NATS Aberdeen provides Air Traffic Services to helicopters operating offshore on behalf of the oil and gas industry; what is probably less well known, is that we also provide an Approach Radar service to Sumburgh Airport under contract to Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL).

Sumburgh, at the southern tip of Shetland, is the main commercial airport on the Shetland Islands. It provides the only commercial air-link from the Islands to mainland Britain with regular scheduled flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Kirkwall (Orkney Islands); as well as to Inverness and Bergen (Norway).

There are also a large number of chartered flights with some serving the oil and gas industries, and others bringing changes of crew for shipping docked in Lerwick harbour. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has a Coastguard helicopter based in Sumburgh, too.

Sumburgh Airport from the Coastguard helicopter looking North West

Sumburgh Airport from the Coastguard helicopter looking North West

The airport is unusual for a number of reasons. Not only does  its main instrument runway start and finish in the sea, but they are two different “seas”, with the eastern end in the North Sea and the western end in the Atlantic Ocean. It is also probably the only UK airport to have had a runway NOTAMed as “shut due seaweed on the runway”. And there is a major public road crossing the runway – the only place in the British Isles where this happens.

The road crossing the threshold of runway 09. It is protected by barriers and flashing lights.

The road crossing the threshold of runway 09. It is protected by barriers and flashing lights.

The aviation connection to the Shetland Islands is vital, as there are only two ways of getting there; by ‘plane or by boat. The boat option requires a 12 or 14 hour overnight journey to/from Aberdeen, so the flight option is much quicker for those wanting to make the trip to mainland UK.

It is not only people who need to travel to the mainland faster than the overnight ferry allows. Daily newspapers and the post need to be on the Islands as soon as possible so both are flown from Aberdeen to arrive at Sumburgh just after the airport opens in the morning. If bad weather prevents flights from landing, the Shetlanders simply don’t get their daily newspaper or their post.

A few years ago, an extended spell of high winds and bad weather resulted in the cancellation of the overnight ferry for over a week. Normally, the local supermarkets are restocked every day by lorries that have travelled from Aberdeen on the ferry; however, because there was no ferry, there were no early morning supplies. This meant the supermarkets were soon running short on stock and their shelves were almost empty. The two main supermarkets had to make alternative arrangements and, for a few days, two chartered civilian Hercules flights a day kept  the island fed.

Air ambulance flights are another example of the importance of aviation to Shetlanders. Although the hospital in Lerwick is well equipped, most specialist surgery, either routine or emergency, has to be carried out in Aberdeen and travel via the overnight ferry would be too slow, so a fully equipped specialist Air Ambulance transfers the patient to Aberdeen. Tingwall Airport, just north-west of Lerwick, is the closest airport to the Island’s main hospital and is where the Air Ambulance flights land and depart whenever possible; although in bad weather they will use Sumburgh Airport.

Dotted around the outer Shetlands are a number of small airfields. Two small twin-engined aircraft, aptly called the Islander, operate these inter-island routes from Tingwall Airport. These flights, operated under contract to Shetland Island Council, carry passengers, light freight and even small animals (it’s not unusual to hear a dog barking over the radio!) to and from the outer communities.

Shetland Islands Council inter-island Islander on Foula

Shetland Islands Council inter-island Islander on Foula

The oil and gas industries are very important to the Shetland economy and aviation plays an important part transporting the workers to and from the platforms to the east and west of Shetland. Whilst there are some helicopter flights from Sumburgh, most operate from Scatsta Airport, at the north end of Mainland. Oil and gas workers, for offshore locations as well as onshore locations such as the Sullom Voe gas and oil terminal, are flown from Aberdeen to Scatsta, where the offshore workers then transfer to a fleet of helicopters and are flown out to their offshore destination.

I hope this goes some way to showing how vital aviation is to the Shetland Islands and its communities.  Knowing that gives me great job satisfaction in my role helping to provide our air traffic services from Aberdeen.



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Paul Harrison

Great! Fascinating information previously unknown to me as a southerner.


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