. The trip has to be completed within published opening hours – it’s in the rules. Land outside them, and there won’t be anyone there to sign your form. No form, no prize.

 You also need to watch your fuel, because you can’t get any at Tiree or Islay. Campbeltown does have fuel, but there wasn’t much of it when we were there. The AFIS knew this, and warned us before we left Liverpool on the first day, but it’s something else to bear in mind. However, there was plenty at Oban, so it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re thinking ahead. If you do run out, or if the engine stops for any other reason, chances are you’ll have to ditch, so wear life jackets and maybe take a liferaft.

 Would I do it again? Definitely. The flying was interesting, the scenery stunning, and the people incredibly friendly. And there’s a free bottle of very pleasant whisky thrown in at the end. What more could you ask?