One Night in Narsarsuaq: Crossing the Pond Part IV
Flying to Greenland – It seems fun enough… Until I google the city Narsarsuaq and find it listed on the ‘Worlds Most Dangerous Airports’…
“The approach is through a fjord, so it’s necessary to make 90 degree turn to line up with the runway while in the “valley”. It’s similar to flying down a city street with high rises on both sides with severe turbulence at all times except on the brightest of days; downdrafts are everywhere. There’s the risk of icebergs drifting into the departure/arrival path.
Unless the ceiling is at least 4,000 feet and visibility at least 5 miles, pilots without proper knowledge of the local topographical and meteorological conditions are advised to not attempt approach to Narsarsuaq though fjords. Strong easterly winds can create severe turbulence and windshear in vicinity of the airport. Takeoffs are limited to daytime, and the airport is in uncontrolled airspace.
As soon as weather falls below “great for flying”, the approach to BGBW becomes a real hand humidifier. Going down the fjord, sometimes wind rushes in from the side and flicks your aircraft to the other side of the cliff wall; over-correcting can be as dangerous as not correcting. The procedure turn to line up on final is nerve hacking. Before or as soon as you finish the turn, there is usually a gust of wind either from the side, from the top or from the back, potentially giving you a not-needed-at-all speed boost all the way down.”
Blissfully unaware of the challenging landing situation, I manically took photos of the view (and maybe a few selfies with the focussed pilot). It can be eerie not hearing anyone over the radio as you cross the Atlantic, but eventually we heard the comforting sound of Narsarsuaq ground control, giving us permission to land on the beautiful country that is Greenland. Welcome to the city of Narsarsuaq, home to a whopping 90 residents.
Visiting Narsarsuaq airport is like popping over to your friends house the morning after they’ve thrown a raging party. You will find people eating greasy food in the departures lounge, a couch in the staff room that was obviously slept on the night before and a control tower filled with cigarette smoke and hungover men. I think the real danger of this airport is finding yourself confusing jet-lag with a pseudo-hangover, craving McDonalds hotcakes covered in hot fudge syrup. Cravings will go unsatisfied, as you will not find any golden arches in this country.
Our visit to the isolated city was intended to be a quick stopover to refuel. Our GPS had different intentions. While the GPS was being brought back to life I wandered around the strange little airport, admiring the gift shop/cafe’s selection of hot dogs and tacky souvenirs. I posted a 10 euro postcard back home and wandered down the road admiring the colourful buildings tucked into along snow-covered street. After returning to the airport, I quickly checked that the plane was still waiting for me and searched for Sean. The airport was most definitely one of the smallest I have visited, but I couldn’t find him. So I helped myself to some fancy green tea (all the way from Japan) and admired the view from the control tower.
Eventually Sean appeared looking deceivingly positive. The GPS was still emotionally (or maybe mechanically) unstable so we would have to rely on the backup handheld GPS. But as the day had gone on, forecasts were showing storms developing over the Atlantic. The chances of making it to Canada that afternoon seemed as unlikely as spotting a polar bear.
We accepted that we would be spending the night and made our way to the hotel, which was probably big enough to comfortably house the entire population. We admired the giant stuffed polar bear in the lobby and tried to identify what animal the ribs hanging outside the hall once belonged to. After realising the hotel didn’t have much to offer in the form of entertainment we decided to explore the town.
Have you ever experienced such natural beauty that you are genuinely speechless? If not, visit Narsarsuaq. Strolling down the edge of the shore was truly spectacular. The magnificent Fjord slices through the icy landscape, connecting the vast glacier tongue to the Atlantic and beyond – a private route for humble blue icebergs making their journey out to sea. A waterway powerful enough to harbour these frozen giants that are too modest to reveal their own powerful figures that laze below. A scene framed by breathtaking snow-capped mountains that tower along the shore, leading to grander glaciers beyond.
The sky was calm. Not a single cloud was sketched on the blue canvas of the heavens. I watched as a single bird painted a memory in flight along the horizon, a journey etched in time. By day these simple winged artists of the sky practice their art, but the night is reserved for the masters. When darkness conquers, the heavens reveals the real masterpiece of the North. The sky ignites in a grand performance. These illuminated dancers will flock the sky and skip across water and ice in a magnificent reflection – the water painting of the Gods, known to man as the aurora borealis.
It sounds dream-like, right? Well it sure felt like it. We walked in a trance-like state, eventually distracted by some mysterious-looking footprints. Big and round and arctic bear-looking we laughed at ourselves for being naive tourists, surely a polar bear wouldn’t be strolling around the main street of Nararsuaq… right?
We took some photos of the magnificent scenery and started to head back to the hotel, greeting all the other locals taking their evening walk on the way. We ran into a particularly friendly Danish helicopter pilot who gave us the grand tour of the cities one street, stopping to show us the chimney that remains from a mysterious American WW2 army hospital, now known as ‘hospital valley, which is surrounded by many conspiracy theories and rumours.
We eventually headed back to the hotel and decided to investigate the bar. As we were the only ones there we claimed the pool table and after the most tragic round of pool I have ever witnessed, we both swore to never speak about again, (whoops), and decided to get a beer. After all, how often do you get to visit the local bar in Narsarsuaq? Not often enough it seems…
The bar quickly got busy and we were soon offered a second round by the locals. Then a third and soon a sixth or seventh. There may be a shortage of fast food in this country but there is no shortage of alcohol. There was about a quarter of the town’s population there that night (which isn’t actually that many people in a city of 90. Do the maths). Many seemed to be workers from the airport, and the ‘hungover’ airport atmosphere began to make a lot of sense.
We made some good friends and after the third beer or so my friend Alex whipped out an iPhone to show us a photo he had taken that day. It seemed to be the exact photo I had taken – Of some mysterious footprints… It was confirmed, a polar bear had indeed been strolling downtown that day while we casually admired the view.
We drank another beer.
For those who work in air-travel, you may be familiar with the 8-hour bottle to throttle rule. As the night went on, the many airport workers and Sean began to start glancing at their watches and half-heartedly turning back beers. Each beer would delay is in the morning and eventually the bar closed, (by the bartender just announcing the bar was closed and walking away), and the night ended.
Many of our friends from the bar the night before were staying at the hotel as well and breakfast the next day was an even more hungover scene than the airport the day before. People stared into their coffee mugs, glancing at the grand breakfast buffet on display. Gaining enough willpower to face food (knowing that there were no McDonalds hotcakes) I settled for some muesli and soy milk. I must admit I was impressed such an isolated city catered for those with lactose intolerance… I was wrong. It was definitely soy sauce, and it was definitely the saltiest breakfast I have ever consumed…
We made it back to the airport, this time with a full understanding of the slow-paced atmosphere. We boarded Echo Charlie Juliett Mike Xray, ground control said goodbye and we were Canada bound…
McDonalds hotcakes cravings soon diminished and I was holding out for some genuine pancakes with, of course, maple syrup.