Never Again

A rather important meeting

April 1, 2012

 

It was a typical overcast winter morning at Portland International Airport in Oregon, with ceilings running around 1,400 feet agl and reported tops at about 7,000 feet msl. Ground control had just rattled off our clearance to Rogue Valley International in Medford, Oregon, clearing us to 10,000 feet. There had been no pilot reports of icing. The briefing called for conditions to remain overcast with ceilings around 1,200 feet. Deteriorating conditions and possible snow were forecast for later in the day, but well after our estimated arrival time.

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Our climb to 10,000 feet in my Beech Travel Air put us well above the tops and we had no sign of ice. We broke out in beautiful, smooth, clear blue sky as we marveled at our magnificent view of Mount Hood rising above the clouds. My wife, Kathy, and a good friend of the family were on board. I had a rather important business meeting scheduled at Medford, after which we would fly on to San Francisco.

During those days (in the late 1960s) I had been logging a lot of hours in the Travel Air, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where flying conditions consist of considerable IMC over mostly mountainous terrain. I was not only very current on making ILS approaches but perhaps had become a bit overconfident.

About 45 minutes into the flight I decided to get a weather update for Medford. The Seattle Center controller reported that the latest update showed overcast ceilings had gone to about 600 feet with one mile visibility. The revised forecast called for ceilings dropping to 300 feet with less than a mile visibility. In the Pacific Northwest, whenever the weather deteriorates that fast—and revised forecasts call for decreasing ceilings and visibility—it’s a pretty good bet things will get worse faster than forecast.

I should have started thinking about canceling the meeting, and just continuing on to San Francisco. We didn’t have cell phones, but there were other options. I was focused on the meeting, however, and I was accustomed to making approaches, even down to minimums.

Seattle Center cleared us to start our descent to 7,000 feet; the air was stable in the soup with no signs of ice, yet. At 6,000 feet we still had no sign of ice. Since I was halfway down to the outer marker altitude, even if we were to pick up a little ice along the way, it shouldn’t be much of a problem since we should break out at about 500 feet.

The Medford area is located in a hole that is surrounded by mountains. The higher mountains are to the east, and the high Sierra Nevada rise to the south. The mountains to the north—the direction we were coming from—are not as high, but the minimum en route altitude is 7,000 feet through there.

ATC cleared us for the straight-in approach to Runway 14 and advised me to contact Medford Tower at the outer marker. As we descended through 5,000 feet we started rapidly accumulating rime ice on the leading edges of the wings. By the time we had reached 4,000 feet, just north of the outer marker, we were literally covered with ice. All I could do was watch it build since my Travel Air was not equipped with deicing equipment.

At the outer marker I reported inbound on the ILS, and the controller informed me that the field was now below minimums, showing only about 100 feet with less than a quarter-mile visibility, and it was starting to snow.

The ice was building so fast and thick on the wings that I knew a go-around was out of the question. With this much ice there was no way we could have climbed back up to the minimum en route altitude of 7,000 feet. I advised the tower that I would like to exercise “pilot discretion” to go down and take a look, but I asked him to please turn the lights on high. He said they were already as high as they would go.

I wouldn’t be able to see the lights anyway because of the heavy ice build-up on the windshield. The only visibility I had was out the side window. The props were beginning to sound like baseball bats swinging around as I heard the middle marker indicator sounding off, which meant we were probably less than 200 feet above the ground. I was desperately trying to keep the needles centered on the glideslope while at the same time making some S turns to try to see something out the side window. We couldn’t have been more than 20 feet above the ground when I caught a brief glimpse of a light passing right below us, so instinctively I chopped the power, flared, and somehow managed to blindly grease the airplane onto the runway.

When we finally got out of the airplane there were at least four inches of ice on the leading edges of the wings and a couple of inches on the propeller hubs. The whole airplane was still covered with ice. We were going to be there for the night.

The next day, after they cleared the snow from the runway, we departed for San Francisco in mostly clear skies. I felt very foolish and ashamed that I had allowed the perceived importance of a business meeting to cloud my flying judgment. However, the fact that I had passengers on board could have been the catalyst for maintaining my composure, in my effort to conceal the gravity of the situation from them. If I had been alone in the airplane, I might well have panicked, so maybe this added responsibility had forced me to “never stop flying the airplane.”

Philip H. Talbert lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is a private pilot with multiengine and instrument ratings, and has more than 10,000 hours.