“The aircraft took a hell of a kick. I was bounced upwards and against the door. I reached up to my forehead and felt a couple of specks of blood on my fingers.”
ONE of the reasons to change destinations to Reykjavik was to avoid the $300 charge Akureyri charged for late opening. With a glorious tint of humour, the fixed-base operator service at Reykjavik cost $300, which is why ferry pilots stay away from there.
Nothing to be done but to simply project a strained smile and hand over Mr MasterCard.
The skies were overcast at a couple of thousand feet. I figured flying at 1500ft was the order of the day.
I took off with calm winds, good visibility and higher cloud, but 20 miles south was a different matter. Plus, I couldn’t make contact with anyone.
The coast had a bleak volcanic look to it. Black beaches. Flat countryside with farms dotted around. The cloudbase was low and I was pushing a 20kt headwind.
The visibility started to deteriorate. Maybe a mile.
Thirty minutes later the panorama was bleak. I was being bounced around. The seat belt buckles were relaxing with each jolt. I was flying with one hand on the stick and the other keeping the belts tight. A cross-your-heart configuration.
I was looking out to sea. The black volcanic vista was still on my left. The aircraft took a hell of a kick. The belts weren’t as tight as I should have kept them.
I was bounced upwards and against the door. I reached up to my forehead and felt a couple of specks of blood on my fingers.
The sight made me slightly more alert. The visibility was poor but I could see the end of the headland appearing out of the gloom.
I’d thought it was more black beach but it was a cliff that was coming towards me at 90mph 300m away. I banked sharply right and headed out to sea.
The cloud forced me lower. It started raining. I didn’t want to take the risk of climbing through it.
One arm inside the immersion suit. The other available to key the microphone and call for help. It’d be a useless exercise at that height, but it made me feel better.
For the umpteenth time my mantra was: Keep Calm and Carry On. I was questioning my sanity but a lack of sleep was somehow helping me focus on just one task. Straight and level flight.
At the point the mist lifted, I was able to climb to 300ft. That seemed ridiculously safe. I was halfway to the Faroes and was feeling better about matters.
The weather got even better. I climbed to 5000ft and admired the view. Clouds beneath me and clouds above, but a relatively comfortable flight beckoned.
I even managed to pick up a relay message to pass on my longs and lats to Iceland Radio. People knew where I was again, which felt reassuring.
Then I was asked to switch radio frequencies to the Faroes. I felt my nightmare was coming to an end.
Twenty miles out I was forced to 1000ft. The downward trend was disconcerting, but after everything before, that height seemed like a holiday.
The Faroes controller directed me to fly along one of the fjords to the airport at the end. I’d been warned about wind shear and turbulence. At the entrance to the fjord I was being bounced around quite badly. I kept my head to one side to avoid another bash.
The nasty air calmed down. The controller chirped up to warn me about geese and the possibility of my hitting one on final approach.
I’ve often thought about bird strikes and previously decided that by preference I’d rather hit a very small wren or possibly an undersized thrush. I figured hitting a goose would be reasonably terminal.
I could see a town and the runway in the distance on the crest of a hillside.
Courtesy of water ingress, my ASI still wasn’t working. I guessed my airspeed and flew along the centreline of the runway, keeping the speed up in case of turbulence, and greased the landing.
In the tower, the chap on duty was watching Clint Eastwood in The Man with No Name.
He looked at the aircraft and called me a pioneer, which was a bit of an unexpectedly shocking statement.
I walked back to the aircraft feeling a bit odd, still worried about the forthcoming flight but within touching distance of the UK and the return of my sanity. Plus, upon leaving the Faroes I’d be beyond the Greenlandic and Danish aviation authorities. Which would be nice.
Twenty minutes later I was airborne, twitchy about turbulence in the fjords and fat geese.
The thought occurred to me that I was so used to fear that I didn’t know when to be properly scared anymore. Then I told myself to shut up.
There was a mild under-or-over decision with respect to a shelf of approaching clouds. No higher than 5000ft. No issues with the cold now. I wasn’t worried but I was starting to feel beleaguered.
After changing frequencies, and bidding farewell to my Faroes friend, I was in touch with the Brits again.
I was informed by the Scottish Information radio operator that Wick would be closed by the time I arrived.
Feeling more tired by the minute, since I’d been flying for nearly 8h by then, I explained that I’d spoken to the airfield operator and they were happy for me to land after everyone had gone home.
Shortly afterwards I was winging my way past the Orkneys and approaching John O’ Groats.
If mega tiredness kicked in and I fumbled the landing at Wick, there’d be no one there to help me. I’d be found upside down in a wrecked aircraft the following morning. Alternatively, if I survived, at least there was a chance there’d be a pub nearby and I could go and get gloriously drunk.
I approached Wick airport from the north, making a series of blind calls. If anyone was listening they’d have my position reports and know where I was.
From 2000ft overhead, the windsock looked like it was blowing at about 15kt on the ground. Nothing scary. I felt an element of euphoria that I was nearly safe.
For some reason I then started to make my radio calls using a series of accents. On downwind I was Scottish. On base leg I was Irish. On final I was Welsh. It all seemed to make sense at that point.
I landed. Too fast. No airspeed readings to use. But quite acceptable. Pulled off the runway. Shut down the engine. Got out and lay on the grass for 10min with my legs crossed and arms behind my head, staring at the clouds rolling across the sky.
It was after 8pm local time. I tied Samson down and called Scottish Information to close my flight plan. So relieved. Unbelievably thankful to be alive. For the first time in two and a bit weeks, I felt safe.
With the assistance of Far North Aviation, I found a hotel and checked in. Had some reheated food, hand washed some clothes and collapsed on the bed.