I got a strange e-mail message last night from the person arranging my travel in Greenland. He said someone from KISS would meet me when my plane landed in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. I had an immediate vision of someone from the rock band Kiss rushing up to the gangway, clad in black leather and white face paint, with tongue flickering snakelike. But no. It turns out there’s a facility there called the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support that helps researchers who visit the area. Now I have to wonder, is KISS an acronym that they created deliberately (and if so, why?) or was it just a coincidence? Anyway, I’ll be staying at KISS overnight, then taking another flight in the morning.
As I sit here in the Ottawa airport, I have to admit I feel sick in the pit of my stomach. I just said goodbye to my wife, Rachel, and two of my kids (Clara, 7, and Gwendolyn, 9 months) who came to see me off. And now I’m alone, and the plane’s not leaving for a couple of hours. I hope I have a better time with this Canadian airline than I had last year with the military transport company that flew me from Baltimore to Thule Air Base in northwest Greenland. This airline was a real low-bidder operation with an aging fleet of 1960s-vintage DC-8 transport planes that fly once a week to odd places like Saudi Arabia or Greenland. These planes have no windows or seats in the forward 80 percent of the cabin—just row upon row of pallets, lashed firmly to the deck, carrying vital military equipment like toilet paper and beer. The 20 or so passengers—made up of airmen and civilian contractors (and falcon researchers)—were all stuck in the tiny rear tail section. I remember reading the rules printed on the back of the “orders” I’d been issued to allow me to fly to the air base: special restrictions on the type and the amount of various firearms and ordnance you could carry aboard as hand luggage.
Our plane was due to leave at 2 in the morning. We didn’t load up till 4. Some of the civilian contractors flying with us were in bad shape from drinking all night. One young guy with a serious fear of flying was semi-comatose, sprawled in his seat with his mouth agape; apparently he’d taken a high dose of tranquilizers, hoping to sleep through the flight.
Well, we didn’t leave that night. After sweating a couple of hours in the muggy cabin, the captain said the plane was unsafe and would be grounded for 24 hours. It was 9 a.m. by the time they’d bused us to a hotel 30 miles away. (They had to carry out the guy who took the tranquilizers.) And it was hot … r-e-e-e-al hot. And muggy. And everything I brought with me, except the now grimy and smelly polo shirt on my back, was expedition-grade Arctic-wear, good down to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the jeans I had on were lined with polar-fleece; I figured I’d be doing all my traveling at night and stepping from the plane into, at best, 25-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures with an icy wind blowing. Why waste luggage space with a bunch of warm-weather clothes?
It was 98 degrees and steamy in Baltimore. As I walked out of the hotel, trying to get to the mall across the street, I was driven back by a palpable wall of heat and had to duck back inside the hotel. (Now I know what it means to sweat buckets.) I reported back to BWI airport as ordered at 24:00, and four hours later, we were back on the plane. This time Tranquilizer Boy had held off on taking his drugs until he was positive we were taking off. He had them in his hand and was washing them down one by one with a bottle of seltzer water as we taxied across the airfield. I noticed the pilot kept revving the engines in a way I’d never heard before and well … it didn’t sound good. Kind of clattery or metallic. And then the pilot was on the horn scrubbing the flight for another 24 hours. Tranquilizer Boy was already staggering and walking into walls by the time the bus arrived to take us back to the hotel.
On day three it was still sweltering in Baltimore. By the time I was back in the airplane cabin at “oh-three-hundred-hours,” I was drenched in sweat, smelly, and, I admit it, terrified about flying in this thing—but not as bad off as Tranquilizer Boy, who’d downed all his pills the previous two nights and now had nothing left to take. His friends kept plying him with hits of Jack Daniels, but it only seemed to make him more nervous. This time when the pilot revved his engines, they sounded marginally better than the night before. And then we were off, rolling slowly at first … and then faster and faster and faster. And yet, not as fast as jets usually go. And we were going for an amazingly long distance with the wheels still on the ground. Then I could see the end of the runway quickly approaching in the darkness, and I could tell the pilot was going for it, pulling up six feet, eight feet … and I started thinking about an article I read once about a DC-8 cargo plane full of beef cattle that crashed on takeoff in Alaska, scattering dead cows and humans over a mile-wide area. And then we were clear, with 20 feet to spare as we passed over the chain-link fence at the end of the airport. But no one clapped or cheered. We just sat in silence, gazing ahead into the darkness.