From Iceland — The Islanders: Gísli's Life As A Helicopter Pilot

The Islanders: Gísli’s Life As A Helicopter Pilot

Published August 4, 2023

The Islanders: Gísli’s Life As A Helicopter Pilot
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Gísli Gíslason on his love affair with the skies and choppers

As we meet outside one of the hangars at Reykjavík Airport, the excitement on Gísli Gíslason’s face is evident. Across the bay, a fresh volcano emits smoke, which means one thing for Gísli – more and more tourists eager to fly and witness the volcano’s majestic display. As a helicopter pilot with Reykjavík Helicopters, Gísli can make their dream come true. What’s more, he genuinely loves doing it.

Since I was about six years old, my dream has been to be a helicopter pilot. My uncle was a Coast Guard captain and was always in the news. I finished my training in 1997, but it took me over ten years to get a paid job. At that time, we only had tourists for about three months a year and only one private helicopter was available. It’s different now — there are probably 10 to 15 helicopters here, and getting a job is easier. But getting the first job is always difficult because if you don’t have any experience, nobody can hire you, and you don’t get any experience if you don’t have a job.

Photo by Art Bicnick

I never thought that this dream would come true. But then I saw they were starting to teach how to fly helicopters here in Iceland. I just went there and took one lesson. After the lesson, I went out and sold my car. It lasted for three hours in the helicopter, not more than that.

Of seas and skies

Typically, it takes about one to one and a half years to learn. But it’s also a question of how much money you can spend because it’s really expensive. I was lucky – I worked as a fisherman and my job was very well-paid. So, I finished in one and a half years. 

My whole family comes from the Westman Islands and all my family members are fishermen or involved in something related to fish. I knew that to get a lot of money in a short time I should become a fisherman. I went to a navigation college for two years. While learning, I also worked as a crew member on a small fishing trawler.

Photo by Art Bicnick

I never really loved the job. Also, I used to get seasick if I stayed at sea for more than three or four days. But I loved the crew and it paid well. Still, there was never any question I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. That was always the dream. I’m so glad it finally worked out.

“My favourite part of being a pilot is the time from March to June when we are doing heli-skiing.”

For the first year, I was driving fuel, cleaning the helicopter and just being around the pilots to learn from them. Then I got to fly a little with them, but it was only a few hours initially. When the eruption started in Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, I got to be an observer or co-pilot on a big helicopter. I renewed my licence and started flying.

Year-round adventures

We are busy all year round, even in the winter months. We take part in a lot of Hollywood films and many actors come to visit the island. I spent two days with Tom Cruise, who is also a helicopter pilot. So we had a lot to talk about. He’s a really cool guy and a good pilot. We were hanging out for two days and it was really nice.

Photo by Art Bicnick

My favourite part of being a pilot is the time from March to June when we are doing heli-skiing. It’s a challenging job — the light can be difficult and the weather, of course – we are in Iceland. But most of the time, it’s really nice and passengers are super happy. I may not be a good enough skier, but I love being around these guys. They always ask, “Are you sure you’re going there?” But at the same time, they think I’m crazy when I’m flying.

From the cockpit

Of course, I love it when we have eruptions. I don’t have the exact number of times I’ve been to eruptions, but it’s been many times – in Fimmvörðuháls, Eyjafjallajökull, Holuhraun and all three in Reykjanes. When we are going to an eruption, I’m probably more excited than the passengers to see if something has changed. It’s always something new. It’s just how the light is.

Twice, I witnessed the eruption starting a new crater. I talked to Magnús Tumi [Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson, professor of geophysics], and he mentioned that only a few people in the world have seen it happen, and I’ve seen it twice. I hope it will start again somewhere near Keilir so I can see it for the third time.

Sometimes I get crazy ideas from customers. One customer wanted to go out from the heli in a wingsuit over the volcano. I said no to this request. But normally, people are really happy with what we are doing. I’m afraid of heights, so I fly rather low. We fly pretty close to the eruption – you can feel the heat if you open the window. But, on the other hand, I want to fly respectfully. I don’t want to be too close to people who are hiking there. I realise they have been hiking for ten kilometres, so I don’t want to get in their way. I want them to enjoy eruption like my clients.

Capturing the beauty from above

My daughter is really good at marketing. We were talking about wanting all tourists to do a helicopter flight here in Iceland to see our amazing nature. I started my Instagram, and she suggested the username @mylifeasahelicopterpilot. It’s getting bigger and bigger. I was flying with someone famous, and he tagged me, and suddenly I got 1500 followers from Brazil who have never been here.

“It’s much more dangerous to drive to the helicopter company here in Reykjavik; it’s much more likely you will have some accident on the way than in the heli.”

I’m showing all my favourite parts of Iceland, like Landmannalaugar, Westman Islands and Jökulsárlón. Of course, I’m privileged. I can visit all these places and usually can land wherever if it’s not private land or a national park. There are a lot of pretty cool places where you can land.

My favourite landing spot in Iceland is Þrídrangar lighthouse. It’s a tiny helipad on a little rock outside the Westmans Islands. It’s challenging to land there, but it’s also really cool.

In the beginning, we went there with some workers who had to paint the lighthouse, and then I made a video that went viral. After that, lots of photographers wanted to go there. I’ve been there many times with photographers who wanted to see it. Once, when we landed, there were killer whales all around. That was really cool to see from above.

I only go there when the conditions are perfect. I usually don’t shut down there — if the engine wouldn’t start, I don’t want to be stuck there.

Born to fly

People think helicopters are unsafe, but they are safe. If we were to lose the engine, we could just land. We only need the height or the speed, and then we would do autorotation down there. A helicopter is safer than small planes, for example. It’s much more dangerous to drive to the helicopter company here in Reykjavik; it’s much more likely you will have some accident on the way than in the heli.

If you want to be a helicopter pilot, I always say, if this is your biggest, biggest, biggest dream, do it. If it’s just a job you want, I would not do it. It’s a real struggle to get the first job, and you really have to have the passion to do it all the way. You might not get any salary for two or three years while collecting hours. It’s a struggle. You’re not doing this for money, definitely not.

Follow Gísli’s helicopter adventures on Instagram: @mylifeasahelicopterpilot

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