Back in the 70’s, when I was doing a lot of travel as a musician, I got a surprise visit to Iceland and will never forget the adventure. The recent volcanic activity that’s messed up air travel all over Britain and Europe brought back memories of my unexpected vacation in Iceland.
I was on a European tour with a band and we’d finished up in Munich, and were aboard a DC-8 charter headed back to the States. Because the British air traffic controllers were on strike at the time, we were told we’d be headed around the British Isles to the north, to avoid flying through their airspace. We were supposed to fuel up at Shannon Airport in Ireland, but the new plans meant we’d have to make a quick stop at the NATO base in Keflavik, Iceland, to fuel up for the trip over the big pond.
We landed in Keflavik, were able to spend about an hour off the plane in a lounge at the base, then got back aboard for the long trip. We taxied to the end of the runway and started the take-off roll. Just before the plane became airborne, we head a loud “CRACK!” and a few seconds later, I noticed hydraulic fluid starting to coat the windows on my side of the plane.
I said to the guy sitting next to me – a bass player from St. Peter, Minnesota, “this can’t be a good thing.”
What we didn’t know was that the bang was caused when the landing gear of the DC-8 clipped a chain at the end of the runway. We weren’t high enough to clear the chain, and later were told by the pilot that he thought they’d taken a load of bad fuel, and he couldn’t get enough power to get the plane up fast enough.
A moment after the big bang, the pilot got on the intercom and said “we’ve had a problem on take-off and we’re going to circle for a while and dump the fuel, and then come back to Keflavik and land.” As we flew circles over the North Atlantic venting fuel, we’d picked up an escort of NATO fighter planes. As we prepared to land again, the pilot told us to brace, that we were going in without landing gear, and as soon as the plane stopped, we should get off right away.
The runway was foamed and we came in on the belly of the DC-8 stretch jet. It was noisy, but the plane slid straight down the runway and stopped. The cabin attendants opened the doors, deployed the slides, and out we went.
We ended up spending four nights and three days at the Loftleider Hotel, after bussing about 30 miles from the NATO base at Keflavik to Reykjavik. We were wined and dined by the airline, which was slow in deciding to send another plane to take us from Iceland to the US, and was dealing with complications of the British air controllers strike.
The locals were intensely curious, and the Reykjavik newspaper sent reporters to interview the “American heroes”. I still have a copy of the paper, but of course can’t read a word of it. Icelandic is a strange language. We were taken on bus tours of the countryside; saw the volcanoes; saw the steam vents; visited the Althing, the national parliament of Iceland; and absorbed the breathtaking beauty of Iceland.
I remember Iceland as a country of fiercely desolate landscapes, dotted by colorful cities and very friendly people. Reykjavik was a very modern city, with geothermal heating the principal way of keeping the inside warm. It’s that same “geothermal activity” that caused all the problems the last few days.
Mother nature is an awesome force. I’m glad she was calm when I was in Iceland, years ago.