THEY are among the world’s most dangerous but least known flights – and take off from Scottish airports almost daily.
Pilots are ferrying single-engine light aircraft across the North Atlantic to new owners in Europe and America in a battle of wits against the elements.
It is estimated that around three a year on all Atlantic crossings die en route, often after miscalculating the weather.
Some 40 “ferry flights” a month use Wick Airport in Caithness as a staging post, around half involving single-engine planes, the others executive jets.
Others stop off in Stornoway, while Prestwick in Ayrshire has also been used.
Scottish airports are ideally suited because of their proximity to Iceland – the next in the series of short hops that limited-range propeller aircraft must make between mainland Europe and North America.
One of the main hazards is ice forming on the wings, causing them to lose their ability to provide the lift that keeps the plane in the air.
Such aircraft also don’t have pressurised cabins and have to stay at relatively low altitudes so often can’t fly over bad weather.
The cost of such flights, including hotels and the pilot’s return travel, can be as much as £13,000. However, they are viable, despite costing up to nearly half the value of a £30-40,000 plane, because the exchange rate can make them far cheaper to buy on one side of the Atlantic than the other.
Experts said there were no feasible alternatives. Transporting aircraft intact by air or sea is prohibitively expensive, and the idea of piggy-backing one on to a larger plane, Space Shuttle-style, is a non-starter.
Light aircraft can be dismantled and sent as freight, then reassembled, but they are said to never fly the same again.
Ferry flights are now a substantial part of Wick Airport’s business. Andrew Bruce, a director of Far North Aviation, which is based there, has built up the trade by offering services such as speedy refuelling and Customs clearance, and survival equipment hire.
He has even arranged for pilots to also hire or drop off the gear, which include immersion suits and life rafts, at Goose Bay in Canada.
He described ferry pilots as a “hardened” bunch: “They have seen a lot of the weather. They are ‘numbed’.
“If they think too much about what they are doing they would not be doing it.”