In 1783, a series of massive volcanic eruptions spewed 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the sky, blanketing Europe in a poisonous fog that lasted 8 devastating months. Crops failed across the continent and Egypt suffered a famine that reduced its population by one-sixth. Thousands died from sulfurous acid poisoning. Across the Atlantic, even Benjamin Franklin wrote of the “constant fog over all Europe and a great part of North America.” The source of this catastrophic event? A small, sea-locked Nordic country: Iceland.
Today, evidence of such violent eruptions exist everywhere in Iceland: moonscapes of mossy lava fields, beaches of volcanic black sand, massive pseudo-craters, strange ochre earth bubbling with heat and escaping sulfuric acids, and basalt columns rising like dwarfish fortresses from tortured ground. Half a year before our visit to this land of fire and ice, we contacted Flugskola Islands at Reykjavik airport. Booking an airplane rental came with the caveat that it could be cancelled at the last minute because training schedules for local students take precedence. Despite a miserably rainy summer, the god Freyr granted us sunshine and a 6000 foot ceiling the day we were scheduled to fly, and regardless of their caveat, the friendly folks at Flugskola procured an aero club 172 Cessna for us.
They have a wonderfully sensible attitude about flying, Icelanders. There were no “prove-that-you-know-how-to-recover-from-a-stall” check-rides required. We were pilots; therefore, we must know how to fly. An instructor did (thankfully) accompany us on a short flight to familiarize us with the procedures around Reykjavik airport (BIRK), but even then, Arnar shrugged at our incapacity to pronounce the mind-boggling names of the call-up points. “The controller will know you’re foreigners. He’ll work it out with you.”
This pragmatism was evident everywhere. We filed our outgoing and incoming flight plans with ground control in Reykjavik by simply telling the controller where we were going, when we expected to arrive at our destination, and how many passengers accompanied the pilot. Even in commercial aviation, this pragmatism is the norm. Days earlier, for a flight with Air Iceland on a Bombardier Q400, “going through security” simply meant walking into a cafe-serviced waiting area adjacent to the check-in counter. No special doors to go through, no “shoes off, belts off, all-liquids-in-plastic-bags” line-ups, no conveyor-belts of x-ray machines for our hand-luggage, no pat-downs or testing of our hands for explosives residue. We utterly stymied the check-in clerk by asking if we might bring a couple of our own soda bottles “through security”.
The whole country of Iceland is detailed on one aeronautical chart with a standard 1:500000 VNC scale, so it’s impossible to unfold the map to full size in the cockpit. Armed with said map, we started the engine and off we went to the run-up area, where the controller had a long line-up of GA planes waiting while he meticulously handled one transmission at a time, at a pace reminiscent of the sloth in Disney’s Zootopia movie. Our destination was Stykkisholmur, a picturesque harbor town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula that had been cloaked in drizzle when we’d driven by it four days earlier.
Each airplane in Iceland has its own permanent transponder code (there isn’t enough air traffic to warrant otherwise), and other than while in the airspace of certain airports and a handful of locales, the whole country shares one frequency (118.10). Our route took us northwest across Kallafjordur, Hvalfjordur, and Borgarfjordur, (try to understand those words through your headset), then over the pastoral fields of the Myrar region. We stayed within gliding distance of road 54 while over Eldborgarhraun, the lunar-like lava fields we’d driven through days before.
There’s no surviving a forced landing on such terrain, save to put down on the road. Off to our left, at the far tip of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the massive glacier on which Jules Vern based his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth coyly hid under a mantle of cloud, revealing just a glimpse of brilliant white skirt. The colors of moss, lichens, and dramatically red craters passing beneath our plane, combined with stunning gorges and waterfalls, made for a memorable flight. The cost for 2.9 on the Hobbs in Iceland? A cool $1,060 Canadian! This was the regular aviation price, we learned. How on earth do those Icelandic student pilots afford it?