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A Greenland diversion

March 31, 2011

I guess I was due for a Greenland diversion. My last 3 ferry flights via Greenland were absolutely smooth sailing, light winds and clear skies. My luck had to run out at some point.

Perhaps I jinxed myself by reading the hotel travel guide in Sondre Stromfjord. On this trip I was flying a Piper Seneca to London and I overnighted at Sondre Stromfjord (BGSF). While in the hotel I noticed the travel guide states that approximately 60 to 90 times per year the airline flight from Sondre Stromfjord to Copenhagen is cancelled due to weather. 60 to 90 times per year! And that’s an A330.

Here’s the airplane on the ramp at Sondre Stromfjord, seen at sunset from my $250 hotel room at the Sondre Stromfjord airport (click on the picture for full size):

Piper Seneca on the ramp at Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland

Piper Seneca on the ramp at Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland

In a Piper Seneca I don’t like flying Sondre Stromfjord to Keflavik direct. In a no-wind situation you would only have around 45 minutes reserve. Stopping in Kulusuk on the East Coast of Greenland is a better option, but you need to be careful because there are no alternates on the East Coast of Greenland. If you have to divert your best options are return to BGSF, continue to BIKF, or possibly BGBW in the Southern tip of Greenland.

The weather looked reasonable. Light cloud cover and good visibility. The only issue was surface winds at BGKK. When I arrived at the weather station in Sondre Stromfjord, the current reported winds at Kulusuk were gusting up to 26 knots (30 MPH), but forecast to be no more than 12 knots (14 MPH) by the time of my arrival in Kulusuk. Generally I prefer not to take off when winds are over 20-25 knots, but 26 knots straight down the runway was reasonable, and the forecast 12 knots was just perferct.

Here is a picture of Sondre Stromfjord airport after takeoff:

Taking off from Sondre Stromfjord (BGSF)

Taking off from Sondre Stromfjord (BGSF)

The route from Sondre Stromfjord to Kulusuk is only 339 nm direct. You can file ATS route W28, which includes the navigation points PEVAR, MASIK and then BGKK (or DA). I was enjoying a 30+ knot tailwind, just as forecast, at flight level FL150 in the Piper Seneca.

Route from BGSF to BGKK

Route from Sondre Stromfjord to Kulusuk (BGSF to BGKK)

Between PEVAR and MASIK I temporarily lost direct VHF contact at FL150, as expected, but I could stay in radio contact via higher flying airliners.

Here I am approaching the East Coast of Greenland, Greenland really is beautiful:

Approaching the east coast of Greenland

Approaching the east coast of Greenland

Right about when I took the previous picture an Air Greenland airliner calls me up and asks if I want the latest weather in Kulusuk. I could tell by the tone of his voice that it wasn’t good.

“Current winds 36 knots gusting to 42 knots.”

42 knots!!! The forecast was 12 knots. I ask the Air Greenland guys if they have the Kulusuk forecast (TAF) on their datalink, and sure enough, the forecast had been amended after my departure from Sondre Stromfjord and called for high winds for the rest of the morning.

I had to decide whether to return to BGSF or continue to BIKF quickly. Again I impose on the Air Greenland guys to get the weather in Keflavik: severe clear and light winds.

At this time I’m in direct VHF radio contact with Greenland information again, so I ask for a diversion to Keflavik. I was still about 60 miles out of Kulusuk and could have also returned to Sondre Stromfjord, but with the 30+ knot tailwinds exactly as forecast I could reach Keflavik (my filed alternate) comfortably.

I enter the new route in the Garmin 530, which now goes from Sondre Stromfjord to Keflavik (BGSF-BGKK) via W28 to DA (Kulusuk NDB), then DA58 which is a point on the boundary between Greenland and Iceland airspace, then 65N30W (shown as 6530N) and on to GIMLI and KEF (Keflavik VOR).

Route from BGSF to BGKK to BIKF

Route from BGSF to BGKK with diversion to BIKF

In the end I decided to extend my route about 20 more miles and landed at Reykjavic instead of Keflavic, because Reykjavic is a bit quicker and slightly less expensive to fly into in a light aircraft.

When flying in Europe or the USA, we generally don’t see high surface winds without being associated with a major weather system like thunderstorms or severe winter storms, but in Greenland and along the Atlantic ferry flight routes that is not the case. High surface winds occur frequently with high pressure gradients, and often in otherwise perfect weather conditions. You can see from the picture where I was approaching the East Coast of Greenland that the weather was beautiful VFR, I could see Kulusuk from 30 miles away. I just couldn’t safely land there with 40+ knot winds.

Thanks to the strong tailwind it all worked out well. If it were not for the strong tailwind I would have had to return to Sondre Stromfjord, but whenever you’re flying a light airplane over the North Atlantic, those are options that you have to plan for.

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