On May day 1964 the helicopter service to Scilly began to operate. Prior to the helicopter service the air link to Scilly had been provided by De Havilland Rapide bi-planes and before that by De Havilland Dragons which began flying in 1937, initially landing on St Mary's golf course. At first the helicopter service operated from Land's End airfield, St Just, just as the Rapides had but on 1 September 1964 the service was moved to the new heliport at Penzance which had been built at a cost of £80,000.
The introduction of the helicopter service, operated by BEA Helicopters, had an immediate impact with as many people travelling in the first four months as had travelled in the whole of 1963. In addition the service was operated by a single machine whereas the old service had required three Rapides. The end of the Rapides on 1 May 1964 was another significant day in British aviation as it marked the end of the last scheduled UK service operated by a bi-plane.
The new service was operated by two Sikorsky S61N helicopters, soon reduced to a single machine and later replaced by the S61NM which could carry more passengers than any other helicopter of it's type, a payload of 30+ passengers. The single fare at startup was £2-3-0 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and £2-13-0 on the other days. In addition there was a return fare at £4-16-0 available on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays. Have transport companies always sort to make ticketing as complicated as possible?
The last flight from Land's End was at 7.30 pm on Monday August 31 1964 with the first flight from Penzance being the next morning. The first return flight from Scilly carried Mrs Harold Wilson, wife of the Labour Party leader. Following the return of the first flight the dignitaries assembled at the new heliport and the mayor, Alfred Beckerleg, did the honours by cutting the ribbons across the doors of the passenger building. The brief ceremony was followed by a brief flight which took the official party along the coast to Marazion, on a loop around St Michael's Mount, a swoop over Penzance, on to Newlyn and rapidly back to base.
The Cornishman carried several reports of overcrowding and passengers being left behind by the Scillonian in the weeks leading up to the launch of the new helicopter service. It's no surprise that the new service proved popular with 26,000 passengers in the first four months. By 1974, when the new Sikorsky 61NM was introduced BEA had invested in customisation which allowed for more passengers, more luggage and made it possible for the passengers to board without receiving a faceful of exhaust fumes.
The Cornishman of 14 May 1964 carried a short piece which noted that the first “mercy flight” had been made on May 10th when some of the seats were removed in order to accommodate the stretcher bearing Mt Lloyd Hicks, a boatman from St Mary's. The next day Mr Vernon Richards of St Marys was also brought by the new helicopter to West Cornwall Hospital.
The service flew until 31 October 2012 by which time it was reputed to be the world's longest flying helicopter service. By this time it was no longer operated by B.E.A, which had first of all become British Airways and then been privatised with the helicopter arm becoming part of the Canadian Helicopter Corporation and operating as B.I.H.
At the time of writing there is optimism that a new helicopter service to Scilly will commence operation in the not too distant future.
Cornishman 14 May 1964
Cornishman 3 September 1964
Charles Woodley, History of British European Airways 1946-1972, Pen & Sword Aviation, 2006 (also available on Google Books)
Iain Hutchinson and Phil Lo Bau, BEALine to the Islands, Kea Publishing, 2002
Lots of good first hand stuff up to 1976 is provided by Wiiliam Ashpole who was a pilot on the route for several years.