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There are few places in the world where I, as a pilot, would pay to have someone else fly so I could focus solely on enjoying the scenery. Iceland has always been at the top of this very short list.
Located at the western-most edge of Europe, just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland straddles the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, making it home to volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs — as well as Europe’s largest ice cap. Because of this, the country’s approximately 330,000 residents are aptly described as inhabiting “the land of Fire and Ice.”
Even if you haven’t had the chance to visit Iceland yet, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Norðurflug Helicopters — or have at least seen one of its photos. The largest of just three commercial helicopter operators on the remote island, the company may be best known among helicopter enthusiasts for its social media presence, which features beautiful photographs of its aircraft and happy clients against a backdrop of red-hot lava or thermal springs, or soaring over majestic fjords, waterfalls, and glaciers. While these images capture the natural beauty of Iceland, they also highlight many of the challenges and opportunities of flying in such a rugged landscape.
The story of Norðurflug’s founding is also the story of Iceland’s recent history. Two years after Norðurflug was established in 2006, Iceland was pushed to the brink of economic and political collapse by the global banking crisis. Leading into the crisis, Icelandic banks had borrowed nearly US$250,000 per Icelander, and the average citizen’s household debt reached 217 percent of their disposable income. When the global financial services firm, Lehman Brothers, collapsed in September 2008, the banks were stressed to the point that they had insufficient funds to cover the deposits of their clients. Sensing the impending collapse of one of the largest Icelandic banks, the U.K. government froze that bank’s assets — along with those of the Icelandic Central Bank. This led to the collapse of the national currency (the Icelandic Króna), the price of imported goods spiked, and many loans and mortgage payments skyrocketed. Some lost their homes, unemployment grew, and protests began in the streets, ultimately leading to the overthrow of the government.
Iceland’s economic and political reality posed significant challenges for everyone in the country, including Norðurflug. Led by CEO Birgir Haraldsson, Norðurflug creatively re-focused its business plan to make best use of its Bell 206, and Airbus AS350 and AS365 N Dauphin. Haraldsson leveraged his leadership abilities, his attention to detail, and the skills he learned in previous careers (as a naval architect, an executive at a shipping company, in corporate banking, and in venture capitalism) to provide a comprehensive and exhilarating opportunity for tourists to experience the country. The team developed brochures, videos and an active social media presence to highlight the experiences on offer. They also made it easy to for people to get further information and book a flight. Previously, those interested in enjoying Iceland’s beauty by helicopter had to contact an operator, inquire about charter rates, and come prepared with a plan as to where they wanted to go or what they wanted to see.
Norðurflug Helicopters also continued to focus on aerial photography for movie, television, and advertisement clients. In Haraldsson’s words, the team’s goal was “to build a lively company that [could readily] adapt to customer needs at any time.” Using the AS365 N (which had been acquired from the Japanese federal police), chief pilot Jón Björnsson built on his previous work as a film pilot to collaborate further with Icelandic companies such as TrueNorth Productions, offering international filmmakers a near turnkey platform for their aerial photography needs. After completing his initial training in the mid 1980s at Ranger Helicopters in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Björnsson returned to Iceland for a varied career that has included aerial photography, utility operations, instructing, and tourism. He has personally trained and/or acted as an examiner pilot for several of the approximately 25 commercial helicopter pilots in Iceland today.
Making the News
Norðurflug persevered and evolved as the nation struggled to rebuild. But in April 2010, just as the country started to rebound, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in south central Iceland erupted. The enormous volcanic ash cloud it created closed much of Europe’s airspace for six days, and continued to cause disruptions for the next month. In a timely coincidence, members of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association, including Norðurflug and Iceland Air, had been preparing a media campaign called “Inspired by Iceland.” It was widely seen internationally in the aftermath of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Instead of feeling the wrath of a continent, the campaign introduced Iceland to the world through a series of fun and, at times, quirky videos, as well as an engaging social media campaign that highlighted the beauty and intriguing contrasts of the country’s many landscapes and friendly people. The initiatives helped convey the variety of exciting possibilities that could be found under the summer’s midnight sun and winter’s northern lights.
In 2011, Norðurflug moved into its current location at Reykjavik Airport. The new location offered a client reception center, a waiting lounge, and direct walk-out access to awaiting aircraft. In the lounge, clients can relax, enjoy free beverages, and check out a billboard of posters from the various movies and television shows for which Norðurflug has provided aerial photography services.
A strategic investment in Norðurflug from Air Greenland has furthered the Icelandic company’s growth. Air Greenland, based in Nuuk, Greenland, provides domestic and international service with its fleet of 19 helicopters and nine airplanes (a number of its domestic routes are flown exclusively by helicopter). In addition to bringing a pair of AS350 B2s to Norðurflug, the partnership also offers the benefit of indirect support from Air Greenland’s extensive operational and engineering/maintenance teams, as well as the flexibility of sharing, on a contract basis, experienced pilots when needed.
Iceland has seen an incredible rise in tourists from 488,600 in 2010 to almost 1.8 million in 2016 — more than five tourists for every citizen across the year. In 2015, 31 percent of all economic activity in the country was estimated to be associated with the tourism industry. Like many businesses in Iceland that have actively courted tourism dollars, Norðurflug Helicopters is busier than ever.
At the start of my own journey, as my flight from Toronto, Ontario, to Keflavík, Iceland, taxied out for departure, I found myself excitedly watching a video highlighting Norðurflug’s tour packages. My seatmates were similarly riveted by the beautiful landscapes.
On the day of my visit, the weather had grounded all flights in the morning. As a result, the customer service team had to contact and reschedule many clients. After a quick lunch with Haraldsson and several of the staff, the weather gods smiled upon us and we embarked on the “Countless Craters” tour. Our pilot, Guðjón Sigurjónsson, briefed us on the safety features of the AS350 B2 and, within minutes, we were cruising over the city. We departed south from Reykjavik toward the coast and its majestic cliffs. Along the way we orbited volcanic craters and hovered next to a large pool of near-boiling water before turning west over the rugged beauty of a moonscape-like area.
While flying, Sigurjónsson explained the geology and history of the island. He described how different parts of the landscape evolved, how the volcanic craters and fissures were formed, and how geothermal heating plants provide electricity, domestic heating, and hot water to the 200,000 residents of the capital region.
Midway through the tour, we landed next to a small crater and got out for a short hike. There were several small volcanic craters around the landing site and the ground was devoid of vegetation except for some mosses. Steam rose from cracks and crevices in the distance. Sigurjónsson explained that we were in the youngest part of Europe, geologically speaking, and later, from the air, we could plainly see the divide between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates in the landscape below, which move, which move about two centimeters further apart each year.
Planning for Tomorrow
Today, Iceland’s economy is much stronger, and tourism continues to grow rapidly. So, too, has Norðurflug. The flying season has expanded to encompass more of the shoulder seasons, and an increasing amount of heli-skiing takes place in the spring months. The number of year-round staff is increasing and seasonal employees, often from other E.U. countries, augment the already large mix of languages spoken among the staff.
Haraldsson carefully selects employees to bring additional skills to complement the company’s primary roles — such as Sólveig Pétursdóttir, Norðurflug’s marketing manager. Pétursdóttir worked for a number of years as a river guide in Iceland before undertaking additional studies in tourism. She travelled to New Zealand to collect data regarding her thesis topic, which explored how operators there have been so successful in developing a market for helicopter tourism. Pétursdóttir has also recently joined the pilot group and is flying tours with the Bell 206. As Haraldsson put it, he looks for staff who can contribute to the “beautiful milkshake of skills” at Norðurflug.
As the company’s senior management looks to the future, they foresee opportunities to grow the business and renew their fleet of helicopters. These are exciting and challenging times for everyone in Iceland. For those lucky enough to work at Norðurflug Helicopters, “getting out of the office” involves flying over some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery I’ve ever seen. For tourists like myself, Norðurflug offers a unique chance to replace earthly concerns with exciting adventures.