Certainty is bound to death and taxes, said one brilliant bugger a few centuries ago. Certainly, there are a few more things that can be predicted  - with confidence. A solar eclipse is one. Today’s computers can predict (calculate with certainty) where and when an eclipse occurs. With modern computers, astronomers can pinpoint eclipses far into the future, down to the minute. Using the same algorithm, they can also say when they have occurred in the past. The precise predictions of stellar movements do not translate into precision within the planets themselves, in particularly the atmosphere. The weather here in the north-Atlantic, for instance, seems to be ill predictable, and can at some times, bring surprises. 

This little blog post is on a personal note and perhaps has more relevance to aviation enthusiasts. Just like Playboy, I don't take any offence if you only read it for the pictures :) And if you like pictures, I've got many more on the Instagram feed Volcanoair.

The Eclipse Flight 

My Spanish friend Antonio has flown with me many times before. This time, there was a special occasion – the solar eclipse. He even brought a pair of eclipse-sunglasses. Originally, we had planned being over to the total eclipse zone, 200 miles north of the Faroe Islands, but those plans didn’t work out. Instead, we settled for a nice flight over the countryside. Being a pilot himself, Antonio does most of the flying, giving me time to shoot pictures. He has a plane himself in Italy, but rarely flies it in conditions alike those found here. That's part of the excitement for him.

The forecast for the first part of the eclipse day was, actually, extraordinary good. The stars aligned perfectly and provided a welcomed but temporary pause from storms that had been ravaging the country (and its people) for, what seems to be forever this winter.

Honestly, I’ve never experienced such a temperamental winter. According to the Met Office, an average of one storm warning has been issued every three days since beginning of November. In reality it feels like it happened almost every single day. The short pause was to end at 17:00 in Reykjavík, with high winds coming from the east. The plan was to have the small airplane safe and sound back in the hangar by that time. 

From 3000 feet above the southern coast, the eclipse was beautiful (no justice done with the picture though)

Understandably, spirits were high when the wheels were off the runway. It’s not every day one gets a chance to be doing what you love while there’s a solar eclipse happening. At 9:37 we were over the South coast and the landscaped was bathed in the glorious, weird low lighting. As the moon’s shadow moved across the earth, the atmosphere changed from brilliantly bright to dusk in a matter of minutes. And then back again. Just as they had predicted years in advance. To the second. Scientists even calculated that the last solar eclipse on Earth will happen in about six hundred million years from now. It seems odd that they can’t produce a 24-hr forecast for Iceland by that degree of certainty.

Incredible lighting over Iceland, produced by the eclipse

After witnessing the pinnacle of the solar eclipse, we headed to Vestmannaeyjar – the small cluster of islands just six miles of the southern coast. If you haven’t been there yet, do yourself a favor and go there. It’s totally worth the visit. Especially when you have a friend like Alfred Alfredsson, a local tour guide that rushes to the airport when I give him a call. He took me and Antonio up to Stórhöfði – a lighthouse and weather station the top of a steep hill. If winds are blowing – that’s probably where it’s at its highest. After all, there is nothing to shield that place from the elements. Alfred is a gem 

At around one o’clock, we took off and headed north, over the six mile straight that separates the islands from the mainland. While flying east, we practiced some engine loss scenarios, an essential part of any flight training. The farm fields of the south usually make for good landing places if the unthinkable should happen.

We discussed the weather and its potential effect on our flying conditions and routing. So far, so good, but we should prepare ourselves for some turbulence west of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, when the cold air that has rushed over the glacier descends from it. And just as planned, there it hit us. A sudden jolt is a surprise, no matter how well you’re prepared for it.

Mýrdalsjökull - the one covering the Katla volcano. Our little jolt in the air was nothing compared to the one the world would feel if Katla would erupt!

We quickly flew out of the turbulence, and headed to Flúðir, a small farm village and a fine airfield. Sun and light winds greeted us, so we walked down to the restaurant Kaffi Grund, where Helga and Sverrir make the best soup you’ll ever get in southern Iceland. As usually, Sverrir offered to give us a ride back to the airfield. I told him he could, if he’d take a short flight with us. I think he couldn’t have been happier. If you drop in on them, tell him you've seen this picture of him flying ;) 

Sverrir, the chef at Grund, had fun flying over his little town

Homeward Bound

It was almost 16:00 and the forecast had called for winds picking up from around 17. The flight time from Flúðir to Reykjavík was to be some 25 minutes so I called the tower in Reykjavik for some weather details. The controller noted that the winds were already picking up, and nearby planes had been notifying him of turbulence. This was happening an hour in advance of prediction, limiting our options. Should we stay or should we go?

We decided to have a go at it, as the weather was actually quite nice where we were. 40 miles away, not so great. Now, a good pilot always has a backup plan. In the air we discussed that if the weather would deteriorate to an unsafe level, we would return to Flúðir. Over the lake Þingvallavatn we saw how the wind was effecting the water below us, a good indication for pilots. We continued westward, and got downwind from the volcano Hengill and its geothermal area. From how the steam from the powerplants ascended, we knew the winds were high and south-easterly. We managed to avoid most of the turbulence on our way into the Reykjavik area, but the location of turbulence is a tricky thing to know for sure.

The tower reported the wind speed and direction as we were coming in over the harbor. 25 knots, gusting to 38, sometimes 40. I had passed another airfield in Mosfellsbær, and thought to myself that the winds were perfectly aligned with one of the runways there, so if I couldn't land at Reykjavik, I might try there. A grass airfield is always better for a tailwheel aircraft, especially in a crosswind situation. 

A Standstill Landing

As we descended on our approach to runway 13, we felt really small as the force of the winds blew us around, kicking us up and down. The old Cessna is an incredibly strong plane, and I didn’t worry about it as much as I questioned my skill of handling the plane safely onto the ground. We are typically flying at ca. 40 knots in that machine, so winds of that magnitude could in fact make us stand still in the air, in relation to the ground.

And that’s exactly what happened over my aiming point on the runway. We were in fact almost going backwards for a while, before I decided to lower the flap handle to get the airplane down those 20-30 feet that were between us and the runway. It turned out to be one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever made. Antonio clapped and congratulated. I told him that this wasn’t over yet. We still had to taxy the airplane to the hangar. 

And that’s where the aerodynamics of tailwheel airplanes come into play, as they tend to turn into the wind like a weather wane. As the wind had been blowing right down the runway, as we taxied of it and onto the taxiway, the wind was about 30-40 degrees off and the small Cessna wanted to align itself directly into it. After some minutes of struggle with the behavior of the plane, I realized I needed assistance. 

After admitting defeat to the elements (with the words; I just can’t move this baby) the tower was quick to offer to send a firetruck my way. Well, there was no fire, but the huge vehicle could provide a wind shield for the tail of the plane, making it possible to control. 

Taxying the small plane with a jeep in the lead and a fire truck by my side, was probably a sight to see. It was teamwork at its best, organized and professional to the last meter in front of the hangar. Those guys sure know their stuff. I called the controller in the tower afterwards to thank him for a job well done. I feel it's important for those guys to know.  

Retrieving the steps leading to that hair-raising moment of landing in 40 knot gusts, we agreed that we couldn't have done it better – with a desired, safe outcome. The years of training and experience lead to a happy ending (don’t… just don’t, ok?). As pilots often say, if you’re not scared, you’re not learning. We never exhausted our options and we always had a backup plan, if things didn’t work out. Had I known what challenges were waiting for me, I probably wouldn't have taken off in the first place. Afterwards, I was thankful of meeting them.  

Would I do it again? Yes – but only if I had to. If the winds are in excess of 20 knots at takeoff or landing, I don’t take the taildragger flying. That’s my personal limit. But limits are to explore and advance if safe. During the memorable Solar Eclipse Flight of 2015, there never was a time I felt out of control – even on the taxiway. As long as I didn't move the plane forward, the control was mine. 

Even after all that time in the air, I’m still learning. Handling difficult situations probably isn't something you want to do, but once you know you can, your confidence grows. This is the beauty of flying; you’re always learning. Wisdom is putting that learning to use. And that’s the art of knowing. 

That special light produced extraordinary colors in the glacial rivers

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