The journey to Switzerland (3)

by | 2019-07-21

Greenland: the wall

One thing has to be said about sleeping: it repairs. That is what kept Winston Churchill going during this world’s darkest hours. We were, of course, nowhere close from being in such predicament and quite frankly Iqualuit was basking in 24 hours daylight at this time of year.

An 8 o’clock departure was established. The plan was to cross a huge piece of ice. The shortest distance to Iceland involved flying direct from CYFB (Iqualuit) to BGSF (Kangerlussuaq/Sondrestrom) fuel up then overfly the glacier to BIRK (Reykjavik). This, pending good weather, no forecast icing and yet another long day of flying.

Perhaps I did not define “long day of flying” properly. The enjoyment and lack of dull moments is defining this endeavour. Jean-Louis at times could be mesmerized by the continuous buzz of the engines compounded by stable air. I made good use of the “long” day by working on fuel management, weather, critical point, next leg planing and of course feeding the eyes with the scenery. More on this later.

Had we not had adequate glacier weather, the sightseeing route VFR, “low level” was the other option with a tech stop at BGBW. Narsarsuak is famous for its long fjord approach immortalized in Ernest Gann’s captivating “Faith is the Hunter”. This variation, although quite palatable, required even longer flight time.

The trick here for us was to maximize good flying conditions to avoid getting “stuck” anywhere by adverse weather. The vast anticyclone was collaborating.

Some low-lying stratus was covering the airport and coastal waters. We got ourselves an IFR clearance and off the main gear went for the first time heading eastbound. We were now making progress!

Our Canadian AIM shows that one has to fly at 20 000 feet in order to maintain marginal VHF contact with ATC facilities. We filled at 13 000 en route to BGSF. We were able to maintain essential good VHF all across. This day and age, our good people at Transport still cannot find wise to use satcom for aviation comms in this part of the world. HF is the norm. I repeat:”Go figure”.

For those of you accustomed to the Atlantic, you will be surprised to discover that no oceanic clearance is required. That requirement is necessary about 60 nm south at the boundary of jurisdiction for Gander FIR (CZQX). 

Mountains are always quite stunning, I never get tired of them. To observe them floating on top of low level clouds is even more jaw dropping. This is precisely what we were served passing south of the Penny Ice Cap and adjoining Pangnirtung and mount Asgard. This is where an original base jump scene was filmed (no iphone videos in these days) for Albert R. Broccoli’s “The spy who loved me”.

As we got past Baffin’s island coast, we prepared for our first ocean experience. I took time to review ditching procedures with Jean-Louis, paid attention to our winds down there and reminded myself that flying an aircraft in absolute perfect mechanical condition was a good idea. There is no compromise.

Our elegant 185 kt groundspeed was motivating and soon enough made the west coast of Greenland appear in the clean windshield. No bugs here… yet.

Geography entertained from a distance (FL400) or from Google Earth renders no justice to what was now deploying before us. To a prudently prepared flight plan plus the consideration and respect for this “unknown” area of the world yielded an impressive yet not so much a “wall” envisaged 6 months earlier.

The uncommon colours of the fjords was the first surprise. The utter size of course just upgraded my notion of fjords. The few times in the past when I had flown in BGSF (Dewline days) were all flown IMC. 


We were sequenced number two behind a Danish Air Force Challenger doing low approaches. We perceived on their various calls that they were paradropping equipment or personnel. From Challenger? This, I will need to check. This could be a novel STC to safely unload unruly passengers.  I digress. 

BGSF fjord
BGSF fjord approach on descent (we’re taking the left turn soon)

Back to the fjord approach BGSF. A surreal feature allowed us to visually track the Challenger by its shadow over the turquoise opaque fjord water.

Another eye opener was the distant glacier. “The” glacier. Being accustomed to the Alps and the respectable and unfortunately melting ones residing there, it is difficult to register whether one is observing low lying clouds or ice. Indeed it was ice, loads of ice. The appearance on final is an enormous white mass overflowing into narrow valleys. This of course lies almost still in time. The unrelenting flow is very much a threatening reality.

We were offered a very quick turnaround by the Mittarfeqarfiit people. They are well accustomed to the needs of passing tourist of our nature. Fuel is serviced by normal fuelling equipment and is more economical then in Schefferville!

What can we say about the departure? “Look out”! The modest PA-30 performance did not allow us a straight out climb. This was all good, we gained more time to fathom this spectacle.

Fueling in BGSF
Fueling in BGSF: piece of cake!

We made the climb out to FL150. I had no intention of flying MEA. According to my planning, an engine failure followed by driftdown to measured single engine absolute ceiling (10 500 feet) was too marginal.

This is the place where so many WW2 ferried aircraft were put down. Many attempts were made to recover those “gems” over the years.

Descending inbound to Kulusuk (BGKK), our longest leg over water was to begin. We descended to FL090 to (pardon the pun) immerse ourselves into the immense and rugged coastal mountains spewing countless number of icebergs. They manufacture them right here folks. Then water, only water, lots of water ahead. “Heading, timing”, I reminded myself should all avionic hardware pack it in!

Iceland is not so small in a Twin Comanche pilot’s eye. We were greeted by the usual friendly tone of Reykjkavik Center. Although in VHF contact with Iceland radio all the way, we knew we were getting closer anticipation being at high level.

What an exciting site to observe our progress. Iceland ahead, iceland that was for this pilot a mere place on a map. To say that the Gulfstream is a benefit to the island is an understatement. What a contrast with Greenland. One can attest to the similarities with the mainland further, much further southeast. 

The approach to BIRK was spectacular.  We raced with a well defined Brocken spectre near top of descent then transitioned to the island’s “tame” vegetation. We landed DSY yet once more into a new world. What a hoot! After a warm welcome to a world class FBO (Ace FBO), and custom officers clearing us in a very civilized fashion, we finally realized that we were trashed. 

Our flying day finally got us crossing 3 time zones. Not bad, I thought. As it was, we were prop lagged! We both felt it, realizing by the clock on the wall that it was 21:45 hrs local. This leaving scant sleeping time should we decide to madly press on. 

It appeared that the busiest part of the flying was behind our tail feathers. One may expect flying privately is chicken feed done leisurely, think again, at least around this neck of the world. Situational awareness, in this aviator’s mind must be elevated. Fatigue, did confirm the effort despite proper nourishment and hydration. We still had a fair amount of ocean to overfly enroute to Wick, Scotland (EGPC). And so, on to the fancy hotel we went since scant establishments were available.

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