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Size isn’t everything

The transportation of food supplies, mail and medical equipment is crucial for small remote communities. Stan Abbott takes a closer look at these freight services and the development of utility turboprops

Aircraft like the Britten-Norman Islanders are just one of the smaller types that serve a critical role in assuring the continuity of modern life in some of the world’s most remote communities. So important is this smaller end of the utility cargo function that manufacturers are now moving to plug gaps in the industry’s ability to meet demand.

Trusty types like the Twin Otter and Dornier 228 are enjoying a new lease of life. De Havilland Canada ceased production of the Twin Otter in 1988 after 23 years and 844 aircraft. Legacy maintenance supplier Viking Air acquired the type certificate and, in 2010, launched the Twin Otter Series 400, combining modern avionics and 800 other modifications to the original design.

The original Dornier 228 was built by Fairchild-Dornier until 1998, while the updated version from RUAG Aviation, with new five-blade propellers and glass cockpit, took to the skies in 2009.

Now Textron Aviation is developing a brand new small turboprop twin, the Cessna SkyCourier. Entry into service will be with launch customer FedEx – which has ordered 50 aircraft, with options on a further 50, scheduled in two years’ time.

Such moves are a direct response to the specific demands associated with serving remote communities – which may include short and rough strips, difficult weather, and the need for absolute reliability at reasonable operating cost.

For Marie Mulrooney, Ground Operations Manager at Aer Arann Islands for more than 20 years, replacement of the airline’s ageing Islander fleet is always a consideration, but she asserts: “There is no shelf life on them yet. I am sure that time will come, but not yet.”

The airline provides a true lifeline to the three rugged islands in the Aran archipelago, home to about 1,300 people off the west coast of Ireland.

Its three Islanders are worked hard, providing up to 20 return passenger services a day to mainland Connemara Airport, and are critical to the maintenance of island life and, indeed, its Irish-speaking culture.

Freight is carried on all services and accounts for up to 8% of revenue, says Mulrooney. It comprises urgent inbound medical supplies and outbound laboratory samples destined for the hospital in Galway, plus newspapers, courier goods, and high value knitwear for export to the Japanese market.

Runways on the islands are limited to 600 metres or less, making the Islander “the ideal type of aircraft” – indeed, Aer Arann Islands achieves an impressive 95% reliability, despite frequent sea fog. >>


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