Savissivik lies at the end of the world, its northern end to be precise. The small village, at last count, had just 66 inhabitants, holding out 800 kilometres north of the polar circle on 76°N latitude. A dozen wooden houses as well as a community center with running water, that’s about it. Other than that, there is just a non-descript prefab church, where a part-time priest celebrates mass on Sundays, if he doesn’t oversleep, that is. The people here live on fishing—by boat or kayak in the short summer, but up to nine months a year just through holes in the ice—and on state aid. At least there is a heliport, as during winter, helicopters provide the only connection to the outside world, besides dog sleds. And winter has its grip on Savissivik during most of the year, temperatures of minus 35°C to minus 40°C during months of continuous darkness are normal early in the year.
Twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Fridays, a shiny red Bell 212 lands inbound from Qanaaq, almost 200 kilometers to the north, the only bigger settlement in a 300-kilometer radius. “We bring fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, medicine and mail, but also fly people to see the doctor,” says Toke Brødsgaard, a helicopter pilot with Air Greenland. He also takes regular passengers–but despite being subsidised, the fares are so high that most villagers can’t afford them. The flight, making a stopover at the US-run Thule Air Base, costs the equivalent of about 150 euros one way.
Airlifting in the arctic winter
Greenland, measuring almost 2.2 million square kilometres, is the world’s biggest island and politically belongs to Denmark. Geographically it’s a part of North America. The biggest north-south distance is 2,670 kilometers. Almost 82 percent of the surface is covered by the huge permanent shield of the inland ice cap, up to 3,000 meters thick. Only the west coast has some ice-free areas. This is also where most of the 55,000 inabitants of Greenland live, about the same number as the population in cities like Rosenheim in Germany or New Brunswick/New Jersey in the United States. There are no roads between any two settlements in Greenland–but Air Greenland serves 13 airports around the country with their Dash-8-200 turboprop aircraft and helicopters, as well as nine permanently operating heliports plus 39 further landing sites. Supply flight routes go to over 100 settlements, some home to just 40 inhabitants who simply couldn’t exist without support from the air, especially during the harsh arctic winter.
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Colorful houses are typical for settlements in Greenland.
Most Greenlanders, local Inuit or expat Danes, live along the west coast. As means of transport during winter there are just dog sleds, sometimes cars can drive on the frozen-over sea. In summer, coastal steamers are the most important mode of transport. Only the aircraft and helicopters of Air Greenland run the whole year round. In winter, the helicopters are the only life-line for many villages. Supplies are often flown by five-seat Airbus Helicopters AS 350B3 rotorcraft, of which the world’s northernmost airline runs five. On most passenger flights, the eight Bell 212 helicopters are deployed, offering up to 13 seats.
Between 1965 and 2012, up to eight Sikorsky S-61N large passenger helicopters plied scheduled routes, then the biggest civil fleet worldwide. The S-61 can take up to 25 passengers or carry up to 2.5 tons of payload. Two of the 1965-vintage veterans are still in active use today, mostly for emergencies or special missions such as the annual dog sled race in Disko Bay in western Greenland. For this event, up to five sleds plus mushers and a maximum of 76 dogs are taken on at the same time. A further S-61, built in 1979, was acquired only recently and totally rebuilt with modern equipment for search and rescue missions above water and ice. “Today, operating an S-61 is seven times more expensive than a fixed-wing aircraft,” says Toke Brødsgaard, and the helicopters are more prone to be affected by bad weather than the Dash-8 fleet.
Harsh flying conditions all year round
Weather is a determining factor of living in Greenland. For a long time, Air Greenland used to be colloquially called “Imaqaa Airways,” or “Maybe Air,” because it was so unreliable. “But that was many years ago,” insists Jakob Petersen, a flight dispatcher, working in Air Greenland’s operations control center in the capital, Nuuk. “Then we had many more helicopters, and they were much more restricted in their actions when weather was bad.” But wind remains a big problem, and especially so at the capital’s airport, of all places. Nuuk, the only city deserving this description, is home to about a quarter of the population, with almost half of all Air Greenland customers flying to and from Nuuk. In total, the airline carried 395,000 passengers in 2015, more than six times as many as Greenland has inhabitants. “Our maximum wind limit for takeoff is 40 knots, and 35 for landings—but the day before yesterday, it blew here at 50 knots,” reports Petersen. A dozen flights were cancelled.
“Weather problems can affect you during all seasons in Greenland, fog and storms even during summer; snow, blizzards and ice in the winter, and Nuuk unfortunately is on top of the affected destinations,” according to Petersen. Toke Brødsgaard formerly flew S-61s himself and recalls: “About 30 percent of our helicopter flights were affected by weather on average. Spring and fall are the most difficult times; during winter things are more stable,” says the helicopter pilot. Mostly the weather only turns bad during a flight, forcing the pilots to turn around or land at an alternate heliport. To avoid collisions with terrain, the required minimum altitude is 500 feet (about 150 metres). “Most of our pilots are Swedes or Norwegians, a few are from Greenland,” says Brødsgaard. “This way passengers feel safer than with Danes, who are rarely experienced mountain fliers.”
In front of a giant iceberg, the Bell 212 looks almost like a toy helicopter.
With the Bell 212, Air Greenland regularly serves even tiny settlements.
Remote idyll: nowhere in Greenland can be reached by road.
The bright red Bell 212 helicopters are highly visible even in adverse weather.
Air Greenland’s only jet, an A330, lands at Thule Air Base.
Kangerlussuaq Airport lies in the middle of the North Atlantic route.
A since decommissioned Dash-7 flies over a fjord in Greenland.
The Kangerlussuaq hub
No matter if one flies to or from or within Greenland, most flights touch Kangerlussuaq. Here, just above the polar circle, is the location of Greenland’s biggest airport, the former US Air Base, closed in 1992, better known under its Danish name Söndre Strömfjord, three-letter code SFJ. Only from here does Air Greenland flies its sole jet, an Airbus A330-200, to Copenhagen, even twice daily during the summer peak. That could be changing: “Currently there is a discussion about an expansion of airports such as Nuuk, enabling them to take direct jet flights from Copenhagen,” says Air Greenland’s CEO Michael Højgaard. But whether that will ever happen is uncertain. Until it does, even far-away Arctic outposts like Savissivik are only connected to the world by Air Greenland, and mostly via Kangerlussuaq.
Flight routes of Air Greenland
Please click on Kangerlussuaq Airport to view the flight routes: