KUS – Kulusuk Airport Greenland.
From a distance the scene of Kulusuk Airport’s modern looking building nestled in a valley between almost sheer peaks in a stark white snow covered surrounding would not be out of place in a James Bond movie.
From a scenic viewpoint Kulusuk Airport on Kulusuk Island on the east coast of Greenland is certainly one of the most beautiful locations for an air strip that I have found. On my inbound flight from Reykjavik we approached low over the coast and you are greeted by icebergs and iced in bays and then there is the strip. On landing on the gravel strip originally constructed by the U.S.A.F., your aircraft is touching down at the foot of towering snow covered peaks of the 673m high mountain called Qalorujoorneq.
The airport is a hub for fixed and rotary wing aircraft servicing the remote communities and towns on the very sparsely populated east coast.
The airport is staffed by a mix of Danes and Greenlandic locals who deal efficiently with the 20 to 50 aircraft movements per day including domestic and international commercial flights as well as private and corporate aircraft.
Apart from the airport building, some maintenance buildings, a mix of new and USAF leftovers, the airport staff residence and Hotel Kulusuk are the only other buildings in the valley. The township of Kulusuk is a refreshing 30 minute walk on a sunny day and is home to around 300 mostly Inuit people. For the truly authentic Greenland experience you can get a dog sled from the airport to the township.
Only two airlines use the strip for regular services, Air Iceland with connecting flights to Reykjavik 6 days a week during summer. The other more prolific user is the regional flights from Air Greenland. These flights consist of a mix of Dash-8 and rotary wings coming sporadically throughout the day.
Air Greenland fleet.
Air Greenland fleet consists of seven de-Havilland DHC-8 aircraft as well as operating eight Bell 212 and nine Eurocopter AS-350 helicopters with the Dash8, 212 and the 350’s operating to connect Kulusuk with a variety of other regional towns and villages. There is something about the sound of an approaching Bell 212, that familiar thumping sound. Amplified in this landscape where your horizon is steep snow covered hills on all sides with no trees to deaden the sound you can clearly hear the 212 approaching before you can see the flash red livery.
Apart from domestic transport the helicopters also service the charter market and serve in a search and rescue (SAR) capacity.
Greenland is some 2.3 million square kilometres and the 12 largest land mass in the world with a sparse population of around 56,000. With such a large lightly populated country helicopters have, for many years been the backbone of transport throughout the country and in the past Air Greenland and the communities they service have relied heavily on aircraft like Sikorsky S-61, the civil equivalent of the military’s Sea King. With two of these massive aircraft still in service their duties are restricted to primarily SAR. The S-61 is celebrating 50 years of service with Air Greenland. These awesome choppers have been in service since the times when other members of the Air Greenland fleet included the Sikorsky S-55 and the PBY Catalina flying boats.
Air Greenland also operate one A330-200 that is used to connect the country to Europe and a sole Super King Air finishing off the fleet.
The airstrip is unusual for an international airport in that it is unfenced, allowing for shots from almost any vantage point with out the hindrance of cyclone mesh to spoil your photos. A word of caution: this is an active airstrip for commercial aircraft and the absence of a fence should not be taken as an invite to stray too close. Most of the photos I have included here were shot with the cooperation and under the close supervision of the Greenland Airport Authority Mittarfeqarfiit. That said there are ample high points around the strip that can be accessed by foot only.
Both footwear and general clothing need to be worn to suit the conditions. My original flight from Reykjavik was cancelled due to winds of 70 km/h. On arrival in early June I was greeted with 2 to 4 metres of snow covering the entire island. By the time I departed Kulusuk the snow had reduced significantly but still with the melt comes plenty of running water and mud. If you want to get anywhere that the three roads in the valley won’t take you. Come prepared.
The airstrip has no dedicated spotting areas and finding the right angle is always challenging although the sun moves in a low arc in summer that sees it cover around 330 degrees of the Horizon. That combined with changing wind conditions and pilots choosing the most suitable approach or take off direction in calm conditions adds to the challenge. But with a spirit of adventure and time on your side you will find opportunity presented here that will not be presented at too many other international airports.
On top of the regular traffic, Kulusuk is a stop off for many smaller aircraft on ferry flights from North America to Europe. This is the same path used by the allies to ferry warplanes to the European theatre during the WWII although this strip didn’t exist back then. On the day I was there spotting two aircraft used the airport on ferry trips, one transferring a recently purchased Beechcraft Bonanza V-Tail from the U.S. to its new home in Iceland and the other ferrying an Airvan from the U.S. to the U.K. That was to be used to have RAF paratroopers skydive from for the upcoming Military services day.
Kulusuk airstrip was constructed in the summers of 1958 and 59 by the U.S. Airforce to service DYE 4, a part of the DEW early warning radar system. This radar installation is around 10 kms from the strip and was active throughout the Cold War. I’m not sure who you would have had to upset to get stationed at DYE 4 in the ’60s but I image it would be similar to the Russians being sent to Siberia.
Signs of the USAF involvement in construction and maintenance are still visible if you know where to look. Apart from the remnant maintenance building, now used as storage by the airport, with a little detective work and finding the right people to talk to I found the remains of some USAF machinery and vehicles. Whilst most of these are now scrap or used for spare parts only, one prime mover, an International, is still in occasional use by the airport.
Kulusuk airport was also a vital staging post for the recovery of the P-38 Lightning now known as Glacier Girl. This recovery was successfully completed in 1992 but it was the 8th year that the team had ventured out to the icecap, all the while using Kulusuk as their base in Greenland. Glacier Girl was one of the aircraft in a flight of two B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and six P-38 Lightning that were turned back from Iceland on their ferry flight in 1942. Lost and running out of fuel they were put down on the glacier and were abandoned. It was for one of Glacier Girl’s sisters that I had found myself in Greenland. But that is another story …