Helicopter or dog sled

Air Greenland, the world’s northernmost airline, connects Greenland to the world and supplies remote Arctic villages.

11.2016 | Text: Andreas Spaeth

Andreas Spaeth has been traveling the world as a freelance aviation journalist for over 25 years, visiting and writing about airlines and airports. He is frequently invited to appear on radio and TV programs.

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 inhab­it­ants 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.

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.

“We bring fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, medicine and mail, but also fly people to see the doctor.“

Toke Brødsgaard, Helicopter pilot with Air Greenland

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:

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