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Divert or Die ?!?

A Flight full of Diversions

The west coast of Norway is very scenic, lined with fjords, snow-capped mountains of the Kjolen range, steep gorges carved out by the retreating ice over thousands of years and very few roads. The moutainous countryside is certainly not suitable for diversions and emergencies in a small single engine aircraft. If one survives a crash landing, there are not many roads one can find to reach a human settlement; one would be very lucky indeed to make contact with another human in the area.

Even during the mid-summer, the Norwegian Sea is cold, the wind can be biting as are the mosquitos and black flies. The mountain air over 2000 feet above sea level is sometimes below freezing point. The westerly winds bring in the cold wet weather regularly. This is stopped from going east by the Kjolen mountains which act as a barrier and cause the rain to drop thunderously all along the range.

We were on our way to the Nord Kapp at 71*10”, the northern most point in Europe. This has a visitor centre which is open all year round and many thousands of people visit. Our plan was to land at a small airfield, on the island of Mageroya, very close to the Nord Kapp and make a flight over the cliffs. Reaching the Nord Kapp was easy enough to plan on the map. Norway has many airports and airfields scattered all over the rugged country, some are hidden by steep gorges and require careful approaches whilst other runways are in the middle of a scrubland forest surrounded by wild country with reindeer. Not all of them are safe to operate for small aircraft like ours due to the strong westerly winds or wind shear and down drafts created by the steep cliffs.

A Technical Fault

Flying out of Bronnoysund, a typically beautiful Norwegian location in the middle of June, we were flying north bound admiring the steep mountains on our right and the windy dark blue sea on the west, I noted that the oil pressure warning light had started flashing red. Hmm… “not a change in the engine sound, no sign of vibrations, no change in oil temperature”, I said to Anil. Neither of us were very alarmed but we started looking out at places to land… trying to spot the roads and their directions…

Too far away to return to Bronnoysund, I decided to carry on northbound towards Bodo airport which was on our way to the Nord Kapp. I continued the interesting exercise of looking at roads carved out of steep granite cliff faces, trying to visually estimate, if the engine stopped, whether I could manage to crash on the road and not bounce and slide down into the steep valleys full of cold water. The answer was always a “don’t know”….

I made a call to the local ATC which was in contact but could not get an answer as we were out of radio range, due to mountains. I decided to climb to 6000 feet above sea level and the engine temperature dropped considerably. The outside air temperature was now -10C… I did not expect such a sharp drop in air temperature on a summer’s afternoon in the Arctic Circle where the sun shone brightly for almost 24 hours. The oil pressure warning light remained on warning mode.

Eventually our Panne call was picked up by an airliner cruising at high altitude and relayed to Bodo, the next airport on our path. We relayed messages and received permission as well as some relief that someone knew our predicament and were now following us by relayed position reports, but not via radar contact.

60 miles of tense flight later, we arrived overhead Bodo and circled down to land on the massive runway. A quick taxi to the civilian hangar, I check the oil level and oil filter, which indicated everything was normal. The local flying club chaps were very helpful. They found us a hotel in town, where a midnight dinner and walk in the sunshine made me quite disoriented. The fault was a loose contact in the oil pressure terminal.

A few hours later, after a shower and shave, we set off again in bright sunlight towards the Nord Kapp. We landed normally at Bardufoss airport, which has an interesting back story, as a WW 2 German fighter station base which failed to intercept the RAF bomber raid which sank the Tirpitz, but that’s another story.

A quick chat with the CFI at Bardufoss we learned that the Norwegian government had a scholarship program from Zero to Hero for student pilots, but there were no pupils! I think the flight school shut down eventually for lack of students, despite being fully subsidised by the government.

Our flight from Bardufoss to the Nord Kapp was planned along the west coast, with the intention of crossing over the mountains at a suitable valley which would allow us passage between the overcast and the hills. The further north we went the lower the clouds came and brought drizzle with it. Flying in the valleys was exciting but nail biting anxiety set in soon. I was now suffering from a serious case of “getthereitis”. The engine was working fine, the turbulence and rain was increasing. My co pilot was silent, not even bothering to take photos….

A bad weather diversion….

The moment I saw the tall mast on the hilltop below which we were flying, I realised that this would simply lead us into disaster. The “gethereitis” disappeared instantly. I turned back over the water of the Kvalsund which separates the mainland and the island of Kvaloya (Hammerfest airport is on the northern edge of this island and was reporting heavy thunderstorm with rain) and headed south towards Alta airfield we had passed about 20 minutes previously.

About 10 minutes into our retreat, I noticed a small patch of clear air with no rain towards the east. I could see the freshly snow covered hills and some sharply defined downpours of heavy rain in the distance. “That’s the way we want to go towards our diversionary field” I said to my co-pilot. It was an instinctive or intuitive decision making process, well developed after a few years of dodging thundershowers and mountain tops. No radio contact was possible due to the weather and as we approached the large military/civil airfield at Lakselv, another thunderstorm pouring heavily directly over the runway disrupted our radio calls.

A few minutes of loitering in the area with a slow flying speed, we let the stormy weather pass and landed on a very wet runway.

A warm drink in the dry airport café, a few phone calls and new friends made, we were able to proceed north to our destination a couple of hours later!

A diversion plan does help. So plan and be ready for a diversion on every flight and be ready to ask for help and advice from ATC units or other aircraft in the vicinity for weather updates in their area to help you make a good decision.

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