Trail 8

Orkney and Shetland
  • Trail 9 - Western Isles Image
  • Trail 9 - Western Isles Image
  • Trail 9 - Western Isles Image
  • Trail 9 - Western Isles Image

Aviation Origins

If asked about the Orkney Islands and Scapa Flow, the mind will invariably focus of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet in the First World War and Scapa’s continued importance to the Fleet throughout the Second World War.  However, defence of the Grand Fleet looked at threats from German surface vessels initially, with that from U-boats coming later on. However, the landing of two German balloonists on Orkeny, Distler and Joerdens , blown well of course by gales in December 1910, did point to some future possibilities of attack from the air!  The pair had been heading for Switzerland from Munich and must have been happy to be alive after their experience after losing a colleague overboard en route.

The first aircraft to be based in the Orkneys at Scapa were 3 seaplanes and 2 landplanes of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), where they were serviced from a repair base at the farm at Nether Scapa. Various flying boats/seaplanes were operated from the area but, after seaplane operations from warships had made a tentative start in 1912 from the foredeck of HMS Africa in a Short S.27, an old cruiser, HMS Hermes, had been converted to a seaplane carrier and deployed to Scapa in 1913. This was just the start of Orkney’s association with aviation and the Shetland Islands were also involved with early aviators.  To the West of Kirkwall, Caldale Camp was built as an airship station during WW1 between 1915 and 1916 and became the Royal Naval Air Service in July 1916. The first aircraft to arrive in Shetland were Seaplanes of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1918 and based at Catfirth in the parish of Nesting. Aircraft types included two Porte Baby flying boats which were used primarily on patrols to spot enemy ships or submarines. From this modest start, the Shetlands have a wealth of aviation history on offer, with the modern era bringing intensive aerial activity to support oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. Overall the Orkneys and Shetlands are areas which rich aviation heritage and well worth exploring.

First World War

The enclosed lochs on the Orkney mainland proved too shallow and exposed and operations were later moved to Houton where a kite-balloon station was already located. It was from there that Curtiss and Felixstowe flying boats patrolled the Fair Isle channel from Houton on anti-submarine tasks.  The RNAS also operated four Sea Scout Pusher or Submarine Scout Pusher, non-rigid airships from Caldale.  The RFC seaplane base at Catfirth in Shetland completed the aviation scene in 1918.  However, there were many exploits by the RNAS in both launching aircraft from warships and early attempts on deck landings.  Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning made the first deck landing, on HMS Furious, but sadly perished during a third trial.

Second World War

The Second World War brought more serious threats from the air and both the Orkney and Shetland Islands had more airfields established, both Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm, to meet surface, sub-surface and air threats to the Fleet and other bases.

On Orkney - Hatson/HMS Sparrowhawk, HMS Tern/RNAS Twatt, RAF Grimsetter/HMS Robin (Kirkwall), RAF Skeabrae (FAA 804 Sqn Martlet shot down a Ju-88 on 25 Dec 40). On the Shetlands -  RAF Sumburgh, RAF Scatsta & RAF Sullom Voe (Lerwick).  Both the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm operated from both islands in support of many diverse tasks, including air defence, maritime patrol and photo reconnaissance.  Clearly these northern bases formed a vital part of Britain’s war effort to defend our shores and project air power towards the Artic Convoys and German occupied Norway.  The other role of these islands was as part of the Chain Home Low radar stations. Codename Chain Home they were a range of coastal Early Warning radar stations built before and further developed during World War II.  Post War would see a northerly location remain a pivotal part of the UK’s Air Defence Ground Environment (UKADGE).

Post War/Cold War

By the end of the Second World War, the military presence on Orkney and Shetland had dwindled to a shadow of its former self, much as in the rest of the UK.  Scapa Flow was no longer needed for the Fleet.  While much of the history is still evident, military facilities became civilian operations in a number of locations.  While the main airfields became airports, Sumburgh and Kirkwall in particular, no military aircraft were permanently based there, although they did provide for diversion opportunities.  However, the remaining base at RAF Saxa Vord is located at one of the most northerly points on the Shetland Islands on Unst, having been part of the Home Chain Radar System along with Skaw, also on Unst.  Skaw closed in 1947 but RAF Saxa Vord became the home of 91 Signals Unit and fully operational on 5 October 1957.  Saxa Vord was a vital part of UKADGE throughout the Cold War, yet had its status changed to a remote radar head in 2000 and then back to a fully manned unit in 2004.  It was subsequently closed in 2006 but the changing international situation with eastern Europe brought about a decision to reactivate the Station by October 2018.

Civil Aviation

The first recorded landing of a civil aircraft was in April 1931 when Captain Ernest Edmund `Ted` Fresson   made a successful flight in a DH-60G Moth, G-AAWO from Scotland to Kirkwall in his DH-60G Moth G-AAWO to find a suitable landing place for an airfield for running pleasure flights in the Summer months. The aircraft landed in a field near Balfour Hospital, close to the Scapa Pier road.  A DH Fox Moth, G-ACEB, was the first aircraft to land on the Shetlands on 19 April 1933.  While this raised hopes on the further use of this type of aircraft the government felt that a single-engined aircraft was not suitable for use over large stretches of water and twin-engine DH Dragon and Dragon Rapide replaced the Fox Moth.

Air links to the Orkney and Shetland Islands have proved to be vital to their inhabitants, with some flights taking but a few minutes from island to island.   From the first commercial flights in those DH Dragon and Dragon Rapides, the industry developed to sustain scheduled flights to the main airports at Kirkwall and Sumburgh.  For the many smaller airfields, and beaches, LoganAir is synonymous with flight operations using the Britten-Norman Islander, being, perhaps, the iconic type for these routes.

Oil and Gas exploration in the North Sea was the fundamental catalyst for the expansion of air traffic in the Shetland Islands.  Not only is Sumburgh the important airhead for that industry but also for helicopter traffic to and from the various off-shore rigs.  A vital link for those who work in such potentially inhospitable places and one which has claimed a number of lives over the years with the weather often playing a significant role.


Captain Ernest Edmund "Ted" Fresson, OBE was a pioneer aviator who is primarily remembered for establishing Highland Airways, which inaugurated a passenger service between Inverness, Wick and Kirkwall on 8 May 1933. 

Famous transatlantic aviator Col Charles Lindbergh USAAC and his wife Anne visit Lerwick on another epic flight in August 1933 in a Lockheed Sirius seaplane.

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