"One time we had a whole team of dogs in back there," says Capt. Mikael Gelin. "Twenty dogs. They behaved fine."
"And sometimes if there has been a death in Svalbard we must fly the body down," he says.
It's 12:07 p.m. on a Monday, and the mail plane to Svalbard has passed Sørkapp at 30,000 feet and is getting ready for its descent in Longyearbyen.
But for Gelin, a pilot for West Air Sweden with 25 years of experience and countless Svalbard trips, the letters represent only a small part of the daily load. Fruits, vegetables, dairy products and other fresh foods destined for Svalbardbutikken, and packages for individuals and businesses make up the bulk of the 4.2 tons of baggage in the small jet without passenger seats.
"One time we had a whole team of dogs in back there"
Is it nice not having the hassle of passengers?
"Ha, ha. That's a plus, but at the same time you miss the occasion to be social," says Gelin, who currently flies with first officer and Frenchman Laurent Perret du Cray.
The mail plane to Svalbard is a massive operation and work starts many hours before the Bombardier CRJ100 aircraft departs from Tromsø. The mail to Svalbard has a long way to go.
After a long evening and night of sorting of packages from around the world, the pieces begin to fall into place at Tromsø post terminal at 8 a.m.
"This is called a review terminal," says Production Manager Roger Tømmerholen.
For the past nine years, this has been where most letters, packages and foods with Svalbard addresses have been stacked in boxes and on pallets. In the background, a Hjallis letter-sorting machine buzzes while spewing envelopes to different mail addresses. Boxes are fed continuously into the assembly line.
"Ninety-nine percent of everything comes by train from Oslo to Narvik, where it is transshipped to trailers and runs hit in the morning," Tømmerholen says. "In addition, we get two flights at night, at 1 a.m. and 1:45 a.m."
The very first postal flight as a regularly scheduled route to Svalbard was Nov. 30, 2006, which was greeted with great enthusiasm. Previous deliveries could remain for weeks in Tromsø since Scandinavian Airlines prioritized getting its passengers up.
There are currently six departures a week.
But it is still a vulnerable route.
"The weather can present challenges," Tømmerholen says. "Some time back we had several trips canceled because of fog and then we have problems. Shipments pile up and we must ask for assistance from a larger machine that can take an extra-heavy load once there is flying weather."
Since there are no other routes in, Svalbard has high priority if something delays deliveries.
"There is much that must be transported as quickly as possible such as hospital equipment, blood tests, medications, lenses and stuff," Tømmerholen says.
At 9:30 a.m. the safety check for the load to Svalbard is finally finished. Since the contents are airbound, every trolly is examined with a fluoroscopy machine to scan for objects that could threaten flight safety. This time it scans two trucks heading to Tromsø Airport Langnes.
The aircraft is recognized by traffic controllers at both ends. The load is secured and Gelin as the captain signs the necessary paperwork.
"Cleared for takeoff…10:45 engines roaring northward with electronics and fresh milk for thirsty Svalbardites."
"Is that Bjørnøya?" asks du Cray. A green spot emerges on radar.
"Hmm. Yes, we must almost be there," Gelin replies.
The time when letters were thrown into sacks and dropped over the Arctic outposts are long over. Now everything arrives in Longyearbyen, where a large apparatus involving few people is set in motion as the plane lands at 12:24 p.m.
The machine is unloaded by Arne Holmberg and Runar Bråthen from the post office, who one hour later transport everything to the center of town.
The many pallets of fresh produce for Svalbardbutikken are rushed straight into the back room and prepared for sale. All of the parcels, letters and other goods go to the post office for sorting. At 2 p.m., Bråthen, a temporary summer employee, starts bringing packages packages to businesses as General Manager Oddny Slatlem sorts letters.
"What will go to, for example, Bjørnøya is put aside and passed on with the KV Svalbard," she says. "Letters for people who have mailboxes are sorted on-site."
They can't do deliveries throughout town until tomorrow, but the mailboxes at the post office are filled during the afternoon, she says while deftly flicking envelopes into the various boxes. Mostly the work is now done – for today.
"I wish we were better to label people's boxes"
It's 9 a.m. Tuesday when Holmberg gets in the mail van and heads out to addresses in Longyearbyen delivering the last remnants of yesterday's mail flight. After traveling 1,000 kilometers, it is the final few inches that can present the biggest problems.
"I wish we were better to label people's boxes. It can be hard to see who lives where," Holmberg says with a chuckle before getting ready to take a new shipment of outgoing mail to the airport.
"The mail never stops."