By Dom Smith @domsmith999
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The three planes – a 65-year-old Beech 18, a homemade kit-built Van’s RV8 and a 1980 Saratoga – set out from Wick in Scotland on June 20, and spent 10 days in the air travelling across the Arctic via the snowy expanses of Iceland and Greenland.
The spectacular trip was organised by aircraft enthusiasts Vintage Air Rally and captured on film by acclaimed photo-journalist Timothy Allen, who’s best known for his work on the BBC series The Human Planet.
Allen said: “At times what I was witnessing didn’t register as real. I was looking out the plane window at vintage aeroplanes flying over the most spectacular scenery in some of the most remote points of the planet.
“It was astonishing and exhilarating. It’s a real privilege to see that first hand.”
The planes started their journey in Wick and would fly up to four or five hours a day, making overnight stops on often remote airstrips in Iceland, Greenland and Canada. The ten day journey ended in Montreal.
Allen, aged 46, explained: “I didn’t realise you could fly to America that way but there are people doing it. We saw people all along the way that are making their own trips from Canada and America to Europe and back.”
But flying in such inhospitable skies in such small aircraft also held its dangers.
Allen explained: “It was scary as well. I was on edge a lot of the time. Two of the aeroplanes were single engine, so when you flew over any large stretches of water we had to wear immersion suits, just in case the engine stops.
“Because if the engine does stop, the only way is down. And if you don’t have an immersion suit on you’d die within five minutes in that water. An immersion suit gives you an extra 45 minutes in which time you might hopefully find a life raft.
“The fact that we had to fly in immersion suits – like you might wear for deep sea diving – shows you the kind of risks we were taking. We had to have a lot of trust in the machinery.”
The team also had to watch out for a potentially lethal process called icing – where the Arctic temperatures cause ice to start forming on the outside of the plane or the engine.
“That’s a real problem when flying in the Arctic,” explained Allen. “It’s the one thing that everyone was very scared of. If you notice icing starting to appear on the wings then you have to drop down in altitude to where temperatures are higher.”
The team also had to constantly factor in the extreme Arctic weather conditions when planning take-offs or landings.
Allen explained: “The biggest enemy is the weather. With those little aircraft you just can’t land them in fog. If you can’t see what you’re doing you can’t land so you’ve got to go and land somewhere else. So we were constantly checking weather reports.”
The biggest plane on the expedition was a 65-year-old Beech 18, which was owned by British couple Phil and Allie Dunnington, flown by pilot John Herbert and is capable of flying 1000 miles at a time.
But Allen’s favourite plane was the RV-8 kit plane, which was hand built in a garage and flown by pilots Mark Albery and Rogier ‘Rocky’ Westerhuis.
He explained: "It’s so small and you have a 360 degree view, it’s incredible. It’s the smallest plane and the most nerve-wracking. The slightest bit of wind and you get blown to the side. It’s like a stunt plane and it’s by far the most exhilarating one to fly in.
“It can spin upside down and then spin the other way. It was the best, and the scariest. I did one flight in it and we had to land in the rain and it was very nerve-wracking.
“But you’re flying massive hunks of metal in the coldest part of the planet so it’s not surprising I felt on edge a lot of the time, especially when we hit turbulence.”
The planes also flew over the US Army’s World War II airfield Bluie East 2 in Greenland, which was abandoned in 1947. Originally home to a 5000 foot long gravel runway, its current condition meant that Allen’s plane was unable to land at the base but his pictures clearly capture the crumbling buildings and some of the 100,000 rusting oil drums that litter the site.
The decaying air base captured in Allen’s pictures may soon be a thing of the past however as the Greenland and Danish governments signed an agreement in June 2017 to begin clearing up the site.
Allen’s pictures also capture the more natural majesty of the scenery as they flew over Iceland, Greenland and Canada, but he has no doubts about the most spectacular landscapes he encountered.
“Definitely Greenland,” he said. “As we flew from Iceland to Greenland, we hit the south east coast of Greenland and it was like, ‘Oh my God!’. It was mountainous, cold, remote – it was really foreboding. Seeing that coastline for the first time was incredible.
“It was a very remote corner of Greenland that no-one really goes to. There’s just very sporadic villages.
“The whole of central Greenland is just ice, on some of it the ice pack is like two kilometres thick. It’s just at the edges where it meets the sea where you don’t get that ice. I’ve never seen so many unusual landscapes in my life.”
The flight was organised by travel specialists Vintage Air Rally, whose aim is to take very old aircraft and do incredible journeys with them.
Vintage Air Rally’s Sam Rutherford, who piloted the Saratoga on the journey, explained: “The aim is to demonstrate that even decades after construction, these old aircraft are still capable of achieving difficult and demanding routes.”
And their next expedition is even more ambitious – on their Ushuaia2USA expedition in March 2018, 15 vintage aircraft from the early 1900s will fly across the Americas, travelling from Ushuaia, Argentina to Florida, USA.
Sam explained: The rally combines the challenge of flying these magnificent planes with the element of competition which was equally prevalent in those early days.”
But while the planes are incredible, for Timothy Allen it was the natural beauty of the Arctic that will live longest in the memory.
He said: “Greenland is such an immensely beautiful place that you just can’t take it all in. It was an assault on the senses.”