Flying in the land of ice and fire

Halfway around the world from the usual bush flying haunts lies the isolated Scandinavian island of Iceland: the "land of ice and fire", so named for its mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes. This is just as likely a place to explore by bushplane as any in Alaska or Canada. Super Cub pilot Arnar Thor Emilsson takes us on a photographic journey through the northern paradise he calls home.

Arnar's Cub sitting on the island of Langisjor, with the Vatnajokul glacier in the background. Arnar's Cub sitting on the island of Langisjor, with the Vatnajokul glacier in the background. Arnar Thor Emilsson

Welcome to Iceland.

Update for 2017: Arnar has started an Instagram account where he frequently posts great flying photos from Iceland, many of which can be seen here in this story. Be sure to follow him. -Editor

Along with the captioned photographs that make up my story, I'll provide a little background for the setting, just in case Iceland is a name you've only heard about in Viking movies and news reports about a volcano hindering European air traffic (Eyjafjallajökull.) I also have a short video from some of my flying adventures.

Iceland is an island situated in the North Atlantic ocean, between Greenland and Europe, roughly covering latitudes between 63° and 66° north, just edging into the Arctic circle, and it is quite a special place to explore by light airplane.

As I was driving home one night I noticed what a beautiful evening it was, and so I went for a flight. I landed on the beach under this high bank and watched the sun set. Because of our northern latitude, this was as low as the sun got the entire day.

Our population is approximately 320,000 people, most of which live in the capital city of Reykjavik. And while there are several small villages and farms along the coastline, the inland is uninhabited with only dirt roads or trails providing direct routes between coasts, and some of those inland roads are only passable in the summertime using 4x4 vehicles. We take our 4x4s very seriously! This inland area is mostly mountainous, ranges averaging 3,000' but with peaks as high as 6,500'. Vegetation is very sparse in the inland, and trees are only found in a few places along the coastline. Several glaciers cover parts of the inland and among them is Europe's largest glacier: Vatnajökull.

As the inland and the southern part of the island is geographically very young because of volcanic activity, the landscape is quite unique and different, changing from one mile to another and from one year to the next.

This was my first glacier landing. I'd had this spot in mind for a long time, then one day I went and landed it. The wind was quite strong (as witnessed by those clouds) blowing down the glacier, so I landed uphill. The takeoff was also uphill!

Traveling to Iceland

When traveling to Iceland from the States, the only scheduled transportation is by air. There are no passenger ships with regular ports of call in Iceland. The Icelandic airline Iceland Air has direct flights to many destinations in the U.S. and all over Europe, with hub connections in our largest airport: Keflavik International, which is about 45 minutes outside Reykjavik. It is possible to fly your own airplane to Iceland but that is another story.

I was working in the town of Akureyri in northern part of Iceland flying Twin Otters when I heard about a guy who had landed his Super Cub many years ago on top of the highest mountain in the north. I was very interested and did some research and found out that under good snow conditions it would be easy. I waited until late September and then called my friend and we went on a mission! We explored new places and landed many new spots. We even landed by one of the natural hot springs and went for a swim. The snow on the summit was hard-packed frozen solid and just a perfect runway.

Icelanders speak Icelandic, which is one of the oldest and probably most syllable-heavy Scandinavian languages, but most of them also speak English. There is no problem using English on the aircraft radio, it's well accepted here as we're ICAO.

The weather seldom stays the same for long. Icelanders say that if you don't like the weather just wait a while and it will change for you. A "warm" ocean current, the Gulfstream, surrounds the island, which makes the weather milder than could be expected for this northerly location. But the weather is cold tempered, with mild winters and cool summers. It is not uncommon to get rain and low ceilings in the northern part of the country and clear sky in the southern part and vice-versa. That depends on the humidity and where the wind is blowing from, but the mountains tend to dry the air on the lee side-- commonly called a rain shadow. This also means that you have to be very alert when you plan your flights, and know where to get up-to-date weather forecasts. There is no ADS-B automatic weather service, but there's good weather service over the phone and on the Internet.

Are you curious what an Icelandic Super Cub pilot looks like? This is my favorite aircraft when I'm not flying Dash 8's for work.

As for flying in Iceland, there are only paved runways at the largest villages, spread along the coastline, and only a few airports where you can get avgas. Fuel availability is an issue requiring some planning, because although the land is not big (you can cross it in 2-3 hours) it's easy to become stranded somewhere without fuel if good fuel management is not used. There is a lot to see and you don't usually fly just a straight line from A to B when in Iceland.

It was a warm summer day and river bar hopping seemed to be the right thing to do. I was on the ground and friend of mine was doing touch and goes, so I asked him to taxi out in to the river to get this shot.

Before you start flying in Iceland, it's a good idea to seek some advice from a local pilot on the general protocol, and ask for recommendations on some favourite or special places to go.

Foreigners are allowed to fly Icelandic airplanes on their valid ICAO licence for three months. After that you need to get your licence validated.

There are number of flight schools that rent aircraft. One simply is required to get a checkout from a local instructor, before venturing out on their own, but as with most rental aircraft, policy limits pilots to registered airports.

We all know that the best places aren't necessarily on the chart, and if you are flying a STOL aircraft with bigger tires, the land has an endless number of landing spots.

My father and I went out flying the Cessna 180. I started doing some very short landings on a nice grass field, and then we moved into the highlands and found some more nice places to land. Iceland has so much variety. However after a while the rain moved in and we had to retreat back to lower ground and better visibility.

The flying environment

Familiarity with mountain flying is critical; how the winds behave when they hit the mountains, where to expect turbulence, updrafts or downdrafts, and an understanding of where the best weather will likely occur. How to stay out of trouble if the ocean fog or a low ceiling is about to catch you? These are skills important to the Icelandic pilot, as they in other remote areas of the world.

While most airports in Iceland are uncontrolled, some registered airports are controlled, with ATIS information and required clearances.

Flight plans are not mandatory if you fly from an uncontrolled airport between uncontrolled areas, but highly recommended and welcomed by the ATC.

My wife and I had planned a rock climbing weekend in the south of Iceland. We decided to take the Super Cub and explore some places during the weekend. In that part of Iceland avgas is hard to get, so I had to plan my fuel carefully and brought some Jerry cans along. This trip was in August with the sun getting lower and lower on the horizon. This picture was taken on Friday around midnight on our way to the climbing area. This place is special in that it is hard to get to by car, and the bird wildlife is amazing. Also people say that this is where the very first settlers came to the country and named it Iceland.

All Icelandic airplanes have their own fixed transponder code that is never changed, similar to the Mode C and S registration in the U.S. The air controllers therefore know what airplane is flying and where, if they see a transponder signal on their screen. That is, if the aircraft is within their range, which is not the case if flying low and between mountains. All Icelandic airplanes are required to have an ELT (emergency locator transmitter.)

A GPS is nice to have, and necessary if you are flying in humid weather or in low ceiling.

Glacier lagoon that is hard to access. It takes 2 days walking or you can just fly.

If you finish your flight and forget to close your flight plan (which by the way does not make you very popular), a search and rescue program is automatically started for your airplane 30 minutes after the flight plan expires.

You are free to fly wherever you want to go. Most of the country is uncontrolled airspace. There are only a few controlled areas that are good to familiarize yourself with. Just like in the U.S., we make position and intention reports on an advisory frequency when around uncontrolled airports, and using English is fine. Other pilots in the vicinity will likely change over to English to keep you comfortable and safe.

Like most anywhere else in the Northern hemisphere, the best season for flying is the summer months. There are long days and the sun will not set; you can fly until midnight and then have your barbecue in the midnight sun. Don't worry about the wildlife. There is none that wants to eat you. The foxes will run away so you are lucky if you ever see one. There are many birds in Iceland though and some of them might sing for you when you have landed. You might also see whales close to the shore and sunbathing seals on the beach.

My wife was participating in a cross-country marathon that crosses the mountainous and beautiful landscape. I wanted to support her so I landed at a few places along the way to cheer her on.

Pack your gear and tent and go camping with your aircraft. If you like you can be completely alone and have the chance to experience nature in this spectacular way.

This spot is a short flight from my home in Reykjavik. Before every season I practice a lot in spots like this, just to get me going with the hope that it makes me a little bit better than the season before.

When flying cross country, the landscape is constantly changing and so do the colours. Glaciers, black lava fields, geysers, fjords, small islands, rivers, lakes, and mountains in all shapes and colours. If you are lucky you might even see an erupting volcano during your stay! Just remember that engines hate to breathe volcanic ash. There is so much to see here that you'll never grow bored. Do not forget to take the camera with you so you have something to show your friends when you return home.

Flying light airplanes in Iceland is like nothing else, an experience you will never forget. If you stay where the weather is best you will be rewarded with an unforgettable flying experience and landscape that you will not find anywhere else on Earth.

It seems I've chosen to share more photos than words, so please enjoy the rest of my adventures in the form of photography and captions below.

When flying with a friend in strong winds I spotted this island in the glacial lake named Langisjor. It had been a long flight and it was time to stretch our feet so I made a few approaches and landed on top of this hill. The takeoff was down on the other side. Fantastic spot to land and great views. You can see the Vatnajökull glacier in the background.

Here are just a few of the beautiful things I've spotted from the air while flying around Iceland:

Most of the beaches in Iceland have black sand. This one however has the golden look. This is a tricky spot that I've landed a few times, and it is always tricky. Touchdown is just before the summit and takeoff is downhill. I have always landed there when there is some wind, which is usually steady around the summit. Two of us went looking for a new place to ski fresh untracked lines in the northwest part of Iceland. We found some great spots then returned later in the season to go skiing. This picture is taken on top of the mountain next to a very nice line to ski down. Location is close to Keflavik international airport. I wonder if this is how the moon looks?! :) My wife and I went camping in a remote area in the northwest only accessible by boat or aircraft. We landed on gravel bars in the fjords and put up our tent, then did some hiking and ate good food. We watched the seals bathe in the sun and the whales swim by. It is truly an amazing place to visit. In the morning though we awoke to fog, so we had to change our plan. We waited until we saw some break in the sky and flew out to a different camping spot on the south side of the fjords where we could enjoy more sun. This is a special picture for me because I've wanted to land this spot for so long. This is the highest mountain in the vicinity of Reykjavik. I have been on long walks to look for a good place to land but often found nothing. Then last Fall it all came together; the weather was perfect and little bit of snow to help smoothe out the stones. We landed there just before sunset. It was cold but beautiful. My father and I spent a long time right there on the summit. Cessna 180 sitting in low Fall sunlight in the highlands behind the mountains. I don't know how many passes we made before landing this spot on Langjökull glacier but it sure was worth it. The sun was rising and we were starting a great day flying all over the country, landing on new places and enjoying nature. What words can improve a Super Cub on a beach at sunset in June? What can I say?!

The full gallery


Arnar Thor Emilsson

Arnar Thor Emilsson, from Reykjavik, Iceland, learned to fly his father''s Cessna Skyhawk at a young age and has been an active pilot ever since. he started his professional flying career in 2005, operating de Havilland Twin Otters for Air Iceland. Later he graduated to the Dash 8-200 and -400 types, flying domestic routes in Iceland, as well as to remote destinations in Greenland. Arnar's passion for bush flying and STOL aircraft has him continually learning as he flies his Super Cub off-airport in the land famous for its rugged volcanic terrain, as well enjoying the outdoors as a skier, and rock and ice climber.

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