THE anticipation is building inside the aircraft as flinty, white-flecked water slowly gives way to land. A smattering of greenish-brown rocky outcrops are visible through breaks in the wispy cloud, looking like giant, moss-covered stepping stones.

The topography continues to unfurl beneath us revealing rugged cliffs, sand dunes, marram grass, wildflower-strewn machair and patchwork-like crofts. We're drawing closer now. A gasp of delight ripples through the cabin as a bright turquoise lagoon looms into view.

The plane begins a slow, graceful arc around the wide bay. There's a crackle of excitement when at last we see it: the white sands of the runway. Gliding earthwards, I hold my breath. The wheels touch down; a glittering curtain of salty spray rises like a ceremonial water salute.

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Disembarking to make our way towards the terminal building, there comes a lilting warning that I register just in time: "Watch out for the jellyfish". My foot hovers in mid-air, perilous inches from the gelatinous blob on the wet sand.

Welcome to Barra, the only scheduled beach landing in the world. More than 12,000 passengers pass through the tiny airport each year. While some use it as a gateway for island-hopping up the Outer Hebrides chain, others come simply for the thrill of ticking it off their bucket list.

Yet, for the people who live and work on Barra, the stretch of beach at Traigh Mhor is more than simply a stunning backdrop: the daily Loganair flights provide a lifeline.

Waiting to meet the aircraft is Michael Galbraith, station manager for Barra Airport. He keeps a close eye as the plane is unloaded and the incoming passengers, including myself, traipse up the sandy ramp to arrivals.

Galbraith has worked here for 23 years and for the past 19 he's been in charge. His eyes crinkle into a smile when rattling off what his role entails. "Fire service, tower, prepare the runway – the whole lot," he says. "We wear multiple hats here."

It is a sentiment echoed by duty fire crew Jamie Irving, 41, and Neil Ferguson, 28, when asked about how their jobs differ from other airports. "Clean toilets, paint fences," says Ferguson, checking them off on his fingers. "Cut grass," adds Irving. "We are trained firefighters, but do all that too."

At high tide all three runways are fully submerged (hence the lone jellyfish practically at the door). Galbraith and his team carry out beach inspections twice each day. "We look for sandbanks, algae or anything washed in by the tide," he explains.

Potential hazards can include marine debris, plastic waste, driftwood, dead animals and sea birds. "We've had a wee baby shark," says Galbraith. "It was nearly dead and unable to be saved. We've had a dolphin in the past. We put it back into the sea, whether it survived or not I don't know."

Even something as seemingly innocuous as seaweed must be monitored. "Fortunately, this is a relatively clean beach so we don't get much dirty seaweed," he says. "When we do get seaweed, we need to check for any stones attached because that could puncture the aircraft tyres."

Low cloud cover has meant a slight delay to our inbound flight and the ground staff are now trying to get the outgoing passengers onto the plane as quickly as possible.

Janet MacLean, 58, who heads up Loganair customer services at Barra, is checking boarding passes at the gate. She has the brisk, no-nonsense demeanour of a woman who gets things done.

As part of his security duties Jimmy Ferguson, 53, is patrolling the beach to ensure the runway is kept clear. "When the windsocks are up, it is an active airfield," he says. "Some people see the aircraft leaving and mistakenly assume that they can then go on the beach."

On one occasion a family of visitors began building a sandcastle – a tractor was swiftly dispatched to flatten it so the plane could land later that day. "Someone started flying a kite on the beach," says Ferguson. "I explained to him that wasn't a very good idea."

Today, though, there are thankfully no such unwanted incursions. The aircraft taxis nimbly across the sand before taking off to return to Glasgow. As it disappears to a mere dot in the sky, Galbraith ushers us into the warmth of the airport cafe.

Above the nearby check-in desk hangs a row of photographs showing planes on the beach throughout the years. The Air Ministry officially licensed Traigh Mhor as an airfield on August 7, 1936 and a daily service was promoted in the Oban Times from early July that year.

In October 1974, Loganair began flights under contract to British Airways and took over the service in its own right in April 1975.

Fast forward to 2017 and Loganair flies twice daily from Glasgow – with a single flight on Sundays – operating under a Public Service Obligation (PSO) contract on behalf of the Scottish Government.

A subsidy has been paid on the Glasgow-Barra air route by the Scottish Government since the mid-1970s. Under European regulations, a PSO was imposed during the mid-1990s to enable this funding to continue.

Like the CalMac ferries running between Oban and Castlebay, the Loganair 19-seater Twin Otter aircraft is woven into the fabric of island life.

The other prong is tourism, with the beach at Barra regularly featuring in travel lists of the world's most stunning airport settings. Visitors can even get a stamped and dated landing certificate.

Galbraith was born and bred on Barra ("I'm a native as they say. The natives are friendly"). An affable character with plenty of charm and canny one-liners, the 47-year-old chuckles when I joke he should be on commission from VisitScotland.

"It is almost like we work for tourist board," he admits. "We will chat to people in the airport and tell them about the history and where to visit on the island. We sell the place as much as we can."

Glancing around the bustling space, it is certainly busy. "This year we have put on around 26 extra flights, taking it up to three flights a day," says Galbraith, who reckons that there may be scope for more growth.

"In the past we never knew what the potential was because when the plane was full, that was it. There wasn't any official data collated on what the demand was for people not getting a seat.

"The Scottish Government have been very good and listened to the community when we said: 'Look, we need more seats'. They put on two flights a day and even that is filling up, hence the three.

"What we find is that the tourists will book quite far in advance when they are planning their holidays, but the locals tend to leave it until the last few weeks and often by then the flight is full. We are filling three flights a day and even then we still don't know what the potential is."

There has been a marked shift too, says Galbraith, in the socio-economic landscape of Barra.

"The world is getting smaller and there are more people wanting to come to our sort of place," he says. "Internet connectivity is getting better, so you don't need to be in the central belt or a city to operate; you can work from home here.

"People are latching onto that now. Years ago we were thought of as 'out in the sticks' and 'who wants to live there?' But more and more people are coming in which is helping the population. Within a lot of the Western Isles there is depopulation. Barra is actually reversing that trend."

It remains a close-knit community. Few can forget the poignant images as teenager Eilidh MacLeod, a victim of the Manchester terror attack in May, was repatriated. A lone piper played as her coffin, draped in a Barra flag, was carried across the sands at Traigh Mhor.

The 14-year-old died in the explosion during an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena which killed 22 people. Her friend Laura MacIntyre, 15, was seriously injured in the bomb blast.

"We've had a few tragedies on the island this year," nods Galbraith. "Hopefully Laura is coming home soon." When we speak it is late August and a week later comes the long-awaited news that the youngster has returned to Barra after three months in hospital.

It is a sombre reminder that life here is not all luxuriating on the beach as Galbraith will attest to. "People see Barra airport as iconic and they'll say: 'Oh, what a wonderful job'. On the face of it looks like nothing happens here and what an easy, relaxing time we must have.

"I describe it as being like a swan going through the water. On the top it looks nice and elegant, but underneath it is paddling away like crazy."

In the control tower, Joyce Beverstock is preparing for the second flight of the day arriving. A former midwife, she recently retrained as an aerodrome flight information service officer. Her previous airport roles include frontline customer service and security.

"Up here it is radio talk not normal conversations, so that is quite different," she muses. "You need to pass information on in the most professional and shortest manner possible, whereas working in a customer service background you don't ever want to be clipped.

"Working downstairs I met loads of people coming and going each day who I would talk to and answer their questions. You can't be chatty the same way on the radio."

Her role differs from air traffic control. "We don't give any orders to the aircraft, we only provide advice and any manoeuvres they make is at their own discretion," she explains.

"We give them the weather, information on the tide and the runways. That can include where the tide is in relation to the runways or if there are any sandbanks forming. We give the pilots as much information as we can to make their decisions as safe as possible."

Beverstock, 51, arguably has the best seat in the house with panoramic views over the beach. "It is an amazing view," she agrees. "But when I look at the hills I'm not thinking how nice the scenery looks, rather how much of the hills I can see and how visibility may be affected.

"It is interesting when you see nature coming in. We had a huge white-tailed eagle land on the beach recently which wouldn't take off and wasn't scared of the plane either. You could see the size of it in relation to the aircraft which showed just how big it was."

The radio crackles into life as the voice of Loganair pilot Captain Annag Bagley requests an update on the weather. Beverstock relays back the wind speed, visibility, cloud cover, temperature, dew point and atmospheric pressure.

After they wrap their exchange, she points out the left-hand window of the tower indicating the direction that the plane will approach from. A short while later the Loganair aircraft comes into view, a small speck in the distance. "There she is," says Beverstock. "That's Annag."

It's not all of us who get to live out our childhood dreams, but at the controls of the Twin Otter Annag Bagley is certainly fulfilling hers. Everyone around the airport talks fondly about how one of their own became a pilot.

Barra-born Bagley spent much of her formative years hanging around this little corner of the island. "I used to come here every day after school if the plane was due in so I could watch it land on the beach," she tells me later. "I knew then that I wanted to be a pilot."

Galbraith can remember Bagley as a wide-eyed, plane-mad youngster. "She would hang around here all the time," he recalls. "Annag always used to say: 'I'm going to be a pilot' and we would look at her and say: 'Aye, right', but she went away and did it, fair play to her."

Bagley was 18 when she got her private pilot's licence, gaining a commercial licence two years later. She is now 36 and a captain for Loganair. Her job takes her around Scotland's west coast including to Campbeltown and Tiree, but landing in Barra never fails to make her heart soar.

"This is home," she says. "I know a lot of the regulars and will often get to speak to people I haven't seen for a while. There were passengers today who were coming in for the first time and that was lovely because I'm getting to fly them to what is my home."

She herself has flown into Barra countless times over the years but insists it never loses its magic. "You are thinking: 'Am I really doing this, landing on the beach?'" she laughs.

During the summer months, her children Seumais Iain, seven, and four-year-old twins Seonaid and Annag spend the holidays with their granny on Barra. "They come to the beach and watch their mum land the plane," says Bagley. "That is pretty special."

She couldn't imagine wanting to work anywhere else. "I always say it is real flying. The scenery around Scotland is amazing. It is the best job in the world.

"Every day there is something to enjoy about flying here, even if it is just the way the clouds change and it makes things look different. A few weeks ago we ended up doing a late flight to Barra as the sun was setting and it was absolutely stunning."

Loganair (loganair.co.uk) flies to Barra from Glasgow from £41.03 one-way.

Next week: Island-hopping in Orkney