Fifteen years ago, a Greenlander returning from a trip to Denmark spent 29 days at the sparse air terminal here waiting for sparse air terminal here waiting for the Arctic weather to clear and for an available seaplane to take him the final 100 miles to his coastal village.
The wait set an airport record, says airport administrator Steen Malmquist, but things have gotten a lot better. Arriving in Greenland, however, still does not mean travelers are going to get where they want to go very fast. Delays in leaving this airport -- with is the major airstrip in Greenland -- after arriving by jetliner from Copenhagen, Denmark, still average 24 hours, says Malmquist, and on occasion they are likely to extend to three or four days.
The problem is that this huge, harsh yet spectacular frozen island -- about one-third the size of the United States -- has no roads. There is no way to get to your ultimate destination except, since 1965, by a small fleet of helicopters.
The combination of Greenland's icecap-covered landscape and Denmark's rather fast-paced attempt to bring the jet age to what was a virtual stone-age colony and Eskimo society only a few generations ago has, however, produced one of the world's most unique -- and expensive -- airlines to try and bridge the gap.
The airline is called Greenland Air, a helicopter airline that is kind of a rotary-wing version of the legendary band of bush pilots who helped settle the Alaskan Yukon.
Greenland Air, however, is far from bush. It is, in fact, a rather smooth running and self-contained airline and maintenance system that holds a monopoly on inland air travel within Greenland and is 75 percent owned by Danish government interests, including the Scandanavian Airlines System, SAS, which heavily subsidizes Greenland Air's operations.
Last year, the line lifted 40,000 passengers along a rough, 1,500-mile network that begins here and darts in and out of craggy fjords and then north and south to 16 towns and villages along the somewhat warmer western coast, where most of Greenland's 50,000 people live.
Using primarily eight big Americanbuilt Sikorsky S61N helicopters, and pilots from nine countries, the line has logged some 85,000 flying hours since 1965 over and in some of the world's most unforgiving terrain and climate. There has been only one accident involving fatalities, in 1974.
Erik Bjerregaard, the line's administrative chief, said the route system, equivalent to the distance between Copenhagen and Rome, makes it the most extensive helicopter network in the world and one of the world's few helicopter airlines with regularly scheduled passenger service.
Although the big 22-passenger Sikorskys are equipped with the latest electronic navigation equipment, radar, pontoons for landing on water or snow if necessary, and emergency snowsuits to keep passengers slightly above the freezing point for a few days if a plane should be forced down, flying conditions here force pilots to live more by their instincts than many of their counterparts elsewhere.
So, while the jet-powered helicopters are modern, there is still a sense here of the old-fashioned frontier of flying.
"The problem," says chief pilot Ravin Larsen, "is that the weather is made right here in Greenland," a reference to the petpetual polar front that generates sudden and powerful weather changes in the Arctic regions.
What that means, he says, is that weather officers have very little time to develop forecasts, and airlines little time to react to them. There are also fewer weather stations available in the extreme north to observe the changes as they are developing.
"So frequently you have to evaluate the weather en route," says Larsen. "You are constantly watching the weather outside and the fuel inside," a critical commodity on helicopters, which are not as fuel efficient as are fixed-wing airplanes.
The 42 pilots -- from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Austria, Britain, the United States and one form Greenland -- either turn back or land if they should suddenly become engulfed in a severe snowstorm that blinds them. Rarely, however, is a chopper forced to land prematurely, he said.
Aside from the relatively small number of helicopters, the craft are also diverted 20 to 30 times a year for search and rescue missions or to pick up patients in remote villages who need to be hospitalized in a larger town, traffic manager Jens Zinglersen said.
In fact, despite a small touch of adventure in traveling around Greenland, the country and the helicopter seem made for each other, and for the air traveler.
There is probably no better way to see the Arctic landscape close up, other than perhaps a $1,200 tour for the well-heeled and hardy tourist which involves a six-day dog sled journey from here to Holsteinsborg, about 100 miles away on the west coast.
Lifting off from the runway here -- which the Americans built during World War II to help ferry some 20,000 fighter planes to Europe -- the helicopter heads west and dips its nose toward a spectacular, 70-mile-long fjord that winds its way to the still open arcticwaters of the Davis Straits between Greenland and Canada. To the north, the waters are frozen.
Soaring and jagged mountain ranges rise out of the icy. Waters on both Greenland coasts, cradling in between them the largest glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, an icecap htat covers about four-fifths of Greenland.
Flying inside the fjords and along the coast, black and gray-colored, snow-speckled mountains outside the helicopter windows look as though someone had cut off the top 5,000 feet or so of the Alps and planted them in the waters here.
Looking up, through wide crevices in the fjord walls, one catches a glimpse of the top of the massive ice cap sort of leaking over the edge of the mountainous plateau. Rivers leading down into the fjord are frozen in place, producing what looks like slotted, emerald and turquoise fingers reaching into the icy canyon's waters.
At the coast, a number of choppers turn north, some carrying food and supplies for villagers who go without sunlight for two months.
More, however, turn southward, toward Greenland's capital at Godthab, about 90 minutes flying time from here.
The difference between Godthab, with more than 9,000 people and many skilled Danish workers, and the villages to the north is the difference between Greenland as it was for centuries after Eskimos settled the region, and the way it apparently is going to be.
In Godthab, the traveler will find well-stocked supermarkets with prices about the same as in Demmark or Western Europe; a bank, a modern hotel and Mercedes taxis being driven on snow-covered streets that were paved for the first time last year.
But for the native Greenlander, who generally earns about 30 percent less than Danish workers here and who pays more for an apartment he is unaccustomed to living in, getting around Greenland is a more basic problem than for visitors from the outside.
The Greenlander's problem is money. A one-way trip between here and Godthab, about 200 miles, costs $200. Flights further north cost more. Fares would be even higher by 40 percent or so, Bjerregaard says, were it not for the roughly $4 million subsidy from SAS every year.
The operation that apparently runs smoothest of all financially is a contract with the U.S. Air Force in which Greenland Air uses two DC6 transports to help service American radar sites in Greenland. That contract requires no subsidy from the home office, Bjerregaard said, although he preferred not to say how much the Americans pay for the service.