Located at Hamburg Fuhlsbuttel (IATA: HAM, ICAO: EDDH) 8.5 km (5.3 miles) north of the second-largest city in Germany, is a small niche operator operating two Britten Norman Islanders from the GA terminal on the south side of the airfield out to small islands in the North Sea.
Air Hamburg started life in 2001 as a flight school called simply Flugschule Hamburg by two young entrepreneurs Floris Helmers and Alexander Lipsky, a school which today now trains and educates novices through to airline pilots.
Quite soon the company started to receive ever increasing requests for air trips and taxi flights to the north and East Frisian islands and in 2005 founded Air Hamburg to develop this market. Initially the destinations included Syllt, Helgoland, Juist and Norderney and a scheduled service was offered to all but Norderney.
These island destinations have a particular set of difficulties when it comes to operations. They often have short runways and regularly inclement weather so an aircraft that could cope with these difficulties was needed.
With the sectors being quite short and the previously mentioned requirement for a somewhat rugged aircraft the BN Islander was chosen. Its STOL capability and the ability to fly with a high payload out of short landing strips made it an excellent choice.
2015 is somewhat of a milestone for Britten Norman as the BN-2 Islander has now reached the grand old age of 50 having been designed in 1963 and subsequently taking to the skies for the first time in 1965. It is a compliment to the aircraft that it is still making money for its operators so long after its introduction.
Both Britten and Norman had trained with deHavilland and they designed their aircraft to be a low cost alternative to the older DH-89A Dragon Rapide. The Islander design was successful and production commenced on the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom. History seems to show that the design and marketing has been correct as it has garnered many sales in Western Europe and beyond. The airframes coming both direct from Britten Norman themselves or from licensed production in such diverse places as Romania, Belgium and the Philippines.
Considered a scaled-down piston powered version of the Twin Otter, the Islander is a light utility aircraft, cargo or regional airliner designed for operation in remote areas. It is thought that around 750 are still with the worlds commercial operators, even more with Military and police forces.
It is a high-wing cantilever monoplane with a rectangular fuselage and two wing-mounted engines. The fuselage is completed with a conventional tail unit and fixed tricycle landing gear.
The Islander features two O-540 Lycomings producing 260 horsepower and seats up to 11 people (including pilot(s)). The Islander is a little odd in that there is no isle between seats and because of this, every row of seats (each two across) has its own door.
The original Islander was designed to allow ease of access on short-haul sectors to remote locations and has been extremely successful in achieving that role both cost effectively and efficiently. Building on that original concept, the Islander has since been through a series of product refinements.
An interesting point is that the Islander operates the worlds shortest scheduled flight which is Loganairs flight 353 from Papa Westray Airport to Westray Airport in the north of Scotland. At a distance of 1.7 miles (2.7km) the scheduled block time is just two minutes.
Air Hamburgs two examples, flying an average of 300 hours each per year, have an average age of over 40 years and a long list of previous operators, however the aircraft look pristine today in their current island hopping role.
Two years ago the airline offered a scheduled service to the North Sea islands of Helgoland , Sylt and Juist, however the focus of the islander fleet is now on charter flights to these destinations. The focus is mainly Helgoland due to the needs of the offshore industry as Eon energy has a base there and to Sylt as a tourist destination. In addition to these Air Hamburg are operating observation flights overhead the north sea to analyse the effects of offshore parks on wild life. The focus for these flights is on the bird & whale populations.
Helgoland is a particularly difficult destination given its lack of ILS and short (480 m/1575 ft) runway which is often plagued by bad weather, in particular strong gusty winds. Pilots operating to here require special training and clearance.
I took a flight out to Sylt close to the Danish border to see this venerable aircraft on a working day.
This flight demonstrated the operations of the airline and its aircraft. From the beginning it was a different but very personal experience. As mentioned Air Hamburg operates from the GA terminal which houses just aviation company offices alongside the normal security set up with just a few comfortable chairs in a rather modern and spacious lounge. This could be somewhat boring for any passengers arriving early as there is simply nothing to do, however next door is the Cafe Himmelschrieber which is wholly owned by Air Hamburg and provides a comfortable lounge atmosphere for passengers before flight as well as any members of the general public wishing to visit the airport. There is also a large outdoor seating area which provides excellent views over both the GA and and main ramps. It was here that a glass of Prosecco was provided while the passengers waited to be called for their flight.
Check in was a speedy affair at the purpose built GA Terminal which is situated amongst long stay airliners, freighters, biz jets and various light aircraft. The pilot for the flight escorts the passengers out on a short walk to the waiting aircraft and provides in flight amenities which comprises of a bottle of water and ear plugs, the reason for which will soon be rather obvious.
With bags stowed away in the rear cargo compartment and everybody strapped in, clearance to start and taxi is given and the two Lycoming engines start….. the noise is substantial and earplugs are hurriedly inserted by all the passengers. It is a short taxi to runway 33 and the power these engines produce soon has the aircraft off the ground and gives the first glimpse of why the Islander has been chosen for this operation.
The layout of the cockpit is pretty much as it was when first built but with the control yoke a push pull affair out from the control panel, analogue dials, lots of dials to turn and levers and buttons to flip which very much gives away the age of the aircraft. However one form of technology has made it into this 1960’s environment with the addition of a Garmin GTX 350 comms and navaid unit to enable it to operate in IFR conditions. The latter being of great use in the variable and often rather inclement weather situations the North Sea can produce. Something which the passengers were again soon to experience.
Given the differences between the airlines base and its destinations, all flights from Hamburg to Syllt are operated completely in IMC in case the weather closes in. However flights operate to what are called Z or Y flight plans which means that the flight is changed from IFR to VFR (or vice versa) en route. More specifically for Air Hamburg this means that flights can take off and land IFR in Hamburg, changing to VFR at destination. All pilots are well versed in both as they also fly the sister companies business jets.
Once airborne the Captain trims D-IAEB in a slightly nose up attitude, commencing a slow climb to 1000 feet, cruising at 105 knots and heading pretty much due north with a squawk of 7744. This particular example (cn218) is a BN-2A (BN2PBN-2A6) Islander with wing leading edge modifications and two 260 hp Lycoming O-540-E4C5 engines.
Even though the aircraft has dual controls normal Air Hamburg operations have just one flight deck member so in his own words “you need to keep your eyes peeled!”
Although a little cramped the seats in the aircraft are relatively comfortable and perfectly adequate for the average flight time these aircraft perform. The aircrafts high wing does also mean that everybody has an excellent view only slightly hampered by the fixed undercarriage.
Even though the weather seemed OK back at Hamburg once airborne we were right at the bottom of the clouds and being bumped around a little. The Captain is kept relatively busy keeping the aircraft trimmed right and ensuring we miss the worst of the weather whilst keeping out of the way of any other aircraft. After 30 minutes in the air the flight passes over the North German coastline and 10 minutes later the Captain listens to the ATIS at Sylt before making contact. Just short of an hour after take off D-IAEB lands with a little bump at Sylt. Taxying to the GA ramp there is a short walk to the small terminal for the passengers who are no doubt eager to get to their accommodations.
No rest for the Captain though, he is on the computer in the terminal checking the weather and filing the flight plan for the return home. The facilities here are rather more limited than at Hamburg although selling very cute cuddly seals, the real versions of which are one of the reasons tourists come here!
The return passengers are again escorted out to the aircraft and whilst this is happening the Captain does a walk around the aircraft and a checks the fuel. The return is very similar to the outbound flight although cruise this time is 1500 feet given the slight improvement in the weather meaning we are also likely to be higher than most VFR flights around. The arrival produces excellent views of the airfield whilst coming around from the north to land on runway 23, essentially leading directly to the GA ramp.
Charter is very much the name of the game for Air Hamburg and there is no time for a post flight chat as the aircraft now has to fly at short notice to Helgoland and by the time the passengers are out of the terminal their Air Hamburg Islander is already taxying out for departure.
This aircraft is a true success story and one that is rarely heard about, with so many still flying who knows how many more milestones it may reach?
Thanks go to Mike Ulka and Alexandra de Graaf at Air Hamburg for their assistance in producing this feature.