Tom Horne

School’s out — and Crossing the Icecap

May 17, 2008 by Thomas A. Horne, Editor At Large

It’s easy to intellectualize the idea of northern latitudes having longer days this time of year. It’s something else to live in them. When you arrive in Nuuk, Greenland, on the last day of school, the hotel bar and restaurant are packed chock-a-block with somewhat frantic, posing, overdressed teenagers, chugging away at both drinks and cigarettes non-stop. Luckily, Jean-Pierre, our tour guide, wangled our group a private room where we dined on reindeer, breathing non-toxic air.

This town of 14,000 lives by…well, I don’t know what it lives by. Maybe the government, since Nuuk is the capitol of Greenland. Both most certainly not its capital. I went down a hill to the water’s edge. There, three locals urged me to join them in drinking beer, which they yanked out of a large paper bag. Meanwhile, children played under the supervision of their bleary eyes. Paradox. All this great natural beauty of Greenland, and the natives appear to be hooked on a variety of toxic habits. I know, being judgmental is frowned upon these politically-correct days. But it’s hard to avoid when you draw in the crystal-clear air up here, and enjoy such tremendous scenery and visibilities. When the weather is good, that is. Which it is. It’s severe clear, in fact.

Back to the school theme. I waddled from the dinner table to go to bed. It was still light outside at 11p.m. Fell asleep anyway. Awakened at 3 a.m. by a racket that sounded like a combination of fighting, drunken yelling, and two-stroke motorcycle racing. Seems the school year had just ended. The partying had commenced. It died down by 6 a.m. But so what? I’d been awake since 4 a.m. Maybe it was the noise, maybe the sun piercing the gap in the curtains.


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I flew again with Bill Anastos and Dottie Thompson in their Conquest II. It took a while to get our IFR oceanic clearance, which we never got on the ground. Instead, we were cleared to depart into uncontrolled airspace (which goes to 19,500 feet), then contacted Sondestrom radio for the clearance. Now, this is one thing if it’s severe clear (which it was), but it would have been something else if the weather was down. Think of it–launching into a non-radar environment, in icing conditions, with mountains nearby.

Our clearance turned out to be the following: climb to 19,000 feet; go direct 65N 45W; then the DA NDB; then 65N 30W; then direct Gimli intersection, direct RK NDB (which is at BIRK). Our final altitude was 31,000 feet, and the trip took 2 hours, 44 minutes. There were some great views of the ice cap along the way, but then it was a continuous undercast. For the landing, we used BIRK’s runway 13. The weather was: few 1500, overcast 3800, with rain showers–but visibility unrestricted beneath the ceiling.

There was enroute drama involving the turbine Duke. At one point the crew felt it might not have enough fuel to land at BIRK with adequate fuel reserves. (The wind had changed, slowing the airplane’s groundspeed). Even worse, the alternate, Kulusuk (it’s on the east coast of Greenland), had gone below landing minimums. But bottom line: the Duke made it with gas aplenty. It did require some power reductions to reduce fuel consumption, however. That’s tough to do when you’re in the middle of the ocean with 400 miles to go. Pilot Jeff Yusem likened his dilemma to those he faced as a paymaster in the Army. “We payed in cash,” he said. “So I had this stack of bills and I doled it out to a huge line of soldiers. After a while you could see that the pile of cash was not tall enough to take care of the remaining soldiers.”


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After landing, we had a tour of the nearby Reykjavik control center–an ATC facility that often handles 650 or more ocean-crossing flights per day. It controls the airspace from the Arctic Circle to just north of Scotland, and from western Greenland to the North Sea. A shift manager, Hordur Ariliusson, showed us the workstations and displays. Huge screens were the rule, and here’s something we all noticed immediately: the room was well-lit. No dungeon-like darkness of the kind seen in U.S. ARTCCs.

Right now I’m kicking back in Reykjavik’s Hotel Borg. One more bottle of Icelandic glacier water, and it’s off to dinner. Tomorrow is a non-flying day. I’ll visit some of Iceland’s glaciers, volcanos and geysers. Should be fun, which is the whole idea, right? Wish you were here.

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