You want to know the reason umbrellas don’t work in Iceland? Because most rainfall is horizontal. There is much truth to this little joke. There will be some wind and rain, sleet or snow during your visit. If not, you could always try to get a refund. One thing for sure though, it’s always a good conversation topic.
Learning about weather is a large part of any pilot’s training. Knowledge comes both in academic and practical forms, sometimes in the form of hair-raising scenarios for the novice, after which, a change of underwear might be appropriate. But with time, those situations become more manageable. One day, they’re just “weather”.
Every kind of flight takes place in some kind of weather. Clear skies and calm winds are one type, almost as uncommon as a bat in Iceland. Flying around here means that you’re in for some weather, and it’s usually not just sun and fun. There are clouds, there’s rain and there are even times when a flight makes no sense. That kind of weather isn’t the photographer’s favorite anyways. But sometimes, the interplay between clouds and lighting can make for some interesting scenery.
More often than not, the scenery is the reason for flying. Not for going places. It’s all about the journey. Being airborne offers some of the more spectacular sceneries you can witness, a different angle, perhaps one seldom seen.
Flying over Iceland, you’ll notice how quickly the scenery changes underneath. Sometimes, the weather changes at an even faster pace. Planning for weather is always important, becoming even more so with increasing distance and time. And sometimes, you might just have to wait the weather out. During winter, that wait might be several weeks long. Then we have time to write stuff like this. And watch Air Disasters on YouTube.
Winter flying in Iceland
An airplane in hanger is safe, but that’s not what airplanes are made for. Flying during winter poses some challenges for the pilot (and even the plane) that, most of the time, are so much worth it. The clean and bright snow-covered landscape is a wonderful sight from above, especially in a warm and cozy airplane. The brightness is short-lived though, only some four hours during the darkest months of December and January.
The comfortable cabin of the airplane is quickly turned into a fast polar exploration cabriolet with the windows open. Yes, that’s right – that’s why we dress up so warmly before a flight. The cabin heat does its job despite the open windows but the remnants of heat quickly passes over your legs on its way out.
And then we have eruptions to consider.
Please don’t confuse volcanoes with eruptions. Not every volcano erupts, but eruptions always happen within a volcanic system of some sort. So if you want to fly over a volcano, there’s one located within 10 minutes flying time from Reykjavik Airport. It hasn’t erupted in 800 years, but still a volcano.
Flying around volcanoes is perfectly safe and fun, provided the winds are not crazy high. Flying around eruptions is usually just fine. Not when they’re of the explosive ash-spewing type. Then you only fly upwind. Engines tend to go awfully quiet when exposed to large amounts of ash.
It is easier to pronounce than Eyjafjallajökull, and it’s also a nicer place to fly to. Actually, flying is the only way of getting close to the eruption site as the area is closed off for others than scientists and media folks. It’s awfully far from Reykjavik, and it takes a long time to fly over to it (I’ve done 1:45 one-way with a serious headwind). It’s also the most spectacular work of Nature I’ve ever witnessed. It’s been active for over 100 days now and the lava has covered over 76 square km. - the largest one in over 200 years. The sheer size of it becomes apparent when flying along the edges of the new lava. It takes a really long time.
And then there is the sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution. The air quality gets nasty if you’re downwind from the eruption. Hence, we don’t fly in that direction. Simple as that. Once in a while, with little or no winds, the poisonous gasses tend to linger along and not disperse. Those times you find out for yourself why the aftermath of the Laki-eruption in 1783-4 was called the Haze-hardships. The moisture condenses around the airborne particles and produces haze which severely limits visibility. A smart pilot doesn’t fly there in these kinds of conditions.
Here is a picture I took from around 6000 feet, overlooking Reykjavik under the blue sulfur dioxide haze brought about with the easterly winds. The haze layer hardly got over 5000’ thick, so one could fly above it and avert its bite. Even at more than 250 km. distance from the origin, the SO2 is very noticeable. When the winds are blowing like they are right now (43 kts in Reykjavik), we don’t have to worry about the pollution. At least we have that going for us. Which is good.
So currently, I’m just waiting for a great summer with lots and lots of flying. In the meantime; Happy holidays!