December 1, 2004
"Stay out of the ice." This blanket advice has been handed down from instructor to student for as long as pilots have been flying in the clouds. The key to avoiding ice is a proper weather briefing, especially one that includes pilot reports, freezing levels, and cloud layers. While going through instrument flight training I was exposed to many different ideas from various instructors on how to avoid icing situations. Unfortunately, little discussion on what to do once in icing conditions was ever revealed to me. I learned the hard way that any mistake when dealing with ice can be enough to kill you.
I had received my multiengine and instrument instructor ratings less than a year before. Instructing out of a busy airport located in northern Chicago, I found that flying in the winter has its difficulties. Normally it is bitterly cold around the Windy City and the potential for icing in any instrument meteorological conditions is an almost certainty. However, that year Chicago was experiencing unseasonably warm weather.
An early January morning greeted my student and me with 50-degree Fahrenheit weather and it was only forecast to get warmer. Expected to top out around 60 degrees F, the temperature would make it a perfect day for flying. On this day we were to get in a long, experience-building cross-country flight to Bookings, South Dakota — not my first choice after two months of winter. With a full weather briefing in hand we discovered that over Idaho and Montana a front was moving in, bringing temperatures down below freezing, but the cold was not expected to reach the Dakotas until late afternoon. Between Chicago and South Dakota was a thin scattered-to-broken layer around 1,000 feet agl starting just past the Mississippi River. It looked as if we would have a relatively smooth and ice-free flight.
The airplane was a Piper Geronimo, a converted Piper Apache with larger engines and a few other modifications. Built with no icing equipment, and no GPS, it was your typical stripped-down multiengine trainer. Since ice was not expected on our flight I didn't give the lack of ice protection a second thought.
We took off at 7:30 a.m. and were quickly cleared to an altitude of 8,000 feet. Our estimated time en route was three hours and 35 minutes, leaving us with just over an hour reserve. The air was smooth and the airplane was running great. With light winds and calm air, we cruised over northern Illinois and into Wisconsin.
Around the Mississippi River we noticed that the cloud deck had gone from a thin scattered layer to a thickening overcast. We contacted flight watch on 122.0 MHz to get an update on the weather in front of us. They were still reporting weather in South Dakota to be VFR with patches of overcast well above 2,000 feet agl. No reports of ice or any other adverse conditions were advertised at that time. We elected to continue without any debate, confident the weather forecasts would hold out.
As we continued, we were unable to see any break in the clouds. We contacted flight service again an hour later to see if there was any change. They reported that the front over Idaho had received a bigger push than expected and would be entering the area in the next two hours. We were only about 50 minutes out from our intended point of landing so we again decided to continue. We agreed that a shortened fueling stop would allow us to be back in the air before the weather deteriorated.
Thirty miles out, air traffic control gave us a descent to 4,000 feet in order to set up for an approach. About that time we heard other aircraft report light rime ice between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in the clouds. As we entered the clouds, the telltale signs of rime ice began to accumulate on the wings. Knowing that the majority of ice is picked up at the top of clouds, I instructed the student to continue to 4,000 in the hope that the ice would stop. Unfortunately, the ice continued to form and we quickly climbed out of the clouds. We picked up more ice in the climb and my mind began to work overtime. In all, we had been in the clouds less than three minutes. ATC allowed us to stay on top as long as we needed and vectored us on the localizer some 20 nautical miles out.
At 6,000 feet the temperature was below freezing and the ice we had picked up was not coming off. I estimated the accumulation at just over an inch. Our airspeed had dropped off considerably, and I was now faced with the fact that in order to get to the ground we would have to go through the ice again.
Not once in my training had any instructor taught me what to do in this situation. They had always said to avoid ice. A few had told me that if I got in it, get out of it — climb, turn around, or descend. All that I understood, but no one had explained what to do next.
We had picked up a considerable amount of ice in a short period of time and had climbed out, but what now? We called ATC again to see if there was any airport within our dwindling fuel range that we could divert to. He told us that every station within 100 miles was now reporting ceilings overcast below 1,000 feet with temperatures below freezing, with some even reporting snow.
I elected to try our planned destination, knowing that we would not have to go to minimums to see the airport. Twenty miles out we were centered on the localizer at an altitude of 6,000 feet, nearly 4,000 feet above glideslope intercept altitude. Knowing that any extended time in the clouds would be detrimental, I elected to stay on top until a few miles from the outer marker. At that point we would cut the power back and push the nose over, picking up the glideslope on the way down.
At the proposed time we cut the power and made a stable descent through the clouds at a rate of around 2,000 feet per minute. Just before the outer marker we picked up the glideslope and we slowed our descent. Once we had re-entered the clouds, ice on the wings began to build again. I instructed the student to plan to land at a higher airspeed than normal, because of the certain higher stall speed brought about by the ice accumulation.
One thing I had failed to consider was the possibility that the windshield would freeze over. In my training, instructors had focused on ice on the wing as a detriment to lift and the increase in weight, never telling me that the windshield might freeze over. As we passed through what was supposed to be the bottom of the clouds, I could not pick up the runway. We could see out our side windows to the ground and realized that the front windshield was now completely covered in a sheet of ice. Deciding that going missed and picking up more ice was not a good option, I took the controls and crabbed in order to see out of the edge of the window. Once the field was in sight I kept the aircraft coming down and straightened it out as best I could. Using the sides of the runway for a reference, we touched down and came to a stop only feet from the end of the runway. We taxied to the ramp relieved to be safe on the ground. After inspecting the wing we discovered that the aircraft had collected more than two inches of ice. I was sure that if we had not elected to stay out of the ice for as long as we did or if we'd had to go around, the ice would have overcome the aircraft's ability to maintain lift.
After this experience a few years ago, I realized that I had not been teaching students enough about the dangers of ice — not only how to avoid it, but also how to cope with an accidental icing situation. Ice is a very unpredictable thing but can be overcome if one knows what to do.
The fact remains that the best way to handle ice is not to get into it, but if you do encounter it, don't take it lightly, and have an idea of what to do. Utilize the information you can get from other pilots in the same area, and keep careful track of the reading on your own outside air temperature gauge. Pilot reports of cloud heights, tops, and icing levels can save your life.
Joel DeJong is a flight instructor with multiengine and instrument instructor ratings. He has accumulated more than 1,700 hours in eight years of flying.
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