Waterfalls, glaciers and ice caves are among the most popular highlights in Iceland - as is the airplane wreck on Sólheimasandur beach. The Douglas C-117 is one of the few "man made" attractions in Iceland and certainly one of the most photographed places in the country. In the winter of 1973 the US plane was surprised by bad weather and had to make an emergency landing here on the beach. All crew members survived. Today tourists make a pilgrimage through the stone desert to see the remains of the plane. Some of them put themselves in danger. Here you can find out everything you need to know for your trip to the famous plane wreck.
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The Emergency Landing in Storm, Ice and Fog
On 21 November 1973 the Douglas C-117 was on a routine mission. The Douglas C-117 is the military version of the DC-3, therefore the wreck is also known as DC-3 wreck. The weather was getting worse. The temperature dropped to -10° Celsius and gusts reached wind speeds of 95 km/h. Finally the carburetor and the engines froze up and failed. The plane had to make an emergency landing. A stroke of luck. The wide sand surfaces made a relatively soft landing possible. The plane finally came to a halt just before the sea. All five crew members remained uninjured. Only one hour later they were rescued by a US Air Force helicopter.
The plane came to a standstill after the emergency landing just before the sea. The Americans dismantled from the wreck the parts still usable: the engines, the instruments and the wings with the turbines. The rest of the plane was left on the beach. It served temporarily as a storage for driftwood or as a target. Finally it was forgotten.
But in the last few years it became famous through music videos and since then it attracts many visitors. First the Icelandic music group Sigur Rós showed recordings of the plane wreck in their film "Heima" (2007). In 2015 Justin Bieber made a music video in which he rode a skateboard on the wrecked plane.
How do I get to the Plane Wreck on the Beach of Sólheimasandur?
At first, the location of the wreck was a well-kept secret, but many sought it out at good luck in the stone desert of Sólheimasandur. With GPS data it became easier then, visitors drove with their four-wheel drive vehicles on their own to the wreck. However, many got stuck, got lost and had to be rescued. At the expense of nature, of course. Because the sand surface was more and more furrowed by traffic lanes.
Today the access road is closed. With your own vehicle you will therefore not be able to reach the wreck of the plane from Sólheimasandur. Instead you have three possibilities:
On foot: You walk about 3.5 kilometres to the wreck, which takes 45 to 60 minutes. The same then back again.
Shuttle bus: There is a Shuttle bus:that will take you to the wreck in 15 minutes. It runs all day between 10 and 17 o'clock every 30 minutes from the parking lot Sólheimasandur. But only in the cold season from October to May. Cost there and back: 13 euros.
ATV-Tour: You book an ATV-Tourwhich goes to the wreck of the plane. The tour is bookable all year round and takes about two hours. Costs: 169 Euro.
I have decided to do the hike. The weather was good, but very windy. Just in case I packed some provisions and strapped something warm and my rain gear on my backpack. The weather can change quickly in Iceland and the way is long.
Hike to the Plane Wreck at the Beach of Sólheimasandur
The plane wreck lies about halfway between the Skógafoss waterfall and Vík í Mýrdal. There is a small parking lot directly at the ring road. A sign informs about the length and duration of the hike and again points out to be prepared for bad weather. This is a four-hour hike. That is a little bit exaggerated. I was back at the car after a total of two hours.
Which is no exaggeration: Icelandic weather is unpredictable and there is no protection along the way. Therefore it is best to assume the worst. Unfortunately, two Chinese tourists did not do that in January 2020. And the worst thing happened - they froze to death on the way, not far from the wrecked plane. Tragic. And a terrible irony: during the emergency landing all crew members remained unharmed. Instead, tourists who came to see the wreckage died. Even a man who took photos of the wreck on the beach had an accident: a particularly big wave pulled him into the freezing cold sea.
The way leads straight ahead through a stone desert. The area is wide and empty, here there is nothing the eye can hold on to for a moment. Except the yellow posts, which mark the way left and right. There is no trace of an airplane wreck to be seen far and wide. Only at the very end the path makes a small left turn and opens the view to the wreck.
The way back is a little more interesting, because here you have a view of the mountains and Mýrdalsjökull. At some point you will recognize the parking lot again, which finally gets bigger and bigger.
The wreck of the Douglas C-117 on the beach of Sólheimasandur is not the only plane wreck in Iceland. The unpredictable weather of Iceland has led to several crashes. Between 1941 and 1973 there are said to have been 385 US airplane accidents in Iceland.
An agreement between Iceland and the US military provided that if an American plane crashed, the US would pay 85% of the recovery costs. However, the Icelandic government would be responsible for the evacuation on site. As a result, many planes would remain at their crash site for the time being.
The smart Icelanders quickly found new uses for the wrecks: for example, a sheep pen was built or parts of the wrecks were converted into roofs or fences. The steel of the hull was used to make pans and pots. You wonder where the tail of the plane wreck of Sólheimasandur has gone? It was cut off in 1994, taken away and then attached to the front part of another plane. Since then it has been used as living quarters.
My Conclusion to the Hike to the Wreck of the Plane
A trip to the plane wreck on the beach of Sólheimasandur is worthwhile. It is something completely different, a great contrast to all the waterfalls, glaciers and bird rocks. And the white plane on the black sand is just a great photo motif. It's best to visit it early or late, when not so many other people do the same. But remember: Safety First! Watch out for the weather and dress appropriately for Iceland. And one more thing: Please don't leave any marks on the plane, don't scribble or break off any parts. So that it will be preserved for a long time to come and so that many more people can enjoy the plane wreckage after you have gone.
Book Recommendations for Iceland
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