Icelands major gateway, Keflavik, is well known as a stopover point for trans-atlantic flights or simply as a destination to see the many wonderful sights the country has to offer. However probably not so well known is the downtown airport which carries the name of the capital city itself - Reykjavik
In another look back at features previously published in magazines I recall the visit I made to the Icelandic capitals downtown airport back in 2016 to see the other side of aviation in this most northerly country. Details were correct for the time.
Situated between Norway and Greenland and just over 530 miles from Scotland lies the land of ice and fire - Iceland. Its capital city of Reykjavik in the southwest of the country boasts, at 64°08′ 07″ N, the northern most capital city of a sovereign state in the world. Believed to be the first settlement on the island it now has a population of 130,000 with a total of 216,000 living in the greater capital region. Not necessarily large in numbers, it is a huge percentage of the country in total which has around 338,000 living on its 40,000 sq miles
Iceland is one of the most volcanic regions in the world. It has a rugged landscape dotted with hot springs, sulphur beds, geysers, lava fields, canyons, glaciers and waterfalls. There are approximately 200 volcanoes in Iceland and most of them are active. Best known has to be Eyjafjallajökull whose 2010 eruption caused tremendous disruption to air travel across northern and western Europe.
Most airline travellers to Iceland make their way to the capital city Reykjavik. However, despite airline tickets stating that destination, they actually land at Keflavik International Airport, the city‘s and Iceland‘s principal international gateway a 40 minute drive away.
However the actual Reykjavik International Airport is situated right next to the city centre and goes a long way back.
History and wartime rebirth.
1919 saw the start of Icelandic aviation with a rough strip created in the Vatnsmyri meadow on the outskirts of the Town of Reykjavik. In 1940, the Town Council approved the siting of a future airport at that general location toward the Skerjafjordur fjord.
Iceland was occupied by British military forces in May 1940 to prevent Germany from using the island in the Second World War and played a pivotal role in the ensuing Battle of the Atlantic. Later that year, the British Army commenced construction of an air base at the site for the Royal Air Force which became operational by the following summer. The decision to site the airport there was, in part, the proximity to Reykjavik harbour, through which flowed vital supplies, and a small fuel depot and pier on the nearby Skerjafjord. Although Iceland had tried to maintain neutrality, the occupation actually proved somewhat positive as hundreds of local workers were employed on the airport construction which helped mitigate the effects of the depression years that preceded
These workers along with Army Engineers, Pioneer, and Artisan forces together with infantry personnel and about 200 Faroese workmen completed the work in 1942. The airfield allowed the Royal Air Force to provide protection to convoys of ships carrying vital supplies across the North Atlantic to Britain against German submarines 700 nautical miles from the British Isles, 600 miles from Canada and 400 miles south of Iceland.
This left a 300 mile wide gap which by 1943 had been closed by RAF long range B24 anti submarine aircraft operating from Reykjavik and later nearby Keflavik which had been built by American forces that assumed the defence of Iceland from the British in 1942. The airfield complex, originally named Meeks Field and Patterson Field, was the centre of American Air Force transatlantic flights and air defence fighter operations throughout the war.
Keflavik has now become the countries primary airport serving the international market and the ever increasing tourist traffic coming to the island for its dramatic scenery, adventure holidays and the ubiquitous Northern lights.
The significance of Reykjavik's position also enabled the great number of warplanes Britain purchased from Canada and the United States to be flown across the ocean with stop at Reykjavik. The airfield served the same purpose during the initial deployment of U.S. heavy bombers to Britain in 1942 and was a base for air defence fighter aircraft.
The Skerjafjord was the base for flying boats that conducted patrol flights and searched for enemy submarines. Norwegian Navy seaplanes were based in the Nautholsvik Cove and a large camp was occupied by the U.S. Fleet Air Base and later the Canadian Air Force that operated flying boats and amphibian patrol planes.
Evidence of this war time construction and use are still visible today as moulded into the steelwork in hangars now used by the Icelandic coastguard and other operators clearly show the words ‘British Steel’.
Rather more dramatically are the mounting points for anti aircraft guns, which are still visible, just, on the far side of the airfield. Now devoid of the guns they supported, it is still a reminder of why the airport was originally constructed.
A clock left behind by the RAF when they left the airfield is also still present and in full working order in the airport operations facility, which doubles as the airport fire and rescue service.
Reykjavik Airport was turned over to Iceland in 1946 and quickly became the centre of Icelandic domestic and international aviation.
Nowadays Reykjavik airport is mainly domestic, Greenland being its only year round international destination. It is owned by the Icelandic state but operated by Isavia, an organisation created in 2010 to take over the operations and management of all airports and air navigation services in Iceland.
For some time now the airport has had somewhat of a cloud over it due to the proximity to the city centre. Political pressure has caused the closure of runway 06/24. This same pressure is looking to close the airport in the next 10 years, with differing options as to where its current flights would end up.
There are talks of a new city airport, a bit further away from the city centre – however some would like to see the operation moved altogether to Keflavik Airport. It is difficult to see such operations moving to Keflavik as in reality domestic air transport in Iceland is much the same as train services are in most other developed countries. The rugged terrain does not lend itself to building railways, in effect leaving air services as the only means of fast transport in the country. Therefore you need to have services easily available to all not stuck 50 km (31 miles) away from the city centre. The many disputes and long running discussions over its future are not conducive to good forward planning and the airport operators are looking for some clear government strategy over the issue.
There are two airlines based here alongside flight schools, helicopter and fixed wing sightseeing charter companies. Other residents include the Icelandic Coastguard who operate both fixed wing Dash 8 and Aerospatiale Super Puma helicopters.
The two based airlines operate a terminal each. Air Iceland (Flugfelag Islands) operating Fokker 50 in addition to De Havilland Dash 8 Q200 and Q400
Also Eagle air with their Bae Jetstream 32.
The two airlines mostly operate domestically to 11 mainly coastal destinations. However Air Iceland also has destinations in Greenland. One further international route comes in the form of a summer only service by Atlantic Airways which flies between Reykjavik and the Faroe Islands with its Airbus A319 making it the only pure jet passenger service at the airport.
BIRK flight services also operate a small terminal for General Aviation which can often have some interesting visitors in substantial biz jets. A recent visitor being Tom Cruise who left a thank you note with the airport operations team. Biz jets and their often camera shy passengers use this facility as an efficient and comfortable entry into the country.
As there are no airbridges, aircraft park side on to the single storey terminals which additionally has the benefit of avoiding the need for push back and the expense of aircraft tugs as both airlines do their own ground handling.
Inside the main Air Iceland terminal there are 4 check in desks and a small but attractive cafe/restaurant. Whenever there is an international flight a small Duty Free shop is opened, however this happens only once check in is complete as it is manned by the same person!
The airport has a bus service from both terminals but is located so close to the city centre of Reykjavik that it is quite possible to walk.
So if you venture to this most interesting country take a short walk out to Reykjavik airport. For the aviation enthusiast a visit here is as much on your to do list as the Northern lights, geysers and ice clad mountains and rivers. There will be aircraft not seen at Keflavik and as the airport is quite small most operations are viewable from outside of the fence, in fact aircraft sit adjacent to the Air Iceland terminal entrance. On nearby Öskjuhlíð hill there is good view over the airport area. The hillside, once dubbed the key to the defence of the city, has some interesting relics of the wartime activities that are identified with historic markers. On the top of the hill a Reykjavik landmark called Perlan (The Pearl), built on top of several large tanks that once served the city’s geothermal water reservoir, has views over the airport and the nearby city with the imposing Hallgrímskirkja church.