By Fangzhong Guo
Trip Report: Single-Pilot Flying on a Britten-Norman Islander
With all the renewed discussion on single pilot operation, it’s important to remember it is not an entirely new concept. Many commuter flights already utilize single-pilot operation, and here’s one of my experiences flying on one.
I took the flight in April 2022 from Westerly, R.I., to New Shoreham, R.I., on New England Airlines. The Westerly-based airline was the only airline serving this route. In fact, it’s the only scheduled service in either of these airports.
It’s also the only scheduled Britten Norman BN-2 Islander flight in contagious 48. Several other airlines fly the BN-2 as well. However, almost all of them are based in Puerto Rico.
The entire experience was nostalgic, unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Despite offering ‘scheduled services,’ the airline is in no way traditional. The only way to reserve a seat is to call the airline directly. Since my flight was at the end of spring, before their peak season, I was able to get a reservation on the day of my flight.
On top of that, you can only pay for your flight when you arrive at the airport. What’s more interesting is instead of a plain receipt from the POS machine, you also get a handwritten ticket. The last time I saw a paper ticket was in the early 2000s, not to mention a handwritten one.
Why did an airline choose not to offer conveniences such as online booking? The DOT rules on interstate services may have played a part. In previous rulings and the ongoing feud between Dash Air Shuttle and Kenmore Air, the DOT has considered online booking a form of inter-state operation, which requires the carrier to apply for an additional certificate to carry out the service. The tiny airline in Rhode Island may have chosen to keep it simple, which also enabled us to have more memorabilia.
Since Westerly State Airport does not connect to the rest of the National Air Transporation System, passengers do not go through security checkpoints. While the airport does not have separate areas for arrivals and departures, it has an indoor waiting room and an outdoor waiting area.
Inside the terminal, you have the check-in counter and a few benches for people waiting for their flight or picking up their family and friends. It also houses a few vantage carts that hold the packages and food deliveries that would later join me on my flight.
The outside space lets you be within mere feet of the aircraft. Several BN-2s in New England Airlines livery were sitting on the ramp. Although the extra planes are mostly flying charters, it’s still reassuring to see their fleet out in the sun, ready to keep this vital link running.
The Islander can carry up to nine passengers with four rows of bench seating and an individual seat beside the pilot. Rather than boarding everyone through the same door, we boarded through two separate entrances on both sides of the aircraft. The rear entry on the left side provides access to the back two rows, whereas the two rows behind the pilot board through a door on the airplane’s right side. The first passenger row folds down so others can reach the middle of the plane.
The interior is by no means comfortable, not even by general aviation airplane standards. Single passengers generally need to share a bench with a stranger in the tight fuselage. There was barely any padding or insulation on the wall, so the cabin was very noisy inflight. However, I found myself appreciating that intimacy with the machine.
Despite having an abysmal cabin, it does have one of the quirkiest features I’ve seen on a plane. In addition to the overhead air vents, the Islander also has a small opening in the window. Passengers can rotate the knob on the tab to allow more airflow from the outside. You can even use it when the plane is in the air.
Both my flights had an air time of 10 minutes, so bare minimal amenities won’t be a problem. The weather was fairly calm for my flights, but it’ll certainly be a bumpy ride when it is rougher.
Block island is a popular summer vacation spot in the area. People can arrive on the island via ferry, which lands at the heart of the town. New England Airlines offers a much faster alternative, although passengers need to call a cab or walk a mile and a half to the center. Many people on my flights were coming to the island for work, including several builders.
After a quick stroll to and back from town, I enjoyed a sandwich at the airport diner while watching planes come and go. Eating right next to an active ramp is a treat you can only get at small general aviation airports.
Like many other commuter flights in the country, this northeastern airline also flies their planes with a single pilot. Unlike many other flights flown by a lone pilot, the ‘cockpit’ of the BN-2 is more challenging to access by passengers sitting behind the pilot. It would seem that this would be concerning since we’ve all heard stories of passengers having to land a general aviation airplane when the pilot became incapacitated due to medical conditions. However, given how short this hop was, none of the passengers showed a remote sign of concern.
It’s always a balancing act ensuring air service safety and efficiency. In this case, a ten-minute hop over the waters has very few threatening factors which enabled the airline to continue providing service to the island. Single-pilot operation is a great way to provide important connectivity to communities that won’t otherwise have fast air transportation. It shouldn’t be just another thing the airlines do to lower their costs.