Day 11. Monday, 8
July. Reykjavik to Kulusuk (Greenland). 3 hours 4 minutes - IFR.
Although Reykjavik airport is open 24 hours, it is worth noting
that the handling agent's office only opens at 9 a.m. unless prior notice is given. We
didn't know this. As a result, we didn't take off until 10 a.m. although we had been ready
to leave at 7.30. Our planned destination was Jakobshavn on the west coast of Greenland.
The first part of the flight went smoothly enough apart from a frightening moment when the
engine seemed to be dying on us. It quickly recovered though and, as Flemming explained,
it was just an air bubble ingested as he switched from one fuel tank to the other, due to
his having emptied one of the tanks the previous day.
We were cruising at 12,000 feet until we came to some higher clouds and were given
permission to climb to 14,000. After a while even 14,000 was not high enough to top the
clouds and avoid icing, so we requested 16,000 feet and I got the oxygen mask out for
Flemming. (Oxygen is not easy to come by at airports in Greenland and it might be needed
on other flights in the country. The bottle contained a total of 7 hours' oxygen for one
person, so I had to do without.) The controller said that 16,000 feet was not available.
Flemming replied that we would hold position until it was. After some minutes we were
cleared to 16,000, the other traffic having left the area. Even this was not high enough
and we could see that we would not be able to top the clouds at 18,000 either. The
freezing level was around 9,000 feet and the minimum IFR altitude across Greenland's Ice
Cap is 12,000...
It was a question of either returning to Reykjavik or landing on the island of Kulusuk
(eastern Greenland). We decided on the latter option. At least we would be in Greenland!
Rain battered on the windshield as we descended through the clouds but fortunately there
wasn't much turbulence. When we finally broke out of the clouds at 1,400 feet, it was a
bleak world that greeted us... All we could see was icebergs beneath us and mountains
partly covered in snow ahead. And, although our instruments told us we were on the right
track, there was no runway in sight... At last we spotted it as we came in over the
locator on final: 1200 meters of gravel. What a relief to be back on terra firma!
Strange place but a familiar language - for Flemming at any rate. Although Greenland was
recently granted home rule, they still rely on Danish expertise. The airport itself was
originally built by the U.S. air force to serve a DEWLINE radar site.
We were welcomed by the Island Commander, a "great Dane" in battledress, and
were offered food and lodging for stranded pilots in a barrack affectionately called the
"Kulusuk Hilton". The "hotel" may not have been up to the usual Hilton
standards, but it certainly beat camping out in a cold, damp tent! Not cheap though: food,
lodging, parking and departure fee for one night came to $200! And don't ever buy fuel
there if you can avoid it. They only sell barrels of 200 liters and the price is $3/liter!
(We did not need fuel).
At dinner - served at 5 p.m. sharp - we made the acquaintance of Torben, a Danish
scientist who was on Kulusuk to acquire GPS reference data for a joint US/Danish
geophysical aerial survey project. We went for a walk with him to see some icebergs and
spotted the wreck of a DC3 half buried in the snow. Torben told us it had turned over in a
blizzard as it was standing (empty of passengers) on the runway. I was reassured that most
blizzards of this kind occur in the winter!
Day 12. Tuesday, 9 July. Kulusuk to Jakobshavn. 3 hours 45 minutes. IFR.
After breakfast, we telephoned the meteorologist in Sondre
Stromfjord (west Greenland) and later met the pilot of a Greenlandair Dash 7 which came in
from the same place. What we learnt was sufficiently encouraging for us to give the Ice
Cap crossing another try. (We wanted to avoid an aborted attempt which would not leave us
with enough fuel to make a third attempt, obliging us to purchase 200 liters for a total
We got on top of the clouds at 12,000 feet with very little ice on the leading edges and
that soon sublimated. However, after the first hour, we could see higher stratus ahead and
were obliged to go up to 18,000. It was a slow climb for the last 1,000 feet and we were
only just above the clouds. At that altitude even the "co-pilot" had to have
oxygen so we both donned our masks. After half an hour or so, I complained to Flemming
that I didn't seem to be getting enough oxygen. He had obviously not looked at me in all
that time, or he would have seen that my mask was upside down! I wasn't too familiar with
our new masks, complete with Nelson flow meters. Flemming was amused. I was not.
The weather was reported to be fine on the west coast so we were surprised after about 2
hours to find the clouds getting even higher. We were skimming the tops of them collecting
some ice on the wings but maintaining altitude when, to our relief, we found ourselves
well on top again. (I hadn't relished the thought of having to put our snow-saw to use!)
An hour from Jakobshavn the clouds dispersed and at last we could see the Ice Cap (the
world's second largest glacier) beneath us. The approach in unusually clear weather over
the world's most productive iceberg glacier - Jakobshavn Isbrae - was breathtaking. There
is a warning on the instrument approach plate for Jakobshavn: Icebergs up to 790 feet. And
80% of the volume is under water! The glacier advances 30 meters per day.
After landing in Jakobshavn, there was no need to pinch ourselves to make sure we hadn't
been dreaming: the mosquito bites were enough to bring us back to reality! They seemed to
be particularly attracted by the Mooney. Perhaps it was the smell of the oil or AVGAS.
We cycled into the colourful town with its large population of unemployed huskies. Chained
up beside their masters' houses, they howled like wolves. Perhaps they were looking
forward to the winter months when they could get into action again. Hotels in Greenland
are just as expensive as in Iceland so we opted for NUNATEC, a government-run hostel for
visiting scientists and technicians which also receives tourists. There our room cost us
US$75 per night.
Day 13 - Wednesday, 10 July. Boat trip to Saqqaq settlement.
This was to be our only full day in Jakobshavn and we wanted to
take a boat ride to get a closer view of the icebergs. Jakobshavn hardly has a booming
tourist industry so this might have been difficult to arrange. However, our luck was in: a
supply boat makes a trip once a week to an Eskimo settlement and it just happens to leave
Jakobshavn was in thick fog as we drew out of the harbour at 7.30 a.m. When it lifted
later in the morning, we could see that we were passing very close to the icebergs. They
increased in size and number as we approached the settlement of Saqqaq and I admired the
captain's skill in avoiding them all.
At Saqqaq we went ashore in a dinghy and wandered around for an hour or so. The scene was
typical of Greenland: small, brightly painted wooden houses (in a country with no trees),
some Eskimos (or Inuits as they prefer to be called), redundant sledges and huskies, a
small church and rows of fish hung out to dry in the sun. I was disappointed not to see
any Eskimos rubbing noses by way of greeting - the custom must have died out - but they
still hunt seals and I saw a couple of dead ones floating in the water at the quay. We
didn't see any live ones in Greenland although we're told there are plenty of them.
The return journey to Jakobshavn was long and we were still on the boat to see the
midnight sun. This was, in fact, the first and only time we saw it... We were always up so
early that we couldn't stay awake after 11 p.m.!
Day 14. Thursday, 11 July. Jakobshavn (Ilulissat in Eskimo language).
We awoke to a bright, sunny day to be told that Jakobshavn had been
in fog the whole of the previous day. What luck that we'd got out of it and, more
important, that we hadn't wanted to land or take off as the airport was closed.
As in the rest of Denmark, there are no landing fees in Greenland, but this does not mean
that flying is cheap: departure fee is 400 kroner (about US$60) and fuel is $2 per liter
(if not $3 as at Kulusuk). Today, we planned to fly to Godthab, the capital of Greenland,
but this time our luck was against us... It was nothing serious - just a defective spark
plug - but unfortunately Flemming hadn't brought any spares on this trip, thinking that
they would be readily available in the unlikely event that we'd need one. A friendly
mechanic drove us into town to look for one but it was a wasted trip. Flemming phoned a
supplier in Godthab who promised to send us a spark plug, and a tool to install it with,
the next morning on the first flight.
Arrival in Kulusuk - summer in Greenland!