Round-the-world pilot Zara Rutherford and friend Megan fly the Shark microlight to Canada via the Greenland Air Trophy competition
Words & photos Megan Bowden
15 September 2023
Wick, the most northerly airfield in the UK, is bathed in warm sunshine. A light breeze from the east brings the subtle scent of the sea. The monolithic C1 hangars dating from WWII dominate the landscape, a reminder of how important a base this was in the war.
Wick is still highly important as a launchpad for pilots looking to take their aircraft across the Atlantic.
In the crew room, myself and nine other pilots pored over weather forecasts and fuel figures for the five aircraft in which we are trying to fly to Iceland, on the first leg of the Greenland Air Trophy.
This is a once-in-a lifetime aviation expedition to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, where a team of aviators from each side of the Atlantic will meet for a flying competition before completing the crossing or heading back home.
“I think Zara and I will have to shoot for Reykjavik,” I say to Duncan, my colleague in operations, “I know the PA28 can’t make it there directly, but the weather just isn’t good enough for us to try Egilsstadir, as the Shark isn’t IFR certified. Alain and Pierre can come with us in their Cirrus, and we can wait for you guys there.”
Duncan nodded thoughtfully. Egilsstadir-Reykjavik is supposed to be tomorrow’s leg, and we wanted to keep the team together if possible. However, the capabilities of the aircraft differ greatly.
Not all of them have the range for this 650-mile leg, the most limited being Lucy, a PA28 owned by Steve and Martin, and named after their co-owner’s grandmother.
Duncan addresses the group, “OK, here’s the plan: Dennis and I in the Cessna 182 will accompany Steve and Martin in the PA28 to Sumburgh in the Shetlands for refuelling, before continuing to Egilsstadir.
Megan and Zara can’t get in there with the Shark, so they’re going to Reykjavik directly. Pierre and Alain have agreed to accompany them, so I’d like to ask Anna and Piotr if they’d be happy to fly ahead of us to Egilsstadir, and report back on the conditions?”
Anna and Piotr glance at each other, before nodding their consent. The Polish couple are no strangers to airborne adventuring, having taken their Cirrus on numerous cross-country trips before, and are fairly confident in both their flying skills and the ability of their aircraft’s deicing systems to deal with the potential low cloud and temperatures in Egilsstadir.
“Brilliant, thank you,” smiles Duncan. “If you head out first, you’ll reach the destination by the time we finish refuelling at Sumburgh, and then we will decide if we are able to join you.”
We break up into our respective groups, filing flight plans and finally heading down one-by-one to our aircraft for the first over-water leg of the journey.
Both excited and focused, Zara and I don our immersion suits and life jackets, position our inflatable life raft within easy reach, and clamber into the Shark. We are first to lift off from Wick, soaring over the storm-lashed cliffs of the coast and out over the open ocean towards Reykjavik.
We quickly lose contact with Wick but are soon kept company by Alain and Pierre, not far behind us, meaning we can transmit ‘Ops Normal’ calls to each other every 30 mins.
When you find yourself in a single-engine aircraft over vast expanses of frigid water, it’s extremely reassuring to know that someone knows your position and would hear your distress call, should the worst happen.
Soon, a thin layer of low cloud appears just above the water, shielding the ocean below us from view. We stay above it, becoming slightly nervous as the clouds begin to thicken, pushing us higher.
Within Icelandic airspace, there’s a hard VFR ceiling of Flight Level 055, and we’re just about managing to maintain Flight Level 053.
“Ah! There’s a gap,” exclaims Zara happily, “and I can see the water.”
I nod. “Let’s go for it. Looks like there’s loads of room underneath.”
We dart down through one of the holes, just in time to see the otherworldly volcanic coast of southern Iceland come into view, with more of the alien landscape slowly being revealed as we coast in and eventually start flying over land.
Plumes of pure white smoke rise from crevasses and geothermal plants, while huge glacier tracks snake down from the volcanic highlands to the pitch black beaches below.
It’s utterly breathtaking and I’m almost disappointed when it’s time to land at Reykjavik. Zara and I jump out of the Shark, grateful for the stretch, refuel and await the arrival of Alain and Pierre. They arrive safely and, after a traditional Icelandic dinner of beer and pizza, we hit the hay.
The next day is spent exploring the city while we wait for the other three aircraft, carrying the rest of ‘Team Europe’.
They all made it to Egilsstadir safely, and today they have a much smoother time reaching us in time for dinner at the hotel. Afterwards, thoughts turn to the flying tomorrow… it should be a spectacular flight along the western coast of Iceland, and up to Isafjordur in the North.
The clouds look fairly low around Reykjavik, which may obscure the view slightly, but they should lift and then all-but-disappear by the time we get halfway up the island. We go to bed happy to have the team back together, and excited to continue the adventure.
I’m greeted at breakfast the next morning with a cake twice the size of my head, a cuddly puffin, and a lovely card for my birthday. It’s the best birthday present in the world to be with such friendly and interesting people in a beautiful country – and being about to go and explore it from the air!
We waddle down to the airport feeling slightly sick, but very happy, after consuming huge slices of cake on top of a full buffet breakfast.
After one final brief we departed Reykjavik, heading out to the west, towards a huge glacier with its summit shrouded in the forecasted cloud.
Hugging the coast, Zara and I take in the views, even as the Shark is tossed to and fro in the turbulent air. The beaches now alternate between golden and black, and the ground inland varies in colour from different shades of mossy green, to straw-yellow, to deep patches of burnt orange, its surface pockmarked with the scars of now-extinct volcanoes.
As we head further north, the cloud lifts revealing beautiful blue skies, allowing us to fly higher and playfully around awe-inspiring rock formations.
The approach into Isafjordur is notoriously tricky. The airport is situated right next to the water in a valley down a fjord, and left base for 08 is rudely interrupted by a large mountain, meaning pilots are left with a curved approach and abbreviated final. Zara has a preference for a steep approach in the Shark, and so she handles this with ease.
The other pilots all do a fantastic job, but we are missing Steve and Martin in Lucy, which has come down with an electrical problem. The engineers at Reykjavik are doing their best to solve it, so we keep our fingers crossed they’ll be able to catch up.
Martin and Steve finally make it to us just as we are settling in for a drink before dinner, relaxing happily as the sun glints brightly off the lake adjacent to the hotel. We ask them for the diagnosis.
“Our Aspen Evolution has gone down,” Martin explains, “it’s our AI and DI, and links the GPS to the autopilot, so we’ve lost a lot of capability IMC. We’re going to have to be very careful with our decision-making.”
It’s true that with their limited endurance, and the lack of alternates, the next few legs could potentially get hairy. We all have this in mind the next morning as we sit around the breakfast table examining the very active low pressure system lying smack-bang in the middle of the direct path to Kulusuk.
Freezing level looks to be about 4,000ft, with clouds down to the deck in some areas, but lifting to the North of the direct track.
This will also be where we can take the fullest advantage of the tailwinds. Zara and Duncan are no strangers to this route, and they seem optimistic about our chances.
Kulusuk looks clear enough all day, and the Cirrus can once again go ahead of us to report back on the weather. Steve and Martin also decide to make a go of it, carefully planning their point of no return.
We set off in 20-minute intervals from Isafjordur, and I am intrigued to see, about 70nm from Iceland, a sudden change in the appearance of the water up ahead. I quickly realise it’s sea ice… the first time I have ever seen it.
Out of nowhere appear slabs of floating ice harbouring small pools of turquoise water, and recently upturned icebergs shining cyan. The cloud is about 1,500ft above us, but soon a layer of clouds develops beneath us, too.
It’s at this moment that I have a very sudden realisation that if we had to ditch, and somehow ended up being able to both get in a life raft, we would be impossible to find for ‘who-knows-how-long’.
This realisation starts to feel a little suffocating when, about half-way across the water, the cloud base drops and the temperature decreases to 3°C. When it starts to drizzle, Zara and I become hyper-vigilant for ice, while I make sure the life raft is within easy reach, and that our warmest clothes are tucked behind my seat.
“Are we both happy to continue?” I ask.
“I am if you are. I think this is going to be the worst of it. It should be clearer near the coast,” Zara responds, checking her phone for screenshots of the weather forecast.
“I agree,” I say, “the two Cirrus are ahead of us and haven’t had any problems with ice. Let’s offer an updated position report to the other aircraft to be on the safe side.”
Zara agrees, and we transmit our bearing and distance from Kulusuk to the rest of the team. Everyone responds in kind, and we realise Duncan and Dennis are behind us by about 20 miles, which is very reassuring in these conditions. We keep frequent contact with Duncan and Dennis, and can also hear Steve and Martin making good headway in Lucy.
The cloud base does lift slightly, and soon some irregular shapes begin to appear on the horizon. I know it to be the Greenlandic coast, although, as we draw closer, I realise it’s like no coast that I’ve ever seen.
Thousands of jagged, forbidding, stark mountains emerge abruptly from the frozen, dark grey sea. There are no beaches, nowhere to land. Permafrost clings to the cracks in the mountains that are shielded from the fierce wind.
We’re getting a whopping 45kt tailwind, for which we are exceptionally grateful, but the wind is also being churned by the terrain and tossing the ultralight Shark up and down violently. Climbing out of the turbulence isn’t an option, so we tighten our lap and shoulder straps and sit tight.
We turn right, following the coast in towards Kulusuk, a tiny island settlement of 240 people, many of whom work at the single hotel or at the small airport. The approach is bumpy, but Kulusuk is at least partially shielded from the elements by more enormous, monochrome mountains.
We land on the gravel runway, taxi to where the two Cirrus are parked, and are soon joined by the other two aircraft.
We walk together to the crew room to decide on our next steps. The next flight, to Narsarsuaq, will again be challenging. It’s a 5.5hr jaunt down the coast, around the tip, and up again, with no alternates and very few places on which you could safely put down an aircraft.
There is, however, an option to shave a little time off the journey – you can cut the corner and go over the ice cap – an unimaginably vast sheet of ice covering the middle of Greenland, rising to over 8,000ft above sea level (asl).
The temperatures are sub-zero, so even the IFR-capable aircraft need to be able to remain clear of cloud at 9,000ft to safely pass. To deduce whether this will be possible, we head up to the tower for weather charts and reports from Nuuk, the main meteorological office.
They tell us they think today is a pretty good day to go over the cap, but we spot low clouds and potential precipitation half-way down the coast. Tomorrow’s weather looks much less promising, so the two Cirrus aircraft, equipped with their deicing systems, decide to make a go of it.
The rest of us aren’t willing to accept the icing risk, so we wave them off and watch their progress as we head to the hotel, happy when we see them arrive safely.
I wake up the next morning expecting a leisurely day exploring the surrounding area, but Duncan has other ideas. I find him talking to the rest of the team.
“We’ve got a window early afternoon, and I think we should go for it. Narsarsuaq is lovely all day and we’re likely to have blue skies over the ice cap.”
“Zara and I can go first and report back,” I offer, “We’ve got the endurance to go look at the ice cap, decide it’s a no-go, and come back if we need to. If we’re ahead, reporting back, Steve and Martin will be able to make their decision before their point of no return.”
The plan is agreed, and so after an impromptu but illuminating tour of the town by Jakob, the hotel owner, we are dropped at the airport. Zara and I take one last look at the weather and leave.
Instead of taking the most direct track, we elect to hug the coast. For the first hour or so this seems like a good idea, but then a large bank of cloud appears up ahead.
With no choice but to go underneath it, we are pushed to 1,000ft… 700ft… 500ft… it starts to drizzle, the temperature dropping gradually and, when it hits 2°, we decide to turn back. We use our callsign to radio through to the others our decision.
“Trophy 21, Trophy 54, we’re turning back due low cloud and icing risk.”
“Roger,” comes Duncan’s reply, “We are between cloud layers and it seems tricky but manageable. We’ll keep going and can report back for Steve and Martin. Trophy 21.”
Encouraged by this, we think of retracing our steps and then tracking a more direct course, following the others. However, we have no way of seeing the exact path they have taken and we have already burned more than an hour’s worth of precious fuel.
We decided to go back, refuel with both avgas and a brew, and check the Iridium GPS trackers on board both aircraft. We see them continuing to make their way south, not hugging the coast, at about 3,800ft, and get back in the Shark to follow them.
This time, we find the path that keeps us between two layers of cloud, in temperatures of about 5 degrees. Being higher can actually lead to warmer temperatures in these latitudes as, low down, the sea-ice freezes the air above it.
Even though we once again encounter precipitation, we are far more comfortable waiting it out for an hour or so.
The clouds have lifted significantly by the time we reach the fjord that leads to the ice cap, but as we draw closer, it looks like it isn’t quite good enough. We are out of contact with anyone, and have no way of knowing whether the other two aircraft were able to make it over, so we elect to continue south, down to the other fjords that lead to Narsarsuaq.
On reaching the Prince Christian Sound, we notice patches of blue sky above us, and turn to follow the waterway inland. The clouds all-but disappear, revealing an incredible vista of soaring, sharp peaks and glaciers that tumble down valleys, shedding shining white icebergs into the turquoise water.
It’s stunning, but I’m also hit with a deep feeling of respect for those aviators in WWII who had to navigate this matrix of hazards in often terrible conditions, with only rudimentary navigational tools and maps reading ‘UNEXPLORED’.
Narsarsuaq, formerly known as Bluie West One, was on the ‘Snowball’ route used by American airmen transporting aircraft across the Atlantic to support their allies in the conflict in Europe.
The sleepy settlement now houses only about 140 people but, at the height of its activity, there were more than 4,000 servicemen stationed here and, over the course of the war, there were more than 10,000 landings on the runway that now lies quietly below us, nestled between large, lush-green hills.
Our GPS led us directly to the airport, but it was sobering to think of those who never made it here, having flown mistakenly up ‘the Wrong Fjord’, where they met an inescapable dead-end.
We are the last of the group to land, taxying to where four familiar aircraft are parked, and noticing they are next to two others – a Kenai and a Maule M5. These belong to team USA and, looking over to the tower, we see Sam, Zara’s father, approaching us, beaming.
“Glad you made it!” He exclaims, pulling Zara into a big hug. “When you’re done freshening up, you can come meet Team USA at supper!”
Sam, the organiser and mastermind behind the Greenland Air Trophy, has been escorting Team USA to Narsarsuaq.
They’ve travelled through the far north of Canada, across the Baffin mountains, and then over to Sisimiut on the north western coast of Greenland, before making their way down the coast to meet us.
At dinner we meet Matt and his family, in the Maule, and father and son, Tim and Ethan, in the Kenai. We learn that Tim and Ethan joined the group at the last minute to help 17-year-old Ethan to prepare for flying around the world solo. He spends the evening chatting to Zara, getting some tips from the youngest woman ever to do so.
After the competition is over, we open the gates of the airfield and let the locals in to have a look at the aircraft, smiling along with the children sitting in the front seats and showing them how the controls work.
We then enjoy a well-deserved beer and a wonderful meal at the hotel, where I reveal the results of the competition and hand out prizes. It’s a lovely evening, and I’m a little sad to think that tomorrow Zara and I will be heading our own way.
We are to continue along the Snowball route, taking the Shark first to Goose Bay, then onwards to Chicago, where the aircraft will rest up before its big debut at Oshkosh. Team USA and Team Europe will now combine and together go back eastwards to the UK and beyond.
We say our goodbyes the next morning and, as Zara and I depart towards Canada, we spot the rest of the team on a boat among the icebergs, giving them a little buzz goodbye.
It’s beautiful weather on the four-hour over-water leg, so there’s time to reflect on the incredible experience we have just had.
To be able to see such remote, beautiful, and untouched parts of the world at a couple of thousand feet is an immense privilege and, although we faced challenges along the way, working together as a team meant that the whole group managed to successfully complete what for many is the longest and most complex journey they’ve ever undertaken.
The Greenland Air Trophy will return again in 2024 and, if you’ve got a PPL, access to an aeroplane, and a passion for adventure, I highly recommend you come along and see what you can achieve!