Flying Adventure: Chasing the Midnight Sun

A chance comment over a pint with Martin, a lifelong pal, sowed the seed for what was to become by some distance (no pun intended) the best cross-country I’ve ever flown…

Words and images: Russ Stein

Many moons ago, I recall handing in a geography project about Northern Sweden’s Sami people and how the dramatic change in the seasons impacts their daily lives. I was fascinated by the fact that for two months each summer, it is permanently light.

I suppose this fascination never really left me, and the thought of being able to fly legally VFR at midnight was near the top of my ‘aviation things to do’ list.

A chance comment over a pint with Martin, a lifelong pal, sowed the seed for what was to become by some distance (no pun intended) the best cross-country I’ve ever flown…

Out came the National Geographic atlas and across went the finger along the Arctic Circle - that magical line of latitude beyond which 24-hour daylight (and darkness) comes and goes in rhythm with the planet, as it tilts backwards and forth over 12 months.

The opportunity for midnight flying at the Arctic Circle is limited to just four weeks or so each side of the solstice. Therefore this had to be factored into our journey and departure date plans. We’re both self-employed, so at least that offered some degree of flexibility as far as weather delays and routeing etc.

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Martin is not a PPL holder, but flew with the cadets in an earlier life, and with me many times subsequently. He was to prove invaluable as a navigator and, of course, was able to take the stick on the longer cross-country legs. He’s also a fluent German speaker, which helped considerably as we spent three nights in that country. However, this did of course mean that all the planning, operational decisions, R/T and critical stage flying were going to come down to me.

Realistically, our target destination was going to sit in northern Norway, Sweden or Finland: further east and you’re into Russia (no thanks); any further west and you’re over the sea, as the Circle just skirts the northern coast of Iceland. Sweden was identified as the first choice, as the terrain appeared to be a little more ‘aviation-friendly’, and there are a couple of established airfields sitting just above the Circle.

Preparing for a trip of this length was always going to be challenging - not least securing permissions from five of the countries we would fly into or over, including Norway and Finland; which were alternate routes to the Circle if weather or other factors came into play.

PLB and spot tracker units were ordered, life jackets serviced and everything weighed, right down to the chinagraphs. With an MTOW of just 450kg, everything had to be minimised - and it’s fortunate that both of us are on the lighter side of average.

The maps were ordered - ten of them - and enquiries made to most of the airfields en route. Due to the weight restriction, we weren’t able to take the Pooleys equivalents for five countries, so instead I marked our route on the maps and nominated an airfield every 50 miles or so. Details for that specific airfield were sought through the relevant country’s AIC or elsewhere on the Internet and printed off.

The Rotax 912 runs quite happily on 100LL, but of course the preference is mogas on account of both cost and service interval. Our planned refuel stops reflected this and, in the event, about 50 per cent of fuel uplifted was mogas. Again, because of the MTOW, we were never going to be able to uplift anything approaching a full tank so an economy cruise setting and regular fuel stops were to be the order of the day.

My ten-year-old Garmin Pilot 111 ultimately proved to be just about sufficient, although in hindsight, a more up-to-date unit would have been sensible.

Redlands to Neum�nster

Our first day started a little inauspiciously. The first leg was a crack-of-dawn hop from our home base at Redlands Airfield to Deanlands for a stretch and to activate our flight plan. All quite straightforward… however, the next leg was to prove a little more taxing.

Our fuel uplift at Redlands was calculated to take us all the way to Midden Zeeland, and included a 45-minute reserve allowance to cover a possible headwind or diversion. However, a strong northerly coupled with a big diversion around Koksijde left us sweating for the last 30 minutes before arriving at Midden Zeeland. Whilst not quite on vapour, we were as near as damn it to empty tanks! That was a lesson that wasn’t to be repeated. Midden Zeeland offers a delightful terrace caf�/restaurant, and after refuelling both man and plane we flew east of Rotterdam and Amsterdam on a 90-minute leg to Lelystad, ostensibly a ‘splash-and-dash’ stop. Virtually every field we flew over could have doubled as a perfect landing strip. We were aware that a stationary warm front in North West Germany lay ahead, and thus knew our journey would probably grind to a halt within a couple of hours or so.

My planning had assumed a night stop at some point in Germany anyway - it was just a matter of which airfield we chose. As we approached the southern limit of the front, we began to encounter a lowering cloud base and some drizzle, so it was a case of landing at the next airfield. Within 15 minutes, we were on the ground at Neum�nster. This one-time Luftwaffe Messerschmitt maintenance base offered a 600-metre asphalt runway along with a huge WWII hangar, still in very good condition. We’d flown over 530nm with 7:40 flight time - so we were pretty well ready to stop anyway.

The warm front hadn’t budged whatsoever during day two, and so we spent the day relaxing in Neum�nster town.

Neum�nster to S�derhamn

The following day, clear skies and good en-route weather prospects saw us depart Neum�nster at 0815 for the 189nm leg to H�gan�s, Sweden via waypoints at Grube and Nyk�bing in Denmark.

Our route over Denmark took us past the vast, sea-based wind farm at R�dsand, overhead the impressive Frederiksborg Castle and close to the Roskilde rock festival, which was in full swing. Copenhagen ATC handed us over to Sweden Control and, once we had passed the FIR, we started our descent into H�gan�s, which is situated just north of Helsingborg. Here, staff and club flyers offered a warm welcome, which was to be repeated so many times as we travelled north through Sweden. They have a large wall map of Europe in the clubhouse and all visiting pilots are asked to place a pin relating to their airfield of departure. We duly obliged with much pride!

Up until this point the landscape and topography were reasonably similar to most parts of rural Britain. However, this was something that began to change quite significantly as we headed northwards. Solid pine forest with very occasional clearings and lakes certainly focused the mind, although the trusty Rotax just purred on regardless.

Given the areas of wilderness we were to route over, we took the Swedish AIP advice and started to file flight plans for each leg. A very simple process completed by phone with helpful operators and Met advice upon request. Two short water crossings and then infinite pine forests lay ahead as we flew on towards Falk�ping.

Falk�ping, like many of the larger ‘regional’ airfields in Sweden was essentially a deserted but cracking modern facility. With no ATC we flew in making blind calls and set ourselves up for a relaxed long final for Runway 22 - all 1,300 metres of it. The airfield had a full approach bar, runway, threshold and PAPI lighting, although use of these during the summer months is probably rare.

We were given assistance to refuel and flew on for another 1� hours to a delightful grass strip, K�ping. As we progressed further north the locals grew more and more interested to hear of our Arctic Circle ‘quest’, and indeed it became evident that few, if any, British-registered microlights had ever landed at some of the airfields from this point onwards. More and more references to the Lapland mosquitoes were being made. I double-checked my kit: yes - plenty of insect repellent!

A rest and refuel at K�ping saw us take a north-easterly heading towards Sweden’s east coast and the town of S�derhamn. We first landed at S�derhamn/Mohed, which was just inland followed by a short hop, after PPR had been secured, to S�derhamn (Main); a deserted ex-Swedish airforce base that was closer to the town centre and where we were to spend the night. Indeed, we were given a special pass code to get out of the airport main gate as otherwise we’d have been marooned there.

Another seven hours in the saddle had left us both utterly exhausted, and frankly a little disheartened. The prospect of a further 500nm or so suddenly seemed a bit daunting and both of us had a confidence wobble. Fortunately, a good night’s sleep, coupled with a hearty breakfast on the sunlit terrace at our comfortable B&B, put us in a much better frame of mind for the rigours ahead.

Pressing on to Pite�

In fact, had we realised just how stunning the run up the eastern Swedish coastline was going to be I can’t see that either of us would have doubted the value in pressing on. The added benefit of a decent tailwind saw us sailing northbound at a fair lick, reaching Ume� in only a couple hours for another splash and dash.

One of many amusing events took place when we called this airport in advance and spent ten minutes or so trying to convince them that we seriously only wanted 40 litres of 100LL - not 400 or 4,000, as they seemed insistent on suggesting we meant! More hilarity followed upon arrival, when a B747-size bowser drove out to where we had parked. The driver hopped out and started to wind out a fuel feeder hose with the girth of a tree trunk. Erm… no, that won’t fit into the Eurostar - something the driver soon realised too.

Our route up the Bothnian Coast offered a stunning vista of pine-covered islands and outcrops to our right and inlets and lagoons to our left. Many Swedes have their summer boltholes up this stretch of the coast and what a beautiful place to spend the long summer days.

Our stop at Pite� was planned to be another splash and dash, leaving us with around 150nm to reach our destination above the Arctic Circle, Pajala. We had arranged in advance to meet Mikael, a resident C42 pilot, for fuel. He duly arrived with a huge smile and two jerrycans brimming with fuel. He insisted we look at the well-furnished clubhouse and hangars, and suggested that staying there would be a better move - and this turned out to be the best advice we took at any point en route.

You cannot imagine a more beautiful setting for a flying club: positioned in a clearing amongst pine forests, you have a 1,000-metre asphalt runway, your aircraft sitting bang outside the clubhouse, perfect weather and the ability to fly 24/7. (Although 100nm south of the Circle, Pite� also enjoys 24-hour daylight for three weeks either side of the solstice. The sun sinks a degree or so under the horizon for about an hour and then rises. So it is perfectly flyable 24 hours a day.)

Firing up your plane for a 2345 departure to fly over a canvas of pine forests and lakes is something that is utterly surreal. We shared this first flight with Mikael, who flew his C42 as wingman. We flew eastwards towards Pite� town and the Bothnian Sea, and then arched back onto a north-westerly heading towards the sunset - or was that sunrise? The clock in my aircraft ticked over to 0000, so we were now flying into the new day - remarkable!

After landing and shutdown, a palpable peace descended, and I took a moment to wander a little distance from the aircraft and just stare at the bright horizon, trying to fully take in the beauty of the flight I’d just completed. It was cool and perhaps a little chilly, with a light radiation mist a foot or so off the ground that just added to the serene beauty.

The clubhouse had two bedrooms, a kitchen, shower and internet facilities. Mikael went out of his way to help us, including taking us for a meal at one of the restaurants he owns in Pite� and driving us to the supermarket to buy supplies for our stay at the flying club. Suitably stocked up, Martin and I enjoyed sitting on the clubhouse terrace just taking in the sights and atmosphere of this aviators’ paradise.

Of course, at 65�30� north, we were still short of the Circle and the destination of Pajala we had originally planned for. We thus set the final push for the following day.

Reaching the magical 66 N

Perfect weather greeted us the next morning, and so after the traditional ‘pre-mission’ meal of eggs and bacon, we jumped aboard the aircraft and headed north-east towards our destination.

We decided to take a slight dog-leg route to reduce the time over swamps - and keep a little nearer to habitation. Nonetheless, we were for all intents and purposes routeing over solid pine forest and swamps for nearly two hours, which put my Channel crossing nerves four days earlier firmly into perspective! Turning points at Kalix and Pello would take us to Pajala.

We watched the GPS intently as the latitude numbers ticked upwards, until at last it reached the magical 66�56� North. Had there been anyone on the ground, they’d have heard whoops of joy emanating from an aircraft 4,500ft above them!

Pajala sits in the centre of Lapland and the Barents Region. Our visit coincided with the Pajala summer fair - the biggest in Arctic Scandinavia, with about 40,000 visitors over the weekend. Jukka, the airfield manager, handed us a set of car keys upon arrival to enable us to visit. It was surprisingly warm there, with a gusting wind, which at least kept the mosquitoes at bay.

We spent a couple of hours taking in the atmosphere, and it was interesting to note that the main language spoken in this area is Finnish. Many of the region’s Sami traders attend the fair to sell a range of art-and-craft goods along with reindeer ‘merchandise’ such as hides and leather goods. Of course there were several reindeer-meat burger stalls!

The wind had picked up upon our return to Pajala airfield and was blowing at 15kt or so right across the forty metre-wide R09. So the only thing for it was a furtive cross-runway takeoff (luckily the Tower was deserted).

Upon our return to Pite�, we felt elated and tired in equal measure. We had now flown to and landed above the Arctic Circle, but we were thoroughly bushed after a really intense five-day period.

We might have started our journey back to the UK the following day, but in the event the weather conspired against us, so we stayed on as guests of the Flygklubb for a further 24 hours.

Starting the long journey south

It was with a tinge of sadness that we rose early to start our long journey south. We were in the air by 0630, flying southbound with banks of fog hugging the coast to our left. We refuelled at Ume� and S�derhamn before setting out under threatening skies towards K�ping. We had sought Met info when filing our flight plans, and we knew a cold front was nudging its way northwards. Cbs the size of Everest began to blot out the sun, and a pre-planned diversion into G�vle was thus instigated. G�vle was another huge but largely deserted airport.

Once the storm front had passed, we continued on to Falk�ping via a quick fuel stop at K�ping. Falk�ping offered the most bizarre overnight sleeping arrangements yet. The local Shell service station had an accommodation annexe - all a little weird really, but it was clean, and we’d had a long day and needed to get some shut-eye.

The following morning saw us fly to Grube in Germany via H�gan�s. We had to route around the western edge of Sj�lland (Denmark’s largest island) to avoid some quite severe inland storms. Grube is primarily a gliding and motor-gliding airfield. We were welcomed warmly and stayed for a while chatting with the owner and watching aerotows. I hadn’t realised that nearly 50 per cent of the world’s gliders are based in Germany - quite an amazing statistic.

Our final leg that day took us to Westerstede airfield, and what a treat that was. At just �5, the landing fee for a microlight was tiny.

Our last day saw us in the air at 0900 southbound towards Lelystad, where we filed our GAR and final flight plan to the UK. Lelystad to Deanlands took just 2:30, courtesy of a 20kt tailwind. Our flight plan closed, we set off again for the final leg to Redlands. Approaching the circuit, I felt proud calling, “Tango Alpha inbound from the Arctic Circle” - my goodness, we really had done it!