Going to land?

Phil recalls an earlier flight from 1965


It just didn’t seem right. Our aircraft had been losing height and was now descending in a wide sweeping spiral. No reason was given for this behaviour. What on earth was going on?  Ahead the pack ice was drifting down the east coast of Greenland and glistening in the sunlight under a startlingly blue sky. We were dropping steadily down towards a hostile sea packed with a jumbled jigsaw of broken ice floes and dotted with icebergs drifting calmly southward.

Two hours before we had taken off from an airfield at the outskirts of the largest town in Iceland. At the end of the runway our plane had locked its brakes and given its four engines a massive testing roaring warm-up and then flung itself towards the ocean. We took off with a few yards to spare, the water not far below the wheels, and climbed slowly but steadily into the sky towards a cruising height. Now as we were circling down towards the pack ice it was the time to wonder if the preliminary over-enthusiastic warm-up had any significance. Planes don’t become airborne unless everything is as it should be, do they? We shouldn’t imagine that things can go wrong. Perish the thought!

Let’s have some distracting diversions. Think about how much we had enjoyed our brief stay in Iceland. Like ascending the half-dormant volcano Hekla in thick mist. Who knew or cared if the main summit had been reached when we sat on a faint bump on the crater edge and warmed ourselves from sulphurous steam venting out smelly warmth from cracks in the lava rim. When looking for tern eggs to measure on the premise that they came in two different sizes with evolutionary consequences. the search party failed to find their eggs but discovered that their lunch bags of nourishing raisins turned our to be tiny hard dried bilberries with subsequent later startling colouring properties.

There had been nothing sophisticated about our stay in Reykjavik. Initially we had been camping down beside the harbour but on the final night before departure we had been sleeping on the ample concrete floor of the airfield hanger. The age had not come yet for the ubiquitous jet engine and there were no slender sleek planes with shiny engine pods lurking inside its generous dimensions.

It was the era when old workhorse prop planes could still usefully serve the remote places of the world. One such was inside the hanger, a revered and trusty DC-5 aircraft, a ubiquitous vintage Dakota left over from the war sleeping its years away in its shadow. Perhaps it was the same charter aircraft that had taken me to east Greenland two years before. We had landed then on a rolling tilted gravel runway close to a tiny group of houses at Kulusuk, and then crossed a jammed ice choked inlet in a landing craft, laden with our tea chests of supplies, to get access to the main settlement of Angmassalik. Thence we travelled in a cramped venerable Faroese wooden vessel towards the unclimbed mountains of the Caledonian Alps, transferring for the last stage into open boats hired at the little settlement of Kungmuit and crewed by our dog team drivers. They subsequently were to shift our gear only so far before wisely deciding to abandon us in a labyrinth of softening snow underlain with unseen lurking crevasses. Our party failed gloriously to reach anywhere near our distant objectives, but were richly rewarded as we had halted close to a welter of spiky peaks on which to besport ourselves. Abandonment with rich rewards! All were memories to dwell upon and rekindle the imagination, but don’t look out the window.

At this tremulous moment we were captive in a descending plane. Eight respectable members of a mountaineering expedition, with a little science thrown in, on our way to the Sukkertoppen area of west Greenland. It was a slow business making our way there. First sailing from Leith in Scotland to Reykjavik in Iceland in the mv Gullfoss on the regular service that sailed between the two countries in those days. However if one were very flush with money it was possible to fly from the Renfrew airport outside Glasgow that was serving then as the city airport before the present international gateway was built, and look down at the drifting volcanic dust cloud smoking out of the recently formed volcano Surtsey island off the Icelandic coast and be glad not to have endure a choppy voyage across the northern Atlantic Ocean.

Now getting closer all the time was the cold realm of the cruel sea, sometimes with open water and nearly ice free and often laced with strung out necklaces of marshalled floes, while straight ahead was many miles of moving ice shifting on the current. On the distant horizon beyond this barrier and stabbing into the cloudless Arctic sky were the familiar hills with names like Toupidek, Trillingerne, and for my finest arctic climb, Rytterknaegten, a spectacular mountain gem perfect in line, shape and sheer quality. Our doctor, wearing snow goggles to dull the reflected sun glare, thought he made out the navigational radar dome at Kulusuk, or perhaps it was one of the distant early warning radar stations strung across the northern arctic territories to detect unfriendly nuclear devices being flown over the high polar route. Who knows?

Momentarily in our line of sight we glimpsed a couple of red-hulled ships lying stationary in wide open ice free water and halted in front of the drifting ice barrier. They had been stopped in their attempt to reach Angmagssalik as they brought in the first supplies of the season. Ah, a reason for the inexplicable spiral descent was becoming clearer. It was either to make an emergency crash landing close to some succour and support but with a slim chance of avoiding disastrous consequences, or there had been some method in the plane’s track and its mad diversions over the ocean.

We were dropping still lower and lower. We flattened out a few hundred feet above the surface. Aiming in the general direction of the ships we flew onwards and increasingly close to the sea. Flat out at about 220mph we swept regally by. Peer out in expectation. On the deck of a becalmed ship the crew fleetingly waved at us and then we were gone. Slowly we gained height into the blue beyond. Had our pilot, crazy man, been giving his captive passengers a few extra qualms plus some unexpected excitement for our pleasure?

Our thoughts stabilised and after some short cogitations we devised a rational explanation. There was nothing going haywire with our plane. It was doing what it had to do. The two ships had halted because they were unable to see a channel of open leads towards the settlement. Up high we could see clearly and could radio a possible route through the ice barrier. Our aircraft was taking on its Ice Patrol role conscientiously by observing ice conditions along the Greenland coast and if need be could help out those in a hiatus on the sea. No satellite navigation and observation observation in those days.

We flew on towards the old airfield at Narsarssuaq beyond the island’s southern tip at Cape Farewell. We turned north skirting the myriad of islands dotting the coast. Somewhere in there was a long inlet called Tasermuit leading towards the icecap. Who was to know that years later we would penetrate up into its wildness with more virgin mountains waiting for some climbers to scrabble to their summits.

Our future, as always, was unknowable. It didn’t matter. Life was good. It was time to tuck into the goodies on our lunch tray. Sometimes airline food is welcome.