An Islander aircraft operated by Falkland Islands Government Air Services comes in to land on Saunders Island

After All: Flying adventures of a piece of civilian ‘self-loading freight’

Image credit: Dreamstime

Vitali Vitaliev, turned ‘armchair buccaneer’ by the pandemic, continues his techno-travel memoirs with a virtual revisit to the Falkland Islands.

In the previous After All, I shared some of my past techno-travel experiences and invited readers to send in theirs. The response confirmed that no lockdown can stop ‘armchair buccaneers’ from continuing to enjoy their past adventures in the ‘virtual-reality’ world of their memories and imagination.

Today I want to share another real-life techno-travel story of mine – this time aviation related.

A decade or so ago, I was lucky enought to travel to the Falkland Islands, that remote self-​governing British archipelago in the South Atlantic, on a newspaper assignment. It was probably the most peculiar journey in all my peripatetic life – not so much due to the exotic destination but rather to the ways of getting there and getting around while there.  

The adventure started outside the train station in Swindon, where I waited for a bus to take me to RAF Brize Norton for a Tristar military flight to Mount Pleasant – the quickest, the cheapest and, then, the only way to get to the Falklands. The bus was late, and I realised with horror that I would be unable to “report for check-in by the latest reporting time” specified in strict ‘Reporting Instructions JSTC/R2/30’, attached to my ticket. Shifting from one foot to the other, I was nervously checking the accessibility of an overnight bag in my cabin luggage: the same ‘Reporting Instructions’ demanded that every passenger had an overnight bag handy – in case our Tristar got suddenly diverted to bomb Iraq, I wondered?

While waiting, I had ample time to ponder the bizarre nature of my coming journey. A civilian to the core of my bones, I had always been puzzled by the military. The only bad mark I got at my Soviet university was in Military Tactics – a compulsory discipline in the jingoistic USSR. I remember that among the things we studied were composition and equipment of the Nato armies – our potential enemies, the British Army being one of them. Not even in my wildest dreams could I imagine that many years later I would be given a chance not only to mix with British servicemen (and, hopefully, women too), but also to fly on a real RAF jet!

Having received my RAF boarding pass: ‘rank – none’, I wandered aimlessly around the airport lounge until they started calling out passengers by name in alphabetical order, and for the first time in my life I rejoiced at having a name starting with V, which allowed me to have three additional fags (I was a heavy smoker then) before a strictly non-smoking military flight.

Twenty minutes after the take-off, plastic cups of ‘RAF fruit juice’ were handed out by muscular stone-faced stewards, who all seemed to stick assiduously to some mysterious no-smiling-under-any-circumstances military regulations. Just like the stewards’ faces, the drink was frozen stiff. It melted and became drinkable by next morning, when, to my great relief (in more than one sense), I discovered in a seat pocket in front of me an indispensable ‘Nato Stock Number 8105-99-130-2180’ air sickness bag.

Soon, we started our descent to Ascension Island, a barren volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic, for a re-fuelling stop, and were duly instructed on “de-planing procedures” over the intercom.

On RAF Ascension, I hesitated briefly in front of a plywood shed with the scary sign ‘Terminal Drinks Kiosk’ and chose to stay alive, even if thirsty.

The second leg of the flight was not that different from the first. Same juice, chips and stale rolls with unidentifiable filling were served – sorry, “distributed” – by a different, yet equally unsmiling, cabin crew...

On arrival at Mount Pleasant, while I was waiting for my luggage, a facetious Falkland Islands official commented: “Didn’t you know that in their flight documents, the military refer to civilian passengers as SLF – self-loading freight?”

“You must be joking,” I wanted to say, but choked on my words as I looked at the moving conveyer and spotted my long-awaited weather-beaten backpack. The word ‘Civilian’ was printed in large letters on a cardboard tag, tied to its handle.

After a couple of days in Stanley, the Falklands’ tiny capital (population 2,000), I set out to explore the Camp. A derivative of the Spanish word ‘campo’ meaning ‘countryside’, the Camp denoted everything outside Stanley.

The Camp, at 4,700 square miles, was roughly equal in area to Northern Ireland, I learned. These vast expanses of windswept and tree-less land, comprising hundreds of big and small islands, were populated by 800,000 sheep and fewer than 200 people. With the near absence of roads, the only effective means of communication between the settlements was a small fleet of miniature Islander aircraft, whose pilots also acted as couriers carrying food, letters, money and gossip from one settlement to another. The names of all the following day’s travellers were duly announced on the Falklands’ ‘national’ radio every evening.

The Islander that took me from Stanley to Port Howard was also carrying beer, ice cream, burger buns and a teenage schoolgirl travelling to her settlement for the holidays.

Embarrassingly, not only my backpack but also its owner had to be weighed before boarding and, naturally, I had to pay for the excess baggage – which was myself, no doubt. I suddenly felt very much like ‘self-loading cargo’, probably even ballast.

Our four-seater flew low above the ground, narrowly avoiding hilltops and sharp toothbrush-like rocks. I was rummaging through my pockets in search of airsickness pills and looking down at the barren brownish plain, only occasionally dissected by dirt tracks.

Wherever there was a hut, it meant settlement. The pilot would then pull the joystick towards his chest, as if trying to bear-hug it, and the Islander would promptly land on a bumpy turf-covered air-strip to be met by two locals in a dusty Land Rover, to which a cart with regulation fire-extinguisher was dutifully and rather unnecessarily attached. The Islanders were safe, and the only recorded accident happened several years before, when the plane’s chassis got stuck in a penguin burrow on an airstrip during take-off. Luckily, the penguin was not at home.

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