Flight of Fortitude – Iceland to Greenland

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

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After spending 2 days in Reykjavík, I finally got to see a sunny bright morning that day. The expedition team in India had also advised me that the weather was suitable for me to fly out and filed a flight plan for the leg to Greenland. After carefully studying the weather map and the map of Kulusuk airport, I left my guest house at 7am.

At the airport, I packed my belongings into Mahi and prepared her for her flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

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Since it was going to take a few more hours for the weather to clear, I made myself comfortable in the crew lounge, cradling a cup of coffee, ready to wait it out. As it so happens, Reykjavík is a popular stop for people flying in from Europe, heading towards North America as it lies along the great circle track.

This where I met quite a few pilots who briefed me about their flights and the weather they experienced. After having my 8th cup of coffee I finally got a small window to take off.

After my briefing with Capt. Monga, I asked the NEXUS team to file a flight plan for 14:30 hrs. I was already well prepared for the flight as it was supposed to be good flying weather. Also, I was really looking forward to flying over the Atlantic ocean for the second time around.

Rolling out right into the ocean, it wasn’t as good as I expected it to be.

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Skirting through clouds for almost an hour, I figured there was quite a bit of clouding at my altitude ahead, so I descended to 2000 ft.

After almost 30 minutes, there were black clouds forming all around me. I was orbiting in my current position just to see if I could skirt this weather somehow.

 

I decided that I would turn back, but it was impossible since the weather was all packed up behind me. So I resumed flying on my flight path to Kulusuk Airport.

 

A few minutes later the cloud base started lowering and to avoid it,  I had to descend to 1000 ft, so close to the ocean. It was little scary but I had no option as the clouding was up till 5000 ft which I could not climb due to the extremely low temperature up there of -2°C, which could cause icing.

Somewhere here, at just 1000 ft above the ocean, I saw something break through the water. My heart skipped a beat and for a split second, I imagined that I saw a sea monster.

I realised then that I had just seen a whale tail breaking through the surface of the water! My first ever whale sighting ever!

 

Thereafter it was a continuous struggle with rain, clouds and gusty winds till Kulusuk.

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Image Credit: Mariusz Kluzniak | Flickr

Kulusuk has a gravel runway and a tight approach due to nearby terrain. I made my first attempt at landing but had to go around due to the wind gusts not letting little Mahi settle down. I tried again and my next approach was spot on. I had successfully reached Greenland!

This was probably one of the most challenging flights for me so far. But that’s what an expedition is all about right.

~ Capt. Aarohi Pandit | Pictures clicked by Aarohi on iPhone 7

 

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Mahi’s Homecoming

Wednesday, 22nd August 2018

We were staying in a tiny Bed & Breakfast in Ljubljana. We asked the landlady if she could get our breakfast ready by 5.30 in the morning so we could head out by 6 am and fly out latest by 7am. The weather was perfect as Ljubljana is nestled in the mountains, but we could expect it to deteriorate by afternoon.

I had my usual cornflakes with milk while Aarohi ordered a fried egg, which to her horror had a runny yolk! And Aarohi hates runny yolk. We somehow finished our breakfast in under 10 minutes and left for the airport.

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Our aircraft was already prepared and after loading our bags and completing all preflight checks, we were good to go. The sortie today was just for 20 minutes and we were to going to cover 31 nm to Ajdovščina. This was the most important and significant leg for Mahi as she was going back to her birthplace and was soon going to enjoy a well-deserved spa-like servicing.

The Chairman of NBF, Tapan Nandi sir, travelled from Bengaluru to Amsterdam to Ljubljana and then drove down to Ajdovščina to meet us. The airfield here is located at the foothills of the range and was immediately visible when we crossed the final mountain.  We orbited overhead to descend to circuit altitude. For the first time ever there was no controller to guide us and we were absolutely on our own.  We monitored the pilot frequency of 123.500 and announced our joining right circuit for runway 08. The winds blowing down the mountains were terribly strong and nothing like we have ever experienced before. We somehow managed to turn for finals and went full idle to settle down.

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The landing was just fine and we taxied out to alpha to approach the hangar where Tapan sir and Matija from Pipistrel were awaiting us. We parked the aircraft and got down to greet everybody. Ever since we left India, this was the first place where we were meeting someone from our own team and were really looking forward to this.

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As we unloaded our stuff from the aircraft, Matija and his team made a thorough inspection of the aircraft to compile a list of things that needed to be checked and what had to be serviced. Mahi was ready to undergo a complete checkup and service. We met Tadej Hozic and Leon who is head of their technical department and Ivo Boscorol, the owner of Pipistrel.

We handed Mahi over into the careful hands of Matija and his maintenance team and set off to Hotel Gold and Casino where we were booked. My phone had been giving me quite a lot of trouble for a while and my Dadda had sent a new phone with Tapan sir. So my excitement knew no bounds when he gave it to me along with the ‘care’ package (which included banana chips!!) sent by the team in India.

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Every single flight makes us hungry so we dumped our luggage and rushed down to the restaurant for a second breakfast.

After eating to our heart’s content we returned to our rooms to rest for a while and freshen up. With no flying planned for the next day, we were going to head out to the city and were really hoping to try some local dishes for lunch. As it so happened, all we got was some shrimp pizza (which was a little too raw for our liking) as everything was shut except for the pizzerias. Dinner was also fairly ‘continental’ as it consisted of pasta and salad at the hotel restaurant.

But our bellies were full and we had a lot of work to do the next day so we decided to pack in some good sleep to deal with it all.

 

~ Capt. Keithair Misquitta

Circumnavigators rendezvous in Ajdovščina

Sunday, 23rd August 2018

We reached the Pipistrel facility at about 8.30 am after a delicious breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs and cornflakes (no surprises there!). Mahi was completely disassembled by now and many of her components were already serviced and cleaned. There was bad news though. We were informed that there was a cold front approaching from the northwest and it was going to bring some pretty bad weather which would last over the weekend. Which meant that if the service wasn’t complete by Friday we would have to wait back until Monday or Tuesday for the weather to clear.

But we couldn’t dwell on this bit of news for too long because we were really excited about our meeting with Matevž Lenarčič, a veteran circumnavigator who has flown around the world thrice already!  In fact, he flew the Sinus 912 on his very first trip and was the one who had recommended this plane for our circumnavigation attempt. He was accompanied by fellow pilot Domen Grauf, who flies microlights and has participated in many Air Championships across Europe.

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We had a whole bunch of questions ready for Matevž and he was more than happy to oblige us! In fact he gave us some pretty great tips about the upcoming Atlantic crossing and warned us about the weather there. After a quick photo shoot with him and his Dynamic WT 9, we all drove back to our hotel for lunch and more questions about flying around the world. Lunch was fantastic – we had gnocchi, some fantastic cheesy risotto (which is apparently a local favourite) and salad followed by coffee.

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After lunch we headed back to the airport where Matevž and Domen bid adieu to us as they started up their Dynamic and rolled down the runway and up into the skies. What a wonderful experience and so humbling to have him fly across just to spend some time with us.

But our day was far from done! Next up was our meeting with His Excellency, the Ambassador of India, Mr Param Jit Mann. Pipistrel had organised a press conference and the media had gathered. After answering various questions about the mission we were on we were we headed outside for another photo shoot. Mr Ravi Jain, who was accompanying the Ambassador, gave us a To-Do list for our stay in Ljubljana, which included dinner at the only Indian restaurant here called Namaste.

Once the photos were done, we were escorted out to a dinner planned by Mr Ivo Boscorol by the side of a spring. We were joined by Tapan Sir, Tadej and Ingrid from Pipistrel.

The restaurant was a little shack on a porch over a small pond. The meal was three-course fare mainly revolving around the freshwater fish from the locality. We started with a bruschetta appetizer, followed by salmon fillet and pasta stuffed with trout. Slovenia is known for its wine and we tasted about five different wines during the evening. To end the meal, we had three different varieties of heavenly Pannacotta. All in a day’s work!

~ The WE! Pilots

Meeting the Queen of Caves, Postojna

Saturday, 25th August 2018

It was Keithair’s youngest sister’s birthday today and both of us were up early to wish her. Bad weather meant there was going to be no flying today, so Mr. Ivo Boscarol, the founder of Pipistrel very graciously arranged a bit of sightseeing for us with his good friend Janja, who happily offered to show us around Ajdovščina. It was 9 am when she arrived at the lobby to pick us up. We headed downstairs where we met Tapan Nandi who was also joining us on the tour.

We were going to visit one of the largest caves in Slovenia which is spread over an area of about 24000 km called Postonja Jama. The drive to the cave was about an hour long and it took us through some beautiful mountains and valleys. We saw all we could of the Slovenian countryside through a heavy downpour.

On reaching the place we realised that we were ill-equipped for this kind of rain so we stopped to buy ourselves some rain jackets.

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The climb from the lower part of the hill to the entrance of the cave was about 15 minutes. We had booked the English version of the Cave Tour which was scheduled to start at 11 am and as we had reached quite early we decided to get some piping hot coffee at the cafe.

Also, since the rains had picked up, the coffee was much needed to set the mood.

We reached the counter a good 10 minutes before the show was about to begin. Talk about being enthusiastic tourists! We were lead to a mini train terminal where we boarded an underground train which took us deep down into the inner chambers of the cave which was roughly 5 km from our present position.


As the train descended further down, the temperature started dropping even more. We started from the highest point of the cave which was 60 m below the surface and were going towards the lowest part which was 120 m further down.

Strange thing is though, according to the tour guide, the temperature inside the cave stays at a constant 10°C throughout.

The cave is roughly three million years old and has three levels, the top level which we started from, the second level where we were going to and then the third level which is not open to the public as the river flows through it and is still carving out passages from walls of the cave.

The best part of the tour were the vibrant colours of the stone structures formed by various mineral deposits over the years. We saw stalagmites and stalactites, many of which have fused over the years to form columns. We saw the red chamber, the white chamber and a man-made chamber before heading up towards the exit, and warmth!


We drove back to Ljubljana for a much anticipated meal at an Indian restaurant called Namaste, as advised by Mr. Jain.


The rains had not yet stopped or even reduced and the temperature had dropped even more. But the only Indian restaurant in Ljubljana was warm and the decor and music transported us back home, especially the beautiful silver Ganpati that welcomed us in.

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We tucked into a delicious lunch which consisted of rice, Dal Tadka, Kadhai Paneer, Chicken Tikka and Garlic Naan. Poor Janja couldn’t handle the spicy Indian food and had a rather tough time with all the heat, while we happily dug into our meal. We ordered some curd rice for her which cooled her down a bit. We topped off our meal with gulab jamun and ice cream!

After a very long time, this was the first time we ate to our heart’s content since we left home.

The rains still showed no signs of stopping, so we aborted all other plans and headed back to our hotel. But we weren’t complaining. It had been a good day.

~ WE! Pilots

Day trip to Rafsanjan

Saturday, 11th August 2018

After flying every day for four days since we left Bhuj and till we reached Rafsanjan, both of us were feeling a little worse for wear. The huge welcome we got at Rafsanjan airport meant we didn’t make it back to our hotel till 2.30 in the afternoon, by when Keithair was starting to look a little green around the gills. It is at times like these when you really miss home, but it is also at times like these that you find your guardian angels. Ours was called Fatima, our wonderful Farsi translator.

A quick trip to the doctor and a good night’s rest was in order, which meant the following day’s schedule had to be pushed. Having recuperated enough by next afternoon, we decided to take in the sights and flavours of Rafsanjan with Fatima and her friends, Armin and Ehsaan.

It was a fantastic afternoon, sunny and breezy, for an ‘open-air’ meal with barbecued shrimps in the middle of the desert. Poor Keithair, who is a vegetarian by choice, looked the other way while we enjoyed our snack.

This was followed by a visit to the troglodytic dwellings of Maymand historical village which has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site. We saw a public bath, a museum and underground shelters, all carved out of the soft rock. Some of these homes are still in use, especially during the freezing winters!

All that walking around can make you thirsty and the perfect solution lay in the piping hot cups of Persian tea AKA ‘chai’, not too different from what we drink in India, minus the milk.

A long and eventful day drew to a close with a traditional Iranian meal shared with the first new friends we’ve made since we left home. Hopefully, the first of many, many more!

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~ WE! Pilots

Leg 2 – Kishangarh to Ahmedabad

Wednesday, 1st August 2018

 

All prepared for our second leg of the expedition, we woke up at 5 am with a lot of energy. It was going to be my longest cross-country with Mahi as PIC. Going through the flight plan sent by Nexus Flight Ops, I realised it was going to be a tough sortie with 20 knots gusting at Ahmedabad.

It was 7 am when we headed down for breakfast and actually got a poolside table (it’s always reserved BTW). Ate my omelette with bread, toast and tea ( no sugar) and rushed back to our room to get into our uber cool flight suits.

We were feeling really smart in our uniforms, when I saw my phone beeping. It was Capt. Rahul Monga. I had passed on incorrect fuel details to the flight ops team. Scared and sweaty, I replied to his messages and apologised, realising what a huge mistake I had made.

Quickly passing on the corrected information we headed straight for the airport. We went through security and got ourselves inside the terminal, prepared Mahi for today’s flight and waited for our clearance while sipping a welcome cup of tea. Going through Ahmedabad approach plates and aerodrome charts, I crosschecked all the frequencies. With one last look at the weather expected en route, we were ready for our departure. After a quick briefing call with Capt. Rahul, we started our engines.

We took off with 11 knots of crosswinds. Maintaining the runway centre line below me, we set course for Ahmedabad. With hills to our right and bare land to our left, we somehow managed to climb to FL 065. Overflying NIKOT with contact with Jaipur, we were then released for direct routing to Ahmedabad.

What a beautiful view – with clouds below us and the bright blue sky above, we were cruising at 92 knots due to strong headwinds.

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At about 50 nm inbound into Ahmedabad we cruised left right, deviating due to clouding at our flight level. Once in contact with Radar, we requested radar vectoring (basically telling us were to go and what to do) and we were on long final for Runway 23. 2000 ft, 7 nm on final, we realised the visibility is NOT 5000m which was reported by the ATC. Aligning my aircraft with the centreline with two white, two red, landed Mahi with a little high round off.

Big airports are so confusing for an LSA pilot with a tiny aircraft so we asked for guidance till our parking bay.

Parked and secured, we cleaned her up. When we finally left the terminal, we got to the hotel and were happy to just go back to sleep. Zzzz!

~ Capt. Aarohi Pandit

Rest Day – Visiting the Ajmer Sharif Dargah

Tuesday, 31st July 2018

We got up at about 7.30 this morning and freshened up. While we took the stairs down to the restaurant we wondered what a typical Rajasthani breakast would be. Sad to report, we were surprised to see that were no daily specials and we had a rather regular menu to choose from.  I settled for cornflakes and milk while Aarohi opted for vada-sambar, and chai.  The tea served here was amazing masala chai and Aarohi’s breakfast turned out to be 6-7 miniature medu vadas and a huge bowl of tangy sambar.

Talk about South Indian food in a North Indian Haveli! Globalisation in a nutshell.

We quickly finished our food and headed back to the room to dress up and leave for Ajmer.

Ajmer is a small town located amidst the Aravalli Mountains and is famous for the Garib Nawaz Dargah or Ajmer Sharif, a place known to fulfil the wishes of all the pilgrims who visit. After an uneventful 50 min drive from Kishangarh, we were dropped off at Delhi Gate where we quickly covered our heads. We walked up the kilometre long buzzing Dargah Nazar street to reach Nawaz Gate, the entrance to the Dargah. The relatively empty Ajmer streets were in stark contrast to the jam packed, tiny little lane winding up to the base of Taragarh hill where the shrine is located.

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There were all sorts of stalls there, some sold sweets while some sold offerings that you could give at the shrine. There were tiny little restaurants and street food stalls, toy shops and souvenir shops. The strong presence of ittar was quickly replaced by the fragrance of flowers as we reached the shrine.

We had never been to a Dargah all by ourselves before and thus decided to follow the large groups of people thronging to get to the Sanctum. The shrine is an all-marble structure which houses the sanctum of Garib Nawaz right in the centre, surrounded by beautiful buildings within a complex.  Unaware of the rituals of offering, we followed the queue, paid our respects when everyone else did and followed the crowd out. Something about the place was mesmerising. And just to see the number of people braving the hot sun to reach the shrine, was even more fascinating.

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After we left the shrine we headed down the road back to Delhi Gate where our car was waiting to pick us up. But we got waylaid at the sight of chilled Kulad lassi which is basically a thick creamy yoghurt drink served in an earthen cup. The sun was now overhead and the heat was quite unbearable, so this was just what we needed to cool down.

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Our next stop was Akbari Qila which is another heritage location in Ajmer.  The Qila or Fort was built by Emperor Akbar as a place to rest after his annual pilgrimage to Ajmer. After his ‘dua’ or prayer for a son was fulfilled, Emperor Akbar visited the Ajmer Sharif every single year and offered his gratitude. The Fort which is now a museum has typical Mughal style architecture with four bastions on each corner and a Diwan-e-Khas or central hall in the middle. Inside the museum are seven galleries filled with Mughal and Rajput art and ammunitions. We spent quite a while there before heading back to Kishangarh.

By the time we reached the hotel we were famished and decided to eat at the restaurant instead of heading to our room. I ordered the Rajasthani Special Gatta Sabzi, a chickpea flour preparation, and Aarohi had Chicken tikka with rice and curry.

Tummies full, we headed straight up to the room to rest and plan for the days ahead.

~ Capt. Keithair Misquitta