“Sorry we’re late,” apologises 24-year-old Nordic Seaplanes first officer Line Fonseca. “A family has gone missing from their boat in Roskilde Fjord and we took a detour to search for them.”
It was the last thing I expected her to say. “Didn’t the passengers mind the diversion?” I ask. It was a legitimate question; most of those onboard were commuters paying a considerable price to get to work on time.
“No. They were happy to help.”
I nod in understanding; it isn’t every day you get asked to take part in the search for missing persons.
We’re joined by Line’s partner and colleague Ulrik Nielsen, 52, and the three of us head over to the couple’s camper van, parked just metres away from the pontoon where the plane docks after landing.
If you live in Aarhus or Copenhagen then you might have spotted Nordic Seaplanes' unmistakable aircraft in the skies above – particularly during the warmer months. The twin otter DHC—6-300, with its distinct red and white paint job, flies relatively low over the landscape during its 45-minute journey between the two Danish cities.
The plane departs and lands on water – at Nordre Toldbod in Copenhagen, and Miljøhavnen in Aarhus – and makes for an interesting alternative to taking the train. In fact, the next fastest route between the two locations takes at least three hours by rail – a significant difference for those professionals who are charging by the hour.
I met one such professional, who wished to remain anonymous, during my first flight in 2018.
“My colleagues wouldn’t like it if they knew I was receiving special treatment from the boss,” he tells me. “I’m a lawyer for a Copenhagen-based firm, but I live in Aarhus with my wife and kids,” he explained. “This commute means I get to spend more time with them, and the firm actually saves money this way.”
“How so?” I ask.
“Well, naturally I charge by the hour – even when I’m travelling for work.”
Looking around the 18-seater plane I notice that the majority of passengers are dressed smart-casual, with briefcases or leather laptop bags in their possession.
Photo: Matthew James Harrison
The landing on water is smooth and actually very exciting – much like the takeoff. And within minutes everybody is safely off the plane and making their way to taxis or loved ones. The anonymous lawyer is greeted by his family and returns to shake my hand.
“You really should fly with them early in the morning,” he suggests. “The sunrise is just stunning.”
It was during the return flight to Copenhagen that I first met Line. At the time I had no idea she was the pilot; instead I thought she was potentially one of the ground staff whose duty it was to help load and unload passengers and their belongings. I put this observation down to the fact that she welcomed us all onboard and gave us a pre-flight briefing shortly before takeoff. I mean, how often does a pilot or captain do that?
I’m a little stressed out before our second meeting. Somehow I’ve miscalculated the distance from my (new) office to their check-in desk at Langelinie. Half-way there, I receive a phone call from Julie asking me where I am: the flight leaves in ten minutes.
“I’m on my way!” I pant down the phone. “I’ll be there in five!”
“Well don’t worry about going to the desk to get your boarding pass – just go straight to the pontoon and we’ll meet you there.”
Which is how I found myself boarding a flight which literally took less than five seconds to check in for. A first for me in my 37 years on this planet.
I’m the last to sit down and strap myself in before the doors close and we’re on our way. The smell of fuel briefly enters my nostrils before the extractor fans kick in, and all of a sudden we’re accelerating towards Refshaleøen, the small waves below washing over the feet of the plane. There’s a little bit of residue childhood adrenaline pumping through my veins, and then we’re airborne once again. Out of the window I spot the Royal Yacht sailing out to sea, and just moments later, Dyrehaven makes an appearance on the port side.
Photo: Matthew James Harrison
Ancient woodland gives way to motorways and high-rise apartments, suburbs become fields, and suddenly I’m totally disorientated. I reach for my phone to launch Google Maps and marvel at the speed of the little blue dot as it traverses across my screen. In a few moments we’ll be passing over Sjællands Odde and overtaking the ferries that cross over to Jutland.
Upon our arrival in Aarhus I’m introduced to Ulrik, and the three of us walk less than 20 metres to a private area behind a metal fence. There I’m greeted by a little black Italian Greyhound as it tenderly licks my hand and wags its tail.
“This is Elga-Olga,” Line tells me. “She lives with us here.” Line sweeps her hand in front of her as she says this and shows me their home on four wheels.
“The three of you live right here?” I ask.
Line nods and unlocks the door. We head inside.
I listen as the pair tell me of their lifestyle; of how they get to choose where to call home when they get time off together. I find myself shaking my head in disbelief, and feeling a little bit jealous of their nomad way of life. The image most people have of pilots, I say to them, is an extravagant one: champagne breakfasts in a large house with a pool. Or am I way out of touch with reality here?
“In our case, yes,” replies Line. “Flight School wasn’t exactly cheap – I borrowed the money from my sister, and living here enables me to pay her back.”
I want to hear more, but unfortunately time is against us, and we don’t have long to go until Ulrik has to take us all back to Copenhagen. So we make an agreement to meet up the next time they are together in the capital with their camper.
As I stand in line to board the plane I spot a young man carrying a guitar case. It goes in the belly of the aircraft with all the other luggage, and the man and his travelling partner climb the steps of the plane and disappear inside.
Coincidentally I find myself sitting just in front of him during takeoff and kindly ask him if it’s OK to pick his brains about why he chooses to fly with Nordic Seaplanes.
“Sure, no problem,” he replies. His companion looks at me and smiles. The cool-looking guy with the aviator shades tells me that, as a touring musician, it’s important for him to be rested and relaxed before each show, and that the short flight between the mainland and Zealand really helps.
“Are you in a band?” I ask.
He smiles. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“Don’t the other musicians mind that you get to travel in luxury whilst they have to make do with public transport?”
“No,” he laughs.
I pap a few arty portraits of him and thank him for his time.
“Just one more thing,” I say. “Could I take your name, please?”
“Yeah, it’s Mads Langer.”
Mads Langer. Photo: Matthew James Harrison
As it turns out, famous Danish singer-songwriter Mads isn’t the only well-known person to use the services of Nordic Seaplanes. Members of the Royal Family, including Queen Margrethe II herself, have been known to fly from time to time, as well as former PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen.
“We get a little bit start-struck sometimes,” Ulrik tells me, “but they all behave like everybody else, and that’s how we treat them, too. Everybody’s welcome.”
My third meeting with Line takes place straight after the brief search operation over Roskilde Fjord. With a bit more time on our hands, I take the opportunity to snap some portraits of the couple and to go a little deeper into their story.
I ask Ulrik about his career and how he ended up in his current employment.
“Well, I started out in my late-20s, flying mail and tourists in and out of the islands of Tåsinge and Ærø,” he explains.
“Then, whilst working as a freelance taxi pilot at Billund Airport, an aircraft from Greenland arrived for maintenance and I spent the next six months helping to fix it up. I took my seaplane rating during this time and became the only commercial seaplane-rated pilot in Denmark.
“One of the earliest jobs I got was a three-month assignment for TV2. They were filming a show called ‘The Little Yellow Seaplane’, and it was my job to fly to remote islands and areas of Denmark with a TV presenter.
I ask Line what it’s like working with Nordic Seaplanes.
“They’re a very forward-thinking company. Obviously there aren’t a great many female pilots out there, but on top of that they’re also 100 percent carbon neutral.”
Photo: Matthew James Harrison
This is something I noticed upon my arrival at the check-in area – a huge poster hanging from the fence to the Welcome Area. According to their website, Nordic Seaplanes have started a collaboration with Thor Heyerdahl Climate Parks and Bio8. The park covers an area of 2,146 hectares of newly planted mangrove forest in Myanmar, and their share of this project means that the CO2 emissions from their flights are 100 percent neutralised.
The inspiration came from another Danish aviation firm, DAT, whose domestic routes and flights over the North Sea to Aberdeen in Scotland are also carbon neutral.
Nevertheless, the company acknowledges that there isn’t any miracle cure that will make aviation the world’s most sustainable mode of transport.
As I wrap up our interview, I’m beginning to realise just how many potential angles there are to this story. But the one thing I haven’t even asked yet – a subject that repeatedly gets written about when it comes to Danish culture – is how happy they are. I ask Line if she’d recommend her job and lifestyle to anyone else?
“Oh, absolutely,” she replies in a heartbeat. “It’s so romantic!”
“What’s so special about flying a seaplane?”
“Well, I know that a lot of pilots go on to work for commercial airlines and get to fly big planes over long distances,” she explains. “With the seaplane there’s never an opportunity to stick it on autopilot and hand over the controls.”