What would you call a trip to Quebec City; Bluie West Eight, Greenland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Stravanger, Norway; Amsterdam; Cannes on the French Riviera; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Salzburg, Austria; Lucerne, Switzerland; Tallinn, Estonia; Stockholm; and Edinburgh, Scotland? A trip of a lifetime? What if it were in a private jet? How about if you were the copilot, invited by the owner and his wife? What if, for good measure, these ridiculously generous people invited your wife to come along too? What would you call all that? Never mind the helicopter ride to the vineyard in Cotes de Provence and the private Mozart dinner in Salzburg. Just the flying bit is all we have time to contemplate here.
Let’s start by admitting that such an experience beggars all description — that previous employ of superlatives that might have been used to enthuse about a sunset boat cruise, now become hackneyed and insufficient when attempting to set down what this entire 25-day, life-altering event was really like. And, I should point out, I learned a few life lessons too.
It all started when Pete DeSoto emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in the trip. His insurance wanted another pilot along on this itinerary in his almost brand-new (less than 800 hours on it) Cessna M2. Then he invited my wife, Cathy. By the time the trip came around, Pete had found other coverage that did not demand two pilots, but was kind enough not to rescind the offer.
And so it was that I found myself sitting in a conference room in the elegant Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City in late May, listening to our briefing for the next morning. Our plan was to fly from Quebec to Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, refuel and set out across the Davis Strait to Greenland — specifically to Kangerlussuaq, also formerly known as Sondre Stromfjord and, during World War II, as Bluie West Eight. This route would reproduce with fidelity the trek made by hundreds of airplanes in the 1940s as they ferried weapons, parts and soldiers to the European Theater. If you’ve read Ernest K. Gann’s book Fate Is the Hunter, you appreciate learning all about this route when flown without the benefit of jet engines and GPS navigation. His description of finding the field at Narsarsuaq, Greenland, raises the pulse rate.
Pete and his wife Shardel’s friends, Charlene and Roberto, completed our happy manifest. Our departure from Quebec and arrival at Goose were all routine and flown on top of a benign cloud layer. I quickly became accustomed to Pete’s tail number, as I was the “pilot not flying,” running the radios. It was on our departure from Goose Bay that the enormity of the trip became clear. It is 875 nautical miles to Kangerlussuaq, and the flight plan called for some interesting fixes. After “PRAWN,” we were to fly to N60W057, then to N64W055, and on to “SF,” the beacon called “Sondre Stromfjord” on the LOC Zulu, to Runway 9 at our destination. We would be making position reports on VHF. We were out of radar control over the ocean. As we approached the first lat-long fix, I practiced the correct phrasing for position reporting: “Gander Radio, A/C Identification, position, at time (zulu), altitude (FL 410), estimating SF at time (zulu), BGSF (destination), next.” The reply came instantly, repeating the report exactly in a completely bored tone. Of course, this type of communication is everyday for this guy.
The clouds gave way. Ocean was all you could see. Finally, the hint of a huge cheesecake appeared in the distance at our 2 o’clock. The brown crust was mountains; the cheese filling was ice cap. It grew larger. Snow and rock described the craggy surface. We were turned over to Sondrestrom Approach while still over water, and told to descend. The LOC Z chart declared the minimum safe altitude to be 5,300 feet. The airport is 100 feet msl. I was grateful that the weather was clear. The missed-approach climb gradient required a minimum of 5 percent. Transition altitude was 7,000 feet, not 18,000. The small print on the approach chart stated: “CAUTION: Adhere strictly to the prescribed procedure due to high surrounding terrain. Expect moderate turbulence on final approach with winds in excess of 20 KT.”
We headed for the NDB and started down. Pete said, “I thought there was an ILS here, but not anymore.” We got jostled, but Pete set her down nicely and we danced out of the airplane, shivering and excited, chattering like third-graders. We put on the pitot and engine covers, grabbed the luggage, and hopped in the van that took us across the field to the “office.” After some paperwork, some planning for fuel, some minor customs inquiries and some pleasantries, we were stumbling out the front door, dragging our luggage to the hotel, located just 100 yards away. I was told the hotel was once the bachelor officers’ quarters when this place was busy during the Second World War, and later when the United States had a larger presence here during the Cold War.
We checked in. Each room had blackout curtains. There is very little dark of night at these latitudes in May and June. The rooms were not to be mistaken for those of a Ritz-Carlton, but they were clean, and we were exhilarated, tired and hungry. One catch: The hotel restaurant was closed. The population of Kangerlussuaq is posted as less than 500, making the likelihood of multiple restaurant choices unlikely. Shardel asked, “Is the rowing club open?” Miraculously, it was. We would be picked up at 6 for a ride to the rowing club.
What followed was unlike any previous experience in my life. A school bus picked us up at 6 sharp, and we lurched across a landscape that I associated with the moon. After 15 minutes, we pulled up to some outbuildings. Three trees that had been planted the previous year were pointed out to us. They were still alive.
Inside was a scene out of a sci-fi movie. Tables were set in what appeared to be anticipation of a large group. The waiters moved and spoke with authority. I found myself gleefully ordering musk ox tartar (fabulous), lumpfish roe (ditto), reindeer (not so much) and haddock, direct from the ocean (amazing). And this was just day one of our trip.
Soon, the doors flew open, and 12 climate scientists burst in. They had been in the field, and they set upon their dinner as if they were Shackleton’s crew arriving at South Georgia Island. Soon we were all in noisy conversation. We drank wine in giddy recognition of our whereabouts; not just where we were at that moment and not just with whom we shared the moment, but where everyone was in life.