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June 07
15:59 2016

Published in May 2015 issue

By Clayton Taylor

When you look at a map of the world it appears as though Greenland is just as big as the African Continent, but it isn’t. In fact, it isn’t even close. Greenland is a huge island located in the north Atlantic, and though it is quite huge, it is often difficult to see. Plenty of times I’ve seen the huge peaks of southern Greenland from a couple of hundred miles away, only to have the entire place disappear beneath the clouds as I approach. On occasion however, it acts as though it doesn’t mind my presence and allows me to glimpse its many wonders.

I apologize in advance if you feel that climate change is some kind of whacky religion. But I can tell you, that in the dozen-plus years I’ve been flying international routes, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much white down there as there used to be. Even in winter, there are plenty of bare rock faces to be seen these days. The one good thing about that I suppose, is it makes for some breathtaking scenery.

The southern part of this gigantic island, that many believe to be a continent, though it isn’t, is covered with huge mountains with incredibly steep gradients. Further north, it’s mostly flat since the mountains and lakes beneath are covered in thousands of feet of ice and snow. It kind of looks like you could land on it in a pinch, but I’d rather not since it’s been tried before with very limited success.

Whenever I fly across the Atlantic during daylight hours, and it looks like our route of flight will take us within a few hundred miles of the southern coast of Greenland, I always enter the Narsarsuaq airport into our data base. This is the place that used to be called Bluie West One, built during WWII as a refueling stop for aircraft enroute to Europe. It’s a very difficult airport to spot. It has a short runway and is surrounded by mountains, but it’s a nice place to know about if your airplane is on fire. Even though it has only a couple of non-precision approaches that require a rather steep descent path to get down, and due to the rapidly raising terrain a nearly zero margin for error while navigating and descending, landing there would certainly beat the alternative.

There is another airport to the northeast of this one, originally called Bluie East Two, but I’ve never seen it, even though I know where to look. Further to the north and west is Sondrestromfjord (BGSF), serving the town of Kangerlussauq. I’ve seen this place a few times, but getting a good picture of it has eluded me. That’s partly because it’s generally cloud covered, but often it’s because I’m in the wrong place and there is simply too much glare with the sun’s ray’s bouncing off the surrounding snow.

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A friend of mine used to fly four engine turbo-props into Sondrestromfjord, carrying much needed freight in under contract with the US Government. As I recall, the approach required them to fly down a fjord for quite a distance. Somewhere along the way, they were supposed to turn one way or the other to find the airport. Make the wrong turn and they would likely end up totally screwed.

We were departing Tel Aviv one evening for New York, and as I entered the flight plan into out B747-400’s flight management system, the captain asked what our coast out point was going to be. I looked up and said, “It’s so far north, I don’t recognize it.” Indeed, due to the winds, our dispatcher filed us over Eastern Europe, Finland, Sweden and then eventually, Norway. We would be talking to BODO control when we finally left land behind us. It isn’t all that unusual to fly this far north to avoid winds or turbulence over the Atlantic, but when departing from Israel, it definitely was outside the norm.

One of the reasons that our circuitous routing made a difference to us was because Greenland is divided like a pie with imaginary lines that we can see only on our maps. These lines delineate where we are to go in the event our airplane depressurizes while flying over the northern plateau. The older Boeing was a bit more restrictive in this regard than say, the Airbus 330 that I’m now flying. That’s because the Airbuses emergency oxygen generators provide a few more minutes of airflow than the -400, which allows the us to make our descent in steps rather than all at once. The advantage is that it gives us more time to clear the handful of high mountain peaks that lie in this area. In the northern latitudes of Greenland, pretty much all of the airliners have to turn for the nearest coast before proceeding to their alternate in the event of a depressurization. A little further south, this turn isn’t required in the Airbus330.

[tribulant_slideshow gallery_id=”269″]

Last winter, I was flying from Amsterdam to Portland, Oregon when our flight took us north of eighty degrees latitude. It was a grueling ten hour flight. It wasn’t so much that the flight was lengthy, but rather the fact that we took off from Holland in bright sunshine and watched the sun set as we flew west. It stayed dark until we were just a few hundred miles northeast of Yellowknife, Canada. The interesting thing, for me anyway, was that we flew directly over-top of Thule, Greenland. It was the only time I’d flown over the place in clear weather; too bad it was pitch black. And perhaps more to the point, it was night even though we were overhead at ten o’clock in the morning. From my vantage point, Thule looked like a small city in the midst of a giant black hole. I imagine it would be tough duty for the service men and women stationed there. I’d also be willing to bet that there is not a McDonalds to be found in all of Greenland. On the other hand, if Bigfoot is real, I’ll bet he’s living somewhere in the vicinity of Thule.

Greenland has its own government, though they use Danish currency. It’s my guess that the standard of living is rather low, based on the fact that I’ve never seen more than a handful of tiny villages, and the “warm” season, which is likely when the tourists would arrive, is mighty short. In addition, travel has got to be a difficult endeavor because there are very few roads.

Believe it or not, there is regular airline service from Sondrestromfjord to Copenhagen, Denmark. There is also turbo-prop service from Iceland to some of the small villages on the western part of the island. I’ve been told the airline service in and out of the country is iffy, as it depends a great deal on the weather, which can seemingly change in the blink of an eye.

I check the weather there on occasion, and let’s just say summer would probably be the best time to visit. But I imagine one would still need a jacket in July.

If we were to lose an engine while flying over Greenland, depending on where the failure occurred, our usual alternates are Keflavik, Iceland, or Iqaluit, Canada (CYFB, also known as Frobisher Bay). As many times as I’ve flown within a handful of miles of Frobisher Bay, even in absolute clear conditions, I’ve never seen it. I know it’s there because I know someone who was forced to land there one time when one of the spoiler panels on the wing extended, but refused to retract. The drag not only screwed up the airplanes flying characteristics, but the fuel flow required to keep it in the air meant they had to land sooner rather than later.

Over the years I’ve taken snapped a few pictures of this remarkable land, and I’d like to share them with all of you. I think they may tell the story much better than my words.



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Clay Taylor

Clay Taylor

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