The exclusive route from RAF Brize Norton to RAF Mt Pleasant via RAF Wideawake is not something most people would have heard of, let alone flown on. The RAF route, operated by AirTanker, provides a twice weekly “airbridge” between the United Kingdom and its overseas territory, the Falkland Islands. Not only does it transport troops back and forth between the bases, it is also a vital link for civilians and local trade, as the only other flight off the island is a weekly service from Chile.
This report will be rather rare in its existence, considering just last month the halfway stop at RAF Wideawake, on Ascension Island, had to close its runway, meaning all “airbridge” flights now go via Dakar, Senegal.
My journey began at RAF Brize Norton, a place where very few civilians or non-islanders have set foot. Arriving at the front gates, the RAF crest and armed guards immediately make it clear that this is a very different airport to any other I will have visited. After some very thorough security checks, I dropped my car off at the Europcar rental service, before heading to the Gateway Hotel. The facility offers a basic “officers’ mess,” with typical army grade meals. Then, it was time for check-in at the main terminal on the base.
Unsurprisingly, compared to your average international airport, the basic terminal housed very tight security, with check-in and bag drop taking a long time. Otherwise, the terminal was rather empty overall. After check in, we headed to the departure lounge, which didn’t offer much either, the only consolation being the large windows allowing great views onto the ramp, where an Air Bridge Cargo 747-8F and Volga Dnepr An-124 were parked.
In an unusual turn of events, our scheduled departure time of 23:00 was moved forward an hour before being placed back as normal. This was not very pleasing late at night in a small departure lounge, when you are longing to board and get the upcoming 17 hour flight over with. The RR2232 service departs late at night on a Wednesday to arrive in the early morning at the halfway point, RAF Wideawake, with a scheduled flight time of 9 hours and 10 minutes.
Eventually, we were lead out to our aircraft, Airbus A330-243 G-VYGG (MSN 1363), powered by 2x RR Trent 772B-60 engines. The aircraft has now been passed onto the Royal Air Force and converted into a KC3 Voyager. Surprisingly, no one objected to me taking photos on the apron of the RAF’s main tanker and transport base. Either that, or anyone who saw was too tired to stop me.
We boarded via airstairs to be greeted with an all economy class 2-4-2 layout cabin, featuring overhead viewing screens and basic seatback tray tables and pockets. A safety card was quickly snatched up, a rare addition to my collection. It wasn’t too long before pushback, but despite a window seat, there wasn’t much to see over the darkened apron. Taxi time was brief and we were soon launched into the skies over Oxfordshire.
There was a dinner meal service after departure, but I was much too preoccupied with attempting to get some much needed rest!
I would love to say that I slept well, but the rather uncomfortable seating kept me awake for much longer than I would have hoped. As we approached Ascension Island, the crew came round to deliver their second round of meal service. Overall, the cabin crew didn’t seem too enthusiastic, but I knew I wasn’t going to receive the greatest service in the world.
From what other passengers told me, breakfast was the same meal as the first round: chicken fajitas. I have to say, the squashed indescribable lump placed in front of me certainly did ruin my impression of fajitas for quite a while. With a relatively empty stomach, I gazed out my window to witness the Thursday morning sunrise on our final approach.
As light began to flood over the island, we touched down on the 3000m runway at RAF Wideawake. The middle of nowhere would be a slight understatement, Ascension Island’s population is just over 800 people and the infrastructure is very basic. We disembarked via airstairs and were escorted over to the small “shack” that serves as the airport’s terminal.
Thankfully, the departure lounge is home to a small shop, where British Pounds are accepted. I was more than grateful to grab some decent food and a few souvenirs. The departure lounge also features an outdoor seating area for those who would prefer to soak up the sunshine for the two hour stop. The seating area provides great views over the airport and the surrounding mountains.
An interesting detail of the flight was that crews switch at the halfway stop. New pilots and cabin crew boarded the aircraft, while the team from the inbound leg temporarily boost the island’s population on a 4-day layover.
Finally it was time for us, the marginally refreshed passengers, to board our steed again and prepare for 8 hour and 20 minute flight to the South Atlantic archipelago of the Falkland Islands. The doors were armed, engines started and, with no pushback needed, taxiing ensued quickly. A few minutes later and we departed, flying briefly over barren land before the sea became the only thing in view.
With so much time to spare, I decide to check out the interior of the aircraft. Everyone onboard, civilian or military officer, all shared the same basic economy class seat. I found a spare seat towards the front of the cabin, providing a great wing view over the forward left hand side engine. The large galley at the rear of the aircraft was rather impressive, and it left me wondering how the only meal service was chicken fajitas.
About 30 minutes before landing, we were provided our first views of the Falklands through broken clouds shrouding the equally barren landscape. If you’re one to fly for the views, then maybe this isn’t the flight for you. Only a few minutes behind schedule, we experienced a very smooth landing on the 2,500m asphalt runway at RAF Mt Pleasant. Taxi time to the stand in front of the airport’s terminal was short and the seatbelt sign was switched off for the last time that day, followed by a great sigh of relief.
We disembarked once again via airstairs and, unusually, headed straight to baggage claim instead of immigration or security. The conveyor belt took a while to get going, presumably due to the large amounts of air freight being unloaded first. Finally, after a 30 minute wait in a small room crowded with over 200 passengers, we collected our bags, headed to security and had our passports stamped with a very rare stamp indeed!
Leaving the airport, I looked back to my aircraft and reminisced on the 17 hour journey I had just taken.
Overall the facilities at RAF Brize Norton are rather basic; there are few shops, the departure lounge is small and WiFi is only available through desktop computers that require a small fee to be used. However, security is at a very high standard compared to many airports.
The flight itself was not very enjoyable. The 2-4-2 economy seating was uncomfortable; despite a regular seat width, pitch and legroom were quite small. If you’re lucky, you may be able to snatch a few seats to your self in order to get some rest. The food on both legs of the flight was the same, a chicken fajita, served twice per flight. Other than this, cabin crew gave away small packets of biscuits. Drinks included water, tea, coffee or lemonade. The cabin crew were generally unfriendly and didn’t seem to be bothered with carrying out their jobs.
Transit through Ascension Island was rather pleasant, the outdoor seating area is a nice addition to the transit lounge. Thankfully, British Pounds are accepted at the small shop in the terminal. Transiting passengers do not have to go through any form of security or checks.
On arrival to the Falkland Islands, photography is meant to be prohibited, although this ruling is not strongly enforced. Baggage claim and immigration checks took longer than I would have hoped and the terminal is rather small and cramp, with very limited facilities.
If you are considering travelling to the Falkland Islands, here are some requirements.
- A valid passport and current visa (click for more detailed information)
- A return air ticket or other evidence of prepaid onward travel arrangements
- Sufficient funds to cover the expected length of stay in the islands
- Pre-booked accommodation in the islands
- Departure Tax is payable locally at £22 per person. Cash only in £GBP, $USD or EURO
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