Jaillan Yehia

FlyOver Iceland Review & The Rules Of Icelandic Flight Club

Written by Jaillan Yehia

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The FlyOver Iceland building

What is the last thing you want from your first post-pandemic trip abroad? For me the answer was simple: after the digital overload of the lockdown era, I didn’t want another virtual experience.

So when I finally said yes to my first foreign adventure since January 2020 – a hosted press trip to Iceland (which makes this post a paid partnership, but all views are mine, and it’s 2022 so you know the drill) – I was pumped for all the post-pandemic firsts on the itinerary.

What I couldn’t wrap my head around was how a virtual experience like FlyOver Iceland would fit into the trip – especially given the painful onslaught of pretend travel we’ve all been forced to endure.

A ‘virtual visit’ is ok when the alternative is endless ultra-humdrum staying-home, but how could an ‘Iceland experience’ compete with being in actual Iceland? If that was your first thought on hearing about FlyOver Iceland, read on and I’ll explain all.

Walking to FlyOver Iceland via Reykjavik Old Harbour

This was my second time in Iceland, but my first trip out of the UK since Covid and my first visit to the Land of Fire and Ice in winter. This is the season the place is really geared up for, but also a time when the elements can be a tourist’s frenemy.

I was invited by Pursuit to check out their newly opened tourist projects in Iceland, both of which are sky-themed in very different ways.

There’s an outdoor thermal spa called Sky Lagoon that’s just begging to be a Bond location, as well as an epic virtual adventure showcasing the island from the skies, namely FlyOver Iceland.

It’s oh so quiet at the Sky lagoon

Having spent much of my childhood in Denmark, I’m a sucker for the special light and vast skies that are unique to Northern Scandinavia and this trip really was a bit of me.  I found myself full of longing for the very visceral experience on offer at Reykjavik’s newly opened Sky Lagoon.

I can think of no better way to wash off the staleness of two entire years confined to home than by immersing yourself in the Sky Lagoon, and emerging as traveller reborn – with the added bonus of baby soft skin from the spa’s signature Seven Step Ritual.

This post covers the other of the duo of recent big-hitter openings on the Icelandic tourist scene; FlyOver Iceland.

The attraction first took off in Autumn 2019, but having been denied the chance to reach any kind of cruising altitude before Covid hit it is still considered a new attraction (and if you’re reading a blog called SavoirThere and a post called The Rules of Icelandic Flight Club, don’t be surprised if the puns don’t stop there.)

What Exactly IS FlyOver Iceland?

This sums up what FlyOver Iceland looks like, but not what it FEELS like

FlyOver Iceland is an immersive experience, a combination of IMAX theatre meets rollercoaster ride meets multi-sensory scenic tour. The theme-park style experience takes you through Icelandic legend and folklore presented on film, in creative and innovative formats, before flying you, in a state of the art simulator, over a selection of the country’s most inaccessible, wild and dramatic scenery.

The main flight involves a so-big-you-can’t-see-the-edges screen and a row of buckle-up-and-hold-on-tight rollercoaster seating but also some unexpected extras that make it truly immersive. Special scents, mist and other sensory touches, as well as the physicality of the ride shaking, tilting and giving you flight-style thrills all elevate the experience.

There’s even a specially composed score featuring the Icelandic symphony orchestra to uplift you as you soar through the skies – and because this is Iceland it’s not composed by just anyone, it’s by Sigur Rós members.

The concept of the FlyOver Iceland attraction was first conceived in Canada, and based on the original FlyOver Canada in Vancouver, a city I used to call home. And having lived in Canada it feels like a natural fit for the next version to be set in Iceland, as the two country’s landscapes are a sort of mirrored testimony to nature’s epic power. The FlyOver experiences became a trilogy when FlyOver Las Vegas opened in 2021.

My Review of FlyOver Iceland: Is this reel thing, the real thing?

Stuck on the idea of experiencing nature via a screen, I decided to do something a little different before my visit and forgo any advance research, instead going in with no preconceptions to take the experience as it came.

I didn’t have any expectations, but if I’m honest I was prepared to be totally underwhelmed. I was totally unprepared to be overwhelmed – but that’s the reaction I had.

Worried that in retrospect the enjoyment factor might fade, I waited to write my review in case the feeling of being impressed might subside. It didn’t and honestly I just want to go back and do it all over again.

Despite my initial skepticism I am now a permanent member of the FlyOver Iceland Fan Club. Let’s call it Icelandic Flight Club because that works way better as a pun.

When packing my bags for a dark and snowy trip to Iceland in the midst of an especially bleak English winter I certainly assumed that no matter how impressive a 20-metre spherical screen may be, I was travelling to Iceland in search of the real thing, not a reel thing, so let me explain why a technically ‘screen-based’ experience has become a Must Do in a destination so famed for nature:

The 8 Rules of Icelandic Flight Club

Brad Pitt has really aged hasn’t he?

1. The first rule of Icelandic Flight Club is: you do not talk about Icelandic Flight Club as an alternative to going on a tour

You don’t talk about FlyOver Iceland as a poor relation to seeing the locations featured in real life. It’s not. It’s an alternative to never laying your eyes on these remote, inaccessible and physically inhospitable parts of the country at all, ever.

The 35-minute experience helps you to get under the skin of 27 separate locations, most are equally inaccessible to Icelanders and tourists.

In fact, only a handful of specially trained mountaineers and rock climbers will ever get to physically travel to these places, by hiking across glaciers, driving super jeeps or chartering a helicopter and flying over restricted areas, to glimpse these Icelandic outposts.

FlyOver Iceland isn’t an ‘instead of actually going there’ scenario, this is a ‘closest you’re ever going to get’ thing.

I will admit I hadn’t fully appreciated this when I first heard about FlyOver Iceland, so I’m letting you in on this first rule right up front.

2. The second rule of Flight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Flight Club in the same sentence as CGI

Much like the first rule, the second rule of Icelandic Flight Club  is about respect – in this case for the fact it doesn’t use any fake, CGI, filtered or enhanced footage. This is true to life reportage of the real Iceland that is the very definition of #nofilter. It’s shot using a specially rigged helicopter equipped with a custom curved lens, and flown by the nation’s leading stunt pilot. More about him later as he’s clearly a bit of a ledge – and he isn’t the only famous Icelander to be involved in the attraction.

FlyOver Iceland Volcano shot

Capturing the views you see on screen with a phone camera just doesn’t do the footage justice

3. If someone yelled STOP, the flight would be over

As well as the jaw-dropping views, you will spot some people in the shots. They’re not regular folk, civilians or bystanders who happened to be there – they’re all stunt actors, the only people willing to let a helicopter play a game of chicken in the air two meters from their heads without shouting ‘CUT!’.

4. Two pre-shows to a flight

The entire FlyOver Iceland experience isn’t just the breathtaking ride itself – there are two pre-flight shows that give you some context, history, and a backdrop to the scenery you’ll witness. They’re invaluable at helping you understand why it is nature’s force, more than mankind, which tells the story of Iceland.

The experience really brings nature alive

Su Vitra is an Icelandic Troll character – specially created for FlyOver Iceland by Brian Pilkington

As explained to us by the CEO of FlyOver Iceland, Helga María Albertsdóttir, the pre-flight shows are like warm up acts to help you decompress and leave the reality and practicality of the day behind you, and enter the right mindset to immerse yourself in the main show.

5. One flight at a time, fellas, but all four seasons

Your flight allows you to transcend the normal confines of ‘one season at a time’ that exist in travel.

Iceland has been shaped and defined by nature, and is heavily dictated to by the elements. Based on the timing of your own visit you will experience a completely different version of this country; from the long days of the midnight sun, when constant light gives way to twilight for just a few short hours, to the season of my visit, mid-winter, with almost perpetual night broken by a mere 4-5 hours of daylight.

Because the footage in FlyOver Iceland was filmed over 18 months, the audience experiences a rotation of the seasons from spring meadows to summer sunshine, via New Year fireworks and snowy mountains  – all in just under 10 minutes’ flying time.

6. The flights are bare knuckle: no special shirts, no special shoes

FlyOver Iceland is an all-weather, all-season attraction making it perfect for the inevitable rainy day. No need for any special types of clothing or practical preparation here. In late December around the time of the Winter Solstice there’s almost 20 hours of total darkness to contend with, on top of the sub-zero temperatures.  Whatever the season, and whatever the weather outside, you can just buckle up and enjoy the ride.

7. Flights will go on as long as they have to

The initial flying ‘budget’ to capture the footage was 80 hours. In the end the helicopter pilot, Jon K. Bjornsson, who has been flying over Iceland since 1988 and seen it from every possible angle, took over 100 hours to film Iceland’s extremes, including multiple passes around some locations.

FlyOver Iceland helicopter Pilot, Jon K. Bjornsson

He’s not just the best stunt pilot in Iceland, he’s simply THE stunt pilot in Iceland – he’s the guy on Hollywood’s speed dial for TV series’ and movies where Iceland stands in for fantasy or futuristic locations, like as Game of Thrones or Star Wars, as well as when the stories are set in Iceland like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

8. The 8th and final rule: if this is your first time in Iceland, you have to fly

Before experiencing FlyOver I just wouldn’t have considered any kind of virtual experience a Must Do for a first timer in Iceland. I now think it’s the perfect introduction to the country, and worth taking the time to enjoy even if you only have a short stopover in Iceland like many of the country’s 2 million+ visitors a year.

Iceland’s overall vibe may be chill, but Icelandic spirit is one of resilience. A large proportion of visitors to Iceland pre-Covid were taking advantage of a stopover on transatlantic routes, so the pandemic hit tourism here especially hard.

But whether in the face of a global financial crisis or a global health crisis, it’s evident that the country finds a way through any challenge, and that’s very much in evidence in Reykjavik today.

When I was grounded I missed experiences that were immersive, three dimensional, nature-based and truly memorable. And that all describes FlyOver Iceland.

8 Bonus Facts For FlyOver Iceland Fans

1. Tour operators won’t let you visit at the very start of your trip – in case you beg them to help you find a way to get to one of the locations featured.

2. FlyOver Iceland got special permits to allow a helicopter to fly through stunning Dyrholaey Arch for the first time ever to film a dramatic multi-aircraft scene.

3. The scene shows a plane  – but the plane goes off-course as it didn’t get the same special permit as the helicopter.

4. Nature intervened many times during filming, with one attempt at filming hijacked by a team of ducks.

5. The helicopter pilot confesses that FlyOver Iceland is probably better than real-life flying for the average person, saying: ‘You get just the smooth bits without all the noise and the roughness of flying.’

6. Reykjavik’s New Year Fireworks were actually recreated, in February, just for FlyOver Iceland filming.

7. It was deemed too dangerous to fly over Reykjavik city centre in a helicopter so a large drone was used  – but one of the fireworks hit the drone , and you can actually feel the bump while on the ride.

8. The creative team involved all travelled to Vancouver to see how things were done, but while Canada and Iceland share some similarities the composers wanted to reflect Reykjavik’s uniquely ‘chill’ energy in the score.

FlyOver Iceland Review in a Nutshell: Is It Worth it?

Icelandic scenery

Right outside FlyOver Iceland you have views like this

I was wrong to peg this experience as virtual travel. Virtual travel used to make me feel morose when real travel was out of reach, and all I had instead was a mirage, on a screen. But after being invigorated by my ride at FlyOver Iceland I remember going outside  – and beyond those doors was actual Iceland, and I was part of it.

After experiencing the wildest heights of the Icelandic landscape at your own special Flight Club  you have choices when you leave the building – to look around at the beauty of Mount Esja, decide if you want to explore the hip streets of Reykjavik, ascend Hallgrímskirkja, head out on another nature-based adventure or simply go for a coffee to watch the world go by. And it’s that freedom, and that fully immersive experience, combined with the opportunity to try unique things like FlyOver, that is the true beauty of travel.

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