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Exactly why I support the Penzance Heliport

I am a committed supporter of the Penzance Heliport project and I’d like to explain why. Buckle up, this might take a while…

When we first visited the islands, we went on the boat.  Money was an issue then (let’s face it it still is). Going on the boat seemed like the most traditional way to get to Scilly.  Plus, it was just us two adults with no children in tow.  The boat was just fine on that first trip.  The journey down to Penzance for an early sailing was a bit of an issue, after all we live six hours drive away, but that wasn’t going to put us off.

The next time we went to the islands however we had a bit more cash to spend, and so we decided to get the plane.  It was more expensive, but we figured the convenience of it would be well worth the extra expense.

On the way out it really was. We drove down the same day, parked up, checked in, and flew out in what felt like no time at all.  We were instantly converted.

However our journey home was not quite such plain sailing (did you see what I did there?).

The first time it went wrong

We arrived at the airport above Old Town in light fog to be told that the planes were not running.  The fog on Scilly wasn’t too bad, but at Lands End it was too heavy to fly.

We were presented with two options.  We could either wait at the airport to see if it cleared and then get on a flight. Or we could switch to the boat and have our day to ourselves.  Of course if it came to time for the boat to sail and flights still weren’t running we’d be moved across anyway.

We checked that we didn’t have to decide immediately and made a choice to have a coffee at the airport and see how the day developed.

As we sat at the airport drinking coffee and eating cake, along with all the other people who were waiting, we had to put up with one of the most frustrating things you can imagine.

We’d be sitting in the peace and quiet of a Scilly fog, when we’d hear the rotors of an approaching helicopter.  It would land in front of the windows, discharge passengers, load up a bunch more and then fly off again.

On asking, we were told that the helicopter was not affected by the fog as it flew from Penzance.  Lands End was higher, and was much more likely to be affected by fog.

In the end we got the boat and arrived on the mainland some seven hours later than we planned.

The second time it went wrong

The Scillonian III in Scilly
The Scillonian coming into St Mary’s

The next year we had decided that there was little point in paying the extra for the plane if we were going to end up on the boat anyway. So we booked tickets on the Scillonian III.

We set off in the dead of night and arrived in Penzance to a puzzling sight.  The Scillonian was in the harbor, but not at the quay.  We duly waited for the ticket office to open and asked them what the problem was.  They told us that it was too rough for the Scillonian to sail.

We asked if they would transfer us to the plane.  Unsurprisingly this was not an option. Plane tickets were considerably more expensive and therefore not transferable in that direction.  And secondly the planes weren’t flying either due to the extreme weather.

Not only would they not get us to the islands, but they could not guarantee they would be able to the next day. Or any day afterwards.  And they regretted that they were unable to help us find any accommodation despite knowing we had travelled for six hours.

We found somewhere to have some breakfast, and discussed our options.  It was still surprisingly early.

We figured we had a number of choices.

We could forget the holiday and go home.

Clearly we did not want to do this.  Not only had we already paid for our holiday, but we really liked in in Scilly.

We could wait and see

We’d have to try to find a room for the night and trust that the boat would run the next day.  We didn’t really want to do this as the internet was not a thing, and a B&B room we’d had found for us by the Tourist Information Centre in Newquay some years earlier had proven to be an absolute disaster. If we had no choice this was what we’d do.  But we realized as we guzzled our way through several kilos of bacon that there was a third choice.

The old Penzance Heliport

The old helicopter service

We walked into the heliport building and found ourselves face to face with a couple of flight crew. We asked them if they were still flying today.

After they had finished laughing and looking for hidden cameras they said they were. They also asked why on earth we’d think they wouldn’t be.

We explained that we were actually booked on the non-existent boat and really wanted to get to Scilly today.  They pointed us at a young lady in a back office to buy tickets.  An hour and a half later we were on St Mary’s.

From that day on we were helicopter people through and through.  Not only did they actually get us to Scilly every time without fail, but they were nice about it and helpful whenever we had a question.

Yes it cost more, but not more than having to pay for an unexpected B&B and feed yourself in peak holiday season in Cornwall for a whole day.

So we were extremely disappointed when the helicopter service was cancelled.

I won’t summarize the history of the ongoing situation, none of us have time for that.  So let’s fast forward several years to the present time.

Arguments against the Heliport

The argument put forward by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company to justify their opposition to the Penzance heliport is that they now run helicopters from Lands End and so there is no need for a duplicate service.

This is clearly not a valid justification.

It is perfectly possible for the fog to prevent flying at St Just but not at Penzance as we saw so many years ago.  But also the very principles of capitalism suggest that a lack of competition leads to stagnation and lack of innovation.  I’d argue that this is clearly the case here too.

We genuinely thought long and hard about simply not coming to Scilly any more once the helicopter stopped running.  The idea of paying a lot of money to a company that clearly did not care about us was a big hurdle to overcome.

If we didn’t love the islands as much as we do we may well have stopped coming.  I’d be willing to bet money that some people did exactly that.

And this doesn’t even take into consideration the most important reason that a helicopter service needs to be run by a different company from a different place.

Not just Holidaymakers

It is one thing for a family of five from Surrey to be delayed on their holiday. It is another thing altogether to isolate an entire island community from the mainland based on nothing more than the whims of the weather.  Weather that is notoriously bad.

Over the years of visiting I have made a number friends among the islanders. Their ability to get to and from the mainland can literally be a matter of life and death.

Yes there is always the air ambulance, and the search and rescue helicopter.  But to suggest that a community of several thousand people can only access services the rest of us take completely for granted by using emergency helicopters is preposterous.

And if that wasn’t enough the development of the islands is significantly threatened by the lack of a reliable link to the mainland.

Digital working on the islands

I work for a tech company.  I can and have worked remotely for long periods of time.  In theory I can work anywhere in the world I can get a decent internet connection.  Sometimes however I have to meet people face to face.  Where I am now, I can jump on a train, and have a successful meeting with a director of one of the many digital agencies we partner with. There is no real concern that it won’t happen.

There is no way that would be possible on Scilly. Despite the fibre-optic broadband delivering impressive levels of connectivity to the islands, sometimes you actually have to be in the same room as someone. Even working in the world of digital.

Until there is a reliable transport link to the mainland that runs all year round, Scilly will not be home to the digital businesses it has the potential to support.

So that is why I support the Penzance Heliport.

  • It will make it easier for me to take my family on holiday to the place we love.
  • Life will be significantly easier for the people on the islands.
  • It will allow business development on the islands and as such improve the economy for islanders by providing more income, more jobs, more children who grew up there being able to stay.

If you want to find out more about the Penzance Heliport you can visit here.



Martin is the creator of About Scilly. He visited the islands for the first time 15 years ago and fell in love. He's been back every year since and would dearly love to live there.

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