Plane & Pilot
Saturday, May 1, 2004

The Fascinating North Atlantic

Still a thrill after countless of crossings

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.


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