Each summer for the last half-dozen or so, I’ve had the privilege of flying the North Atlantic with one or two clients. Last summer, I made two such round trips, the first in a Turbo Arrow to Versailles, France, and the second in a Cheyenne IIXL turboprop to London. For most pilots, the trip is a long-term dream, something they’ve been planning for a year or more.
One pilot, Dr. Bill Grider, had been planning every detail of his trip for eight years. Other pilots, such as Jeff Brausch of Cleveland have used the trip to set point-to-point speed records, and Brausch and I now hold 18 of them in his Cheyenne. A few years back, I flew across in a 340 with Dr. Phil Reames, the friendly, neighborhood Los Angeles gynecologist, and Phil let me do all the flying while he shot over 100 rolls of 35mm film. Phil photographed everything from the tops of clouds, white ice caps and white glaciers to people, dogs, airports, churches, hotels, pretty girls in bikinis (yes, even in Iceland) and anything else that would hold still long enough. Essex, Conn., pilot Rives Potts was similarly dazzled by the North Atlantic from the right seat of his Aerostar 700 on our trip to Paris.
Though summer isn’t always the season of plenty in the Far North, it does provide more civilized weather, calmer winds, sometimes better fuel availability and generally more civilized flying conditions. These are important benefits for pilots who’d just as soon not contend with blizzards, temperatures well below zero and a wide variety of other meteorological miseries common to northeastern Canada eight months of the year.
There certainly are no guarantees, and I’ve seen snow in August at places such as Goose Bay, Labrador; Sondre Strom Fjord, Greenland; and Reykjavík, Iceland, but most of the time, the summer season allows pilots who wouldn’t even consider such a trip in winter to realize a fantasy. Distances aren’t that demanding for most airplanes, and while in-flight icing can be a problem year round, purely VFR tours are possible and even likely in summer.
Even if your airplane has limited range, it may be possible to make the trip without supplemental fuel. You can reduce the longest leg to a mere 500 nm by flying the northern route, from Goose Bay to Iqaluit, Nunavut, then the big leg 500 nm across the Davis Strait to Sondre Strom Fjord, above the Arctic Circle, 400 nm more to Kulusuk on the island’s east coast and finally another 400 nm across the Denmark Strait to Reykjavík. From there, you can route through Vagar, Faroe Islands, to either Norway or Scotland with hops of under 400 nm.
The prevailing winds are strong westerlies, generally good news, but it’s important to remember you do have to come back. Several summers ago, when I was westbound in a Piper Chieftain and stuck in Reykjavík for winds, I watched an N-registered Cessna 150 pull up on the ramp. Sure enough, it had just come in from Kulusuk with the help of strong tailwinds. The pilot, a retired Amtrak engineer, had rigged a small, 20-gallon, neoprene tank in the space behind the seats and was planning to go around the world through Siberia. (When I asked if he had all his clearances for Russia, he said, “What’s a clearance?” I never read about him, so I guess he made it.)
For me, the best thing about such touring trips is that I’m allowed to see the Far North through new eyes. There’s something magical about the reaction of a pilot to his first Queen Mary-sized iceberg floating in the Labrador Sea. Better still is the look of amazement at first sight of the incredible Greenland Ice Cap, often visible from 100 miles out. I’ve stopped in Greenland at least 100 times over the last 25 years, and I’m still dazzled by the stark, primitive beauty of the place.
Godthab (now renamed Nuuk), the capital and the island’s only real city, is a tiny enclave of civilization in a blue and white wilderness. Its small, 3,100-foot airport, perched on a hill east of the city, serves aircraft up through medium twins and turboprops and makes a popular way station on the trip across the ocean. Narsarsuaq, near the island’s southern tip, has to be one of the world’s most scenic airports, with a glacier at one end and the blue water of the Tunugviarfik Fjord at the other. Indeed, the up-the-fjord approach into Narsarsuaq is among the most stunning 42-mile flight segments on Earth, and I continue to be impressed, even after so many trips.
The massive Greenland Ice Cap is some 10,000 feet tall at its highest point abeam Sondre Strom Fjord and was the site of at least three DEW line stations in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Code-named Big Gun, Sea Bass and Sob Story, the radar facilities were perched atop the ice cap and looked north over the pole, hoping to provide the first electronic warning of Russian bombers headed for the U.S. I always wondered what manner of military indiscretion could have resulted in a transfer to Sob Story Radar Site, Greenland. Fortunately, the Cold War ended just as the ice cap developed a nasty habit of swallowing up Quonset huts, so we packed up our radar dishes and abandoned the stations to the ice. (Today, the only significant U.S. presence in Greenland is at Thule Air Base far up on the northwest coast abeam Ellesmere Island.)
For its part, Iceland is the best kept secret on the North Atlantic, and many Icelanders would just as soon keep it that way. It’s a pearl of a northern island parked strategically halfway between Greenland and Norway, and don’t think that strategic position has gone unnoticed. During the Cold War, the U.S. based a large contingent of fighter/interceptors at Keflavík, 40 miles west of Reykjavík.
Although the summer season is short up north, the days are long, with 20 to 24 hours of sunlight in June and July. If the weather is good, you can easily fly three four-hour legs in a day, though most pilots prefer to stop and smell the sheep.
As this column is being written, I’m contracted to cross the Atlantic with a client at least once this summer, this time we’re headed for Vienna, Austria. After 25 years, you’d think it would get old, but it never does.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].