Flying over the ice sheet in Greenland

Flying at low altitudes over mountains and icebergs is quite extraordinary

It feels marvellous to climb aboard one of Air Zafari’s small aircraft at the airport in Ilulissat. Everyone is given a headset so they can communicate with each other and hear what the pilot has to say. First, we are all given a safety briefing and then we greet our pilot, who is going to fly us over the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere. We also say hallo to his colleague who has just landed with another group of tourists. He tells us that they have just seen a large group of whales at the edge of the ice, so our already high expectations go up a notch.

After taking off from the airport, we fly directly towards the ice sheet. This huge, continuous ice mass is more than 2,000 km long, 800 km wide and more than three kilometres thick at its highest point, but from the air it looks more like an endless white horizon. In all, the ice covers more than 80% of the total area of Greenland and this is difficult to comprehend, seen in the light of the fact that the entire country is the size of Western Europe. 

The contrasts appear at the edges, giving the ice more life than just white in white. Here, the ice folds in gigantic arcs down towards the edge of the glacier, where it breaks off into icebergs. Several have shown that the glacier is moving at approx. 20 metres a day, so even though it looks beautiful and sculptural, it is in reality an enormous melting pot under tremendous pressure, where great forces wrestle and in the end push icebergs weighing millions of tons out into the fjord.

The pilot flies along the glacier, but it is difficult from the aircraft to comprehend the figures he quotes or to relate the height of the ice face to anything other than the ice itself and the icebergs in front. There is no doubt that these are vast dimensions and everyone sits silently, enjoying the view. 

Flying over the ice sheet in Greenland

180 metres of ice 
The pilot sets a course towards the mouth of the ice fjord. We fly out over the 60-kilometre long ice fjord, as one ice sculpture replaces another. On the way, many beautiful tips stick up from the icebergs that are still intact after breaking off from the face of the glacier.

Halfway out of the ice fjord there is an iceberg that has not yet tipped over and this is the high point of the trip – literally. A gigantic iceberg sticks up among the others and what it does not have in breadth, it has in height. The aircraft’s wing sweeps past the iceberg’s tip at a safe distance. Due to the size of the iceberg, it seems to be very close and it spell-binds us all. The pilot checks his instruments and determines that the iceberg extends at least 180 metres above sea level. That is twice the height of the Statue of Liberty (93m) and 2/3 of the Eiffel Tower (300m). A magnificent sculpture crafted by nature. 

The longer out we get, the more space there is between the icebergs and the sight of the first deep-blue water makes a beautiful contrast to the ice. Further out, many of the icebergs have tipped over and therefore have flatter tops.

Flying over the ice sheet in Greenland

Humpback whales in sight
When the aircraft reaches the edge of the ice fjord, we follow the open water to the west and see the village of Ilimanaq. There are new cabins here, from which you can enjoy the view of the ice and at the same time get a feeling of how it is to live in a small village. You can sail there from Ilulissat in about an hour and the place is immediately put on my to-do list. 

The pilot turns the plane and announces that we are going to fly along the entire edge of the ice fjord on the way back to the airport, in the hopes of being lucky enough to see a humpback whale. And we are! Suddenly we see the blow from one whale and then another. In addition to the two giants, five more turn up and the pilot circles so we can enjoy these wonderful animals which benefit from the large amounts of krill at the edge of the ice fjord.
Flying over the ice sheet in Greenland
All summer, there have been many whales in Ilulissat but here, at the end of September, most of them have started migrating south, so we feel really fortunate. 

The trip ends with a magnificent view of Ilulissat with the harbour on one side and the mountains on the other side. There is a wooden walkway here that goes past the town and all the way out to the ice fjord. The walkway is there to protect nature at this world heritage site.

Back at the airport, we all crawl out, slightly euphoric and we take photos of each other in front of the aircraft. Everyone shakes the pilot’s hand and says thank you before we leave the airport. It was an unforgettable experience of the ice and the whales at Ilulissat. 

Flying over the ice sheet in Greenland