Highland Express was the brainchild of Randolph Fields, who was at the time a 31 year old barrister. He owned a paper airline named British Atlantic which had applied to fly a dormant ex-Laker route from London Gatwick to Newark. Fields had done a feasibility study by had no money to purchase aircraft so approached Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Virgin at the time had no interest or expertise in the airline market but Branson was attracted to the opportunity and he and Fields became business partners.
Fields originally planned an all business class carrier but Branson was more interested in a low cost enterprise. Though the 1984 agreement between the pair had Fields running the airline on a day to day basis Branson lost confidence in him and the pair split in September 1984 with Fields receiving GBP125,000 in compensation. Fields' remaining GBP1 million in shares were bought out in 1985 and he also received unlimited free travel on Virgin.
Fields now went his own way and instead created Highland Express to operate transatlantic services with a Scottish flavour from Prestwick, Birmingham and London Stansted to Newark. The airline's callsign was TARTAN, however all its services would start in England, routing via the Scottish long-haul hub at Prestwick.
It is hard to see what Fields was trying to achieve with such a niche product, however the limited funding and single aircraft didn't help. The UK's CAA had seen the airline as being undercapitilised prior to the start of operations and the early equipment shortage seriously impacted credibility and advance ticket sales. The necessity of using Prestwick as his Scottish gateway was also unhelpful. The airline collapsed with debts of GBP8.4 million including the trading loss of GBP6 million accrued between March 31, 1987 and December 11.
Fields himself also connected the airline's failure with the world's stockmarket crash on 'Black Monday' which resulted in expected funding to not be forthcoming. He was upbeat about the airline's prospects as he claimed that the carrier had been solvent since the end of November, had a 70% load factor and had solid Christmas bookings. Despite this Highland Express simply couldn't pay its bills and Fields decided to step back from running the carrier. Sadly plans to resurrect the airline with a new managing director and charter flights in January 1988 followed by scheduled services in March were not successful.
G-HIHO was returned to Citicorp in January 1988. She was leased to Qantas but repainted into Air Pacific olours as VH-EEI in March. The aircraft was named 'Island of Viti Levu' and served until November 1989. She operated with Qantas briefly after confusingly being leased to Aer Lingus as EI-CAI who sub-leased her back to QF. She returned back to the United Kingdom in 1990 when she joined Virgin as G-VMIA 'Miami Maiden'. Virgin bought her outright in 1993 and she became 'Spirit of Sir Freddie'. She served a decade with Virgin until retirement in January 2000. She had flown 84,293 hours and 18,397 cycles at the time of her scrapping in March 2000. I wonder if Fields ever flew free with Virgin on this frame and wondered what might have been?
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: