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Arctic Adventure

Arctic Adventure

Iceland lies in the North Atlantic, south east of Greenland and halfway between Sweden and Canada. The island appears forgotten, overlooked: so far away from other populated areas. This is exactly what makes Iceland so fascinating. Very little tourism, no huge cities and an untouched landscape that has barely changed in thousands of years. But how to get there?

Words: Willi Ewig
Otmar Birkner and I have been on many adventures in our auto-gyros over the past few years. We circumnavigated Australia in 12 days; crossed the Alps at 13,000 feet; flew from Hildesheim down to Corsica in a single day. Now we needed a new adventure.

We chose Iceland…

Planning the trip was daunting: weather in the Arctic Circle is unpredictable. From blue skies to heavy rain with a thick cloud base on the ground within the space of five minutes. Fortunately, Mikkel, the Danish Auto-Gyro partner, had previously braved the rough and rugged landscape and helped organise this epic trip.

There are only two options for reaching the island itself: by air or by ferry. The main problem was not the 1,000 nautical mile stretch over water, flying from Northern England via the Faroe Islands. The challenge was the prevailing westerlies which meant strong headwinds. Furthermore, with two out of our three gyro party carrying passengers, the North Atlantic overwater survival gear would have maxed out our MTOW with our camping gear already on board.

So, the ferry it was, departing Denmark for Iceland. We landed our three gyros in the car park right in front of the ferry. 150 metres long, clearing a 2.5 metre high fence and navigating between two tall lampposts. We taxied right into the truck lane and strapped the gyros down while the cars were loaded. Most drivers were rubbernecking: a formation of gyros isn’t the most usual sight on this remote ferry route.

46 hours later, after a rolling journey through the rough North Atlantic Sea, we taxied out onto the east coast of Iceland. Once the paperwork had been completed, we chatted with the custom guys and police officers. Everyone was incredibly friendly, helpful and, above all, intrigued at this unique vision: ‘how far can you fly?’ ‘How fast do they go?’…We were bombarded with a stream of astonished questions.

Eventually we trooped off to the town’s only main road in pursuit of a suitable ‘runway’. The road was about 300 metres long, light poles on one side, road signs on the other. A slight downhill slope with a tick of tailwind. Not ideal but the only possible take-off route – the only other exit led straight into the mountains.

Mikkel arranges the impossible – a police escort takes us through the town to the main road outbound, blocks off the road at both ends and we get airborne.

Mikkel’s up first with one passenger in his Rotax 912s powered Cavalon, leaving the ground in less than 200 metres. I’m next, in my Calidus flying solo but carrying a lot of gear from the other gyros: tools, computers, drinks, etc. Otmar, the heaviest of the pilots, leaves last and we all circle once overhead as a farewell to the police and climb to 4000 ft to cross the first mountain ridge.

After an uneventful 40 minute flight we land for fuel at Egilsstadir, Iceland’s third biggest airport. Light aircraft pay no landing fees here: a concept most of us in aviation are unfamiliar with.

With full tanks we head on towards Reykjahlio, crossing innumerable mountain ridges along the way, ice blanketing everything. Water gushes all around the landscape with not one house or human to be seen from one horizon to the other. Lava fields crowd our vision and the weather was almost as inhospitable as the landscape.

One and a half hours in the air with a headwind, then no wind, then wind blowing in every conceivable direction. Hard going but safe as houses although we were relieved to finally reach Reykjahlio and grab a coffee or three.

Still utterly inspired by the formidably beautiful landscape, I decided to go for another quick flight around Lake Myvatn just to make sure it was all real. In my 27 years of flying, I have honestly never encountered a location remotely like it.

Day 2

When I crawled out of my tent there was just a light breeze blowing over the glaciers and smoking hot volcanic springs that surrounded us. Slightly overcast, cloud base at about 4,000 feet: perfect flying conditions.

Within seconds the wind had picked up from a calm breeze to a freezing cold 25 knot Easterly. As the runway is 02-20, the Easterly wind is a direct crosswind. As we prepared the gyros, the wind decided to up the ante to 40 knot gusts, blowing ice-cold in our faces. The cloud base sinks and rain looms in the grey skies.

Discretion is the better part of valour, so we abandon our pre-flights and temporarily go tourist, renting a car to visit the local hot springs. We all enjoy the warmth of a hot sulphur water bath: life surges back into our bones and bodies.

While we are soaking, the weather clears, the wind eases and we hot-foot it back to the airport and launch northwards into the skies above the Dettifoss Falls, following the river down towards the sea, before turning west towards Iceland’s third biggest city, Akureyri. Population: 18,000.

The river winding down towards the sea was indescribably spectacular. Lava has sculpted and snaked its way along the riverbeds producing an abundance of colour: red and black sand dunes merge in a crazy kaleidoscope as if some giant has squirted a stream of oil colours along the ground.

The Akureyri Tower controller was speechless after our first radio contact: three gyroplanes in a formation asking for clearance to enter her airspace for landing. She’d never seen a gyro before. Indeed, general aviation per say had never played a large part in her day!

GA is not big in Iceland. There is only one GA club with about 200 members and one microlight club with 30 members. We have only seen two Cessnas so far. Mid-air collisions are highly unlikely!

Day 3

With strong winds and heavy rain forecast for the following two days we decided to go and see a few creatures not readily influenced by hostile weather: whale watching. However, the Icelandic weather soon decided to start flirting with us and we awoke the following morning not to the expected grim heavens but to blue, windless skies.

Iceland put on her summer clothing with a gorgeous display of a few scattered clouds, 10 degree ‘heat’ and nothing in the air for at least 5,000 feet. Our course was set for the North Western corner of the island…

The West Fjords Islands are the most westerly point of Europe and, undoubtedly, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and least-visited corners of Iceland: only three percent of all foreign tourists make it out here.

This peninsula of 8600 square kilometres, stretches out into the icy waters of the Denmark Strait, with its dramatic fjords cutting deep into its heart.

Everything here is extreme – from the table mountains that dominate the landscape, plunging precipitously into the Atlantic, to the ferocious storms that have gnawed the coastline into countless craggy inlets. Life up here, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is tough: even now in summer, temperatures seldom rise above 10°C and drifting pack ice is never far from the North coast.

Immediately after take-off we followed the fjord to the north, glimpsing humpback whales basking in crystal clear calm waters. I felt exceptionally privileged to be able to see these fantastic creatures from the air set against a backdrop of glaciers, green valleys, dozens of waterfalls and small rivers flowing down the slopes to join other rivers before they melted into the North Atlantic Sea.

At the edge of numerous beautiful fjords, looking more like huge lakes, with calm, glassy waters, seals were resting on the rocks bordering the shoreline. Suddenly, a bank of strong rain showers emerged from the horizon forcing us to land short at Isafjoerd and take shelter in a local hotel conveniently situated near Iceland’s most famous fish restaurant which provided a stomach-soothing fresh and delicious dinner.

Day 4

The colour for today is grey.

During warm up, Mikkel filed the flight plan via radio. In these conditions it makes perfect sense to lodge a flight plan although our airborne sightseeing plans were swiftly stuffed up. On a good day, Icelandic people say you can see Greenland from our current position. Not today. We flew through every variety of rain: light, heavy, drizzle. The lot.

The cloud base was between 500 and 1000 ft. We stayed well clear of the clouds, flying coastal in and out of the fjords which gave us the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of spotting three Orcas on a hunting mission out at sea…

We landed on a small gravel airstrip at Reykholar, right next to the main road and taxied across for fuel. Half of the town turned up, and took photos of our auto-gyros perched at the bowsers of the fuel station. An old man crawled out of his old Ford Bronco and took a few snaps. Apparently, he was the chief reporter (possibly the only reporter) for the local newspaper so we might have made the front page that week.

We lined up for our second leg of the day.  As we had now successfully circumnavigated the West Fjords, we made our way due south, towards Reykjavik. Unless we continued along the coastline costal, which would have been a huge detour, we were forced to cross a mountain ridge.

There was only one small gap, and all we could do was hope that the cloud base was high enough to afford a safe passage. Today’s flying was extremely exhausting with full concentration needed at all times. Fortunately, after a heavy raincloud dumped its load, a gap opened up and we shot through.

We continued south to a little airstrip, in the middle of nowhere. No nearby village; no main road; no nothing.

Tents set up, we prepared dinner: frozen dry food was the only thing on our menu. I picked chilly con carne. If you’re hungry enough, you can eat anything…

Day 5

When we woke up at the Storrikropur airstrip the weather was still appalling. We used the inevitable delay for extensive planning, mapping out at least three alternate routes, should our preferred path be impenetrable. Planning in such hostile and readily changeable conditions is essential but we had to get out of this valley today otherwise we might have been grounded for several days.

Fortunately, the cloud cover lifted slightly so we headed off south, trying to get as far as we could.

The main challenge was crossing the highlands, north of Reykjavik. For safety we fly IFR (aka ‘I Follow Roads’) through the clearing gaps which got us to our planned fuel stop at the Selfoss airstrip just southeast of Reykjavik.

Refuelled and refreshed, we disembarked en route to Eyjafjallajoekull, the volcano that erupted in 2010.  About 20 countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic when it exploded, affecting almost 10 million travellers…Iceland is a volcanic island and this was the volcano we wanted to see.

Another interesting island islands lies en route, so we turned south for the 10 kms hop to  Vestmannaejyar Islands. The last eruption there was in 1973 and was catastrophic. The island itself is another masterpiece of sculptures, cathedrals and cliffs. Tiny rock islands cluster around the main dormant volcano, one with a house clinging to its rocky surface. I wondered how on earth anyone managed to construct a house there, surrounded by cliffs and the freezing sea.

Ten minutes later we were at 5,000 feet above the massive Eyjafjallajoekull volcano.  The view, almost on top of the summit, was the most incredible thing I have ever witnessed. Long black tendrils of lava splay out from the crown of the volcano, partially caked in ice.

Speechless, we all began to descend to 1000 ft, following the river back to the coast, tracking along an endless, long black lava sand beach.


Day 6

One day Iceland showed off her incomparable beauty; the next, she gave us outright hell. Heavy rain, visibility under one kilometre, insane gusty winds. We were stuck fast.

The camping ground, hugging a golf course, where we landed the day before, had only limited facilities: one open room, a rudimentary kitchen and a few tables and chairs. A miniscule electric heater tried its hardest to heat up the room but was fighting a losing battle. Even so, I huddled up as close as I could to this solitary source of heat, not moving all day while we vainly waited for the rain to clear.

The weather forecast and rain radar predicted that the rain would clear at 1800. Nothing in Iceland is predictable. We waited and waited. At 1800, it was unchanged, rain still slanting down almost vertically from the grey mass overhead.

Sunset wasn’t until 2330. The rain still wasn’t prepared to budge before then. We called it a day and trooped back to our tents. Small lakes had appeared in mine with only a long draught of single malt whisky to heat my drenched back.
Day 7

At 0500 Mikkel sounded the reveille. It wasn’t perfect but it was flyable.
Departure from the golf course was pretty bumpy: the air gushed over the ridge with heavy turbulence. But we got away and made a beeline, along the coast, to Skaftafell, a small airfield at the foot of the Vatnajoekull glacier.

The airfield had fuel for us as they host joy flights in a Beechcraft twin over the glacier as well as Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnukur.

As we still had some juice in tanks, we decided to ascend to the top of the Glacier Oeraefajoekull. It’s amazing how the ice shunts itself downwards in gigantic spillways. 7,500 ft and we are again on top of the worlds’ surveying nature’s astonishing handiwork.

However, our time was almost up. The ferry was departing the following day and we needed to be on board so we headed back to Seydisfjoerdur, via Egilststadir, right over the edge of Europe’s largest glaciers.

10 miles inbound Seydisfjoerdur, Mikkel radioes the guys from the harbour. Still blue skies and landing is cleared in a small car park right behind the cruising ship terminal. Clouds roll over the hills, pushing in from the south east. This time we are faster than the clouds, and have a clear view into the fjord.

I landed first, Mikkel as number two and Otmar number three. All nine wheels safely on the ground after an epic adventure. All of us had huge smiles etched onto our faces. A surreal experience, flying over one of the most amazing landscapes on the planet. So unreal and hard to believe I often felt I was sitting in a flight simulator populated with animated, hand-drawn backdrops.

Of course, as well as the professionalism of my flying companions, much of our good fortune relied on our grand flying machines: the two Cavalons, one powered by a Rotax 914 turbo, the other by the Rotax 912S, plus my Calidus. They all behaved exceptionally well. Faultless running and the engines didn’t miss a beat…

When I now see the pictures we took, I get tears in my eyes. Emotions flood out: fulfilment, happiness, the good fortune to have witnessed what the majority of humans, even pilots, will never get to see in their entire life.

Iceland, I will be back again!

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