Return to Narsarsuaq

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The last day of July was my departure date from California.  Leaving early from Truckee we headed east in my A-36. My partner was a non-pilot who, although he had spent many hours in small planes, he was not interested in becoming a pilot himself. His dream in life was to undertake a major cross-country flight in a small plane. Going to Europe from the US West Coast suited him fine. My objective was simple enough: we would transverse North America quickly, cross the Atlantic, and visit fellow Bonanza owners in Europe. My wife and children would join me in Berlin arriving via Lufthansa from San Francisco and we would hop-scotch the Continent in the Bonanza returning a month later.

After dodging convective activity over the Rockies, we made a noontime fuel stop at Rapid City, South Dakota and proceeded on to Sault Saint Marie, Michigan where we spent our first night. The next day the forecast cooperated and we hurriedly continued to Goose Bay, New Foundland after an intermediate stop in Quebec City. I could not believe it myself, in less than a day and a half we had cross North America diagonally! My philosophy in undertaking  long distance flights is to take advantage of current conditions while available. There are too many variables affecting the outcome (or launch) of a flight; therefore if weather conditions are forecasted beneficial and there is no real reason to delay or stop along the way, make a run for it.

The “piper” was to be paid in Goose Bay though. Goose Bay is a dismal, remote outpost in Northeastern Canada which contains a NATO air force base hosting German Tornados, USAF F-15’s and British Jaguars including the small town of Happy Valley. Upon arrival that evening, and calling St. John Flight Service (the Canadians closed the excellent facility in the field a few years back), I learned that our next stepping stone in Southern Greenland had been below IFR minimums for a week within a deep surface low. Visibility had not lifted over a few hundred meters and ceilings were reported as 100 scattered, 300 broken and 500 feet overcast. The forecast did not call for improvement and we resigned ourselves to perhaps spending the next day in Goose. A case of Hurry up and Wait…

The following morning things showed a glimpse of hope.  Narsarsuaq’s weather was still very bad but there was a possibility that the deep low may migrate Eastward lifting ceilings and visibility.

The southeastern Greenlandish town of Narsarsuaq may be better known to most WWII vintage aviator as Bluei West (BGBW). A secret Allied refueling stopover for the myriad of B-17s, B-24s and fighters headed to the European conflict. It is located at the end of a 45-mile long fjord and its runway ends on a glacier.

As a result its weather can be affected by the prevailing bad conditions in the North Atlantic. If it is unusually clear, the coastal fog that always lingers at the edge of the fjord is waiting for a southern breeze to push it towards the airport closing it due to poor visibility. The Danish government REQUIRES having a ceiling of 1,500 feet and visibility of 6,000 meters before you are even allowed to perform the NDB approach! Its NDB non-radar monitored approach is consistently ranked as one of the worst in the world and has many warnings in its instruction plate about not even thinking of attempting it without excellent knowledge of local conditions and prior experience. Narsarsuaq’s IFR alternate is 300 NM away, guaranteeing you would be burning fumes by your time of arrival to the next destination. It is no wonder that Transport Canada requires having a proven three-hour fuel reserve beyond destination for North Atlantic crossings.

Back at Goose Bay that afternoon we encountered deteriorating conditions with rain and low ceilings as we walked in the rain to the town of Happy Valley and enjoyed a meal there. The plan was to check weather again for our route of flight upon return to the hotel and if not favorable we would go on the northern route to Iceland instead. This alternative adds about 600 Nautical Miles to our flight heading, first straight north to Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) thence to Sondrestromfjord Air Force Base in Greenland before proceeding east to Reykjavik, Iceland. The good news was that there had been definite improvement in the lifting of the low-pressure center with ceilings forecasted to be marginal VFR the next morning. Encouraged we headed to the hotel for an early bedtime.

We were on our way to the airport at 5:30 AM riding along with Dr. Knutti from Switzerland and his family who were returning from a month long vacation throughout the Caribbean, Central and North America in his beautiful Cheyenne III. He elected to go north to Frobisher and Sondrestrom rather than risking a missed approach in Southern Greenland. Our plan was simple: unless we had 25% better weather than what is required for ceiling and visibility minimums, we would proceed the same way as he was or divert enroute to Sondrestrom. Calling St. John FSS again brought even better news: although our destination presently was reporting a ceiling of 200 feet broken, 400 overcast with 500 meters visibility it was expected to be above approach minimums by the time of our arrival after the 5 hour flight. The bad news was that our departure and most enroute flight would be in Instrument Meteorological Conditions and the surface Low would be over Iceland this evening creating havoc with very low ceilings and poor visibility for the conclusion of our flight for the day. Crossing the North Atlantic in the troposphere never was, nor will ever be, in VMC and one must select the least adverse weather. Reykjavik had an ILS with 200’ Decision Height and nearby is Keflavik AFB with its 300 foot wide by 10,000’ long airfield served by Precision Approach Radar posing the least risky condition for ultimate destination today. We started to pack and get ready to fly.

Climbing out we encountered mostly layers of stratus clouds with occasional convective activity in rain along Lake Melville and Hamilton Inlet. Around 100 miles out we could no longer receive the VOR at our cruising altitude of 9,000 feet and shortly we were instructed to contact Gander Control on HF. After 2 hours over the ocean we were finally breaking out in Visual Meteorological Conditions on top of a solid overcast. Closer to Greenland talking now to Julianahab Radio we began to discern what was clearly, by now,  not puffy clouds ahead but the Ice Cap surrounded by its ring of high coastal mountains. We stowed the High Frequency communication gear as we made contact with Narsarsuaq information via VHF radio now and learned that its weather was still not great. The ceiling report was few at 100’, few at 400’ and 1,800’ overcast with 5,000 meter visibility. Encouraged we proceeded forward preparing to perform the NDB approach with the determination to perform a missed approach if we had to and go on north to Sondrestromfjord. Approaching the powerful Simiutak NDB, which can be received half way across from Canada and is located at the entrance to the fjord, we were warned of traffic pointed out as an outbound helicopter. Promptly we queried its pilot and learned that although there was a solid low overcast at our destination the trip up the Fjord could be managed in VFR conditions. Again encouraged by this report and seeing the entrance of the fjord unencumbered with a stratus overcast only, I requested a Contact Approach. Three fjords are visible from the island of Simiutak, and the middle one has Narsarsuaq at its far end. The fjord on the right dead-ends on a glacier and the one on the left dead-ends into a 3000 foot hill. A quick descent to low altitude allowed us a beautiful arrival in surreal conditions experienced by few aviators in their lifetimes. We found ourselves following a tunnel like environment for 45 miles with mountains at each wingtip and the overcast ceiling forcing us to stay below the clouds. This afforded close up views of waterfalls, icebergs extending below sea level in turquoise waters and occasionally some marine life. About 20 miles in, at the base of the first hill on the left is the town of Narssaq.  Mesmerized by this beauty a while later we were awakened by the mountain on the left announcing the end of the fjord.  As it swings to the left around the mountain we prepared to find the Narsarsuaq airfield carved out of the mountainside with the glacier at the end of the runway. Sure enough the airport showed up predictably as planned and we landed at the threshold of its uphill slopping runway under broken skies. It ends in a glacier, so go-arounds are not recommended. The valley containing the airport is very narrow with 3,000 foot and 7,000 foot mountains on three sides. Soon we were on the ground removing our immersion suits, getting a briefing for the next leg across the Ice Cap and Denmark Straits to Iceland preparing to pay $8.50 per gallon for AvGas.




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