Aerial photography

Thermals, moss covered lava fields and glaciers of Iceland taken as our small plane fought to stay in the air.
Thermals, moss covered lava fields and glaciers of Iceland taken as our small plane fought to stay in the air.

Article and photograph © Al Perry

In the January-February edition of Rocky Mountain Outdoors, Jack Olson gave us a funny and captivating story about his trip flying home from Florida. Jack’s flight reminded me of an airplane ride of my own a few months earlier.

While in Iceland for two weeks during September 2012, I contacted a retired pilot of Icelandair and asked if he could fly me around the lava fields, geysers and glaciers to take photos. We met at a grass strip and it took us some time to figure out how I was going to get into his 1950s era French built, wooden fuselage, fabric covered, single engine airplane. It looked to me to be a 2/3 scale model of a Piper Cherokee I learned to fly 43 years before. We took off on the calmest and sunniest day of my visit. For those who haven’t been there, Iceland is almost always windy and usually cloudy.

This was my last full day in Iceland and it was one of the best; smooth flying, views of volcanic craters, old and new lava fields and glaciers, including the largest glacier in Europe. All was going well until I noticed the engine sputtering. I suspected the carburetor was iced up and, sure enough, my retired transatlantic airline pilot applied carburetor heat, but to no effect. We were flying about 1500 feet above ground level when the engine started acting up. At about 500 feet above the lava fields and glacier crevasses, I asked the pilot why the engine was sputtering. He replied calmly: “I don’t know. I’m looking for an emergency landing site.” I knew this wooden plane with canvas for skin was no match for abrasive lava or 100 foot deep glacier crevasses, but I had faith in the pilot so I continued taking photos as we flew closer to our subject.

To make a long flight short, we limped back to the air field. The next day when I flew out of Reykjavik, Icelandair gave me a first class seat with a clean, unscratched window for our late afternoon flight to New York. We followed the setting sun across Greenland as I photographed icebergs, fjords and ice fields along with glaciated mountains protruding through the ice—all from 35,000 feet. There was no sputtering of the Boeing 757 engines on our flight over Greenland. When I arrived in New York, I sent an email to the retired Icelandair pilot and thanked him for the first class upgrade.