Never Again Online: Caught off guard

October 1, 2005

We had been trying to make this flight for three weeks now. There was always something that caused us to cancel the trip — an hour-long jaunt from my home airport in New Jersey to Reading Regional/Carl A. Spaatz Field in Pennsylvania with my fiancée.

The coming weekend weather was forecast to be fair. My conversation with the flight service specialist early on Sunday morning was routine and brief. I wanted to fly so bad that I heard everything I wanted to hear and heard nothing I didn't. I remember the first words out of the briefer's mouth, "Well, I have no advisories for you...."

I think my brain shut off at that point and only listened for what I felt were the remaining big ticket items: ceiling, visibility, and winds, which were reported as 2,600 feet, seven miles, and light, respectively.

Don't get me wrong; ice was on my mind as I knew I would be flying IFR with a ceiling of 2,600 feet and a minimum en route altitude of about 3,000 feet. I quickly dismissed this fear as the gentleman clearly stated, "I have no advisories for you...." That means no ice, right?

I filed IFR and received a simple clearance: a couple of fixes, then direct, maintain 2,000, expect 4,000 five minutes after departure. We took off in my Cessna Cardinal RG around 10 a.m. As we climbed to 2,000, we realized that the ceiling was a bit lower than was reported. We entered solid instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) at about 1,700 feet. We continued up to 2,000, headed for Robbinsville VOR, and contacted departure. They immediately told me to go up to 4,000 and proceed direct to Yardley VOR. That would be the end of what started as a routine flight.

At about 3,800 feet I started noticing a rough gloss on the left wing. I turned quickly to the OAT (outside air temperature) probe and there it was: ice. By the time I got to 4,000 I had about one-eighth of an inch already, and it appeared that it was accumulating very rapidly. I looked at the temperature gauge and it read zero degrees Celsius. This is when all the important questions popped into my head: What was the temperature at the surface? Where were the tops? What was the temperature at 3,000? Were there pilot reports? Then I flashed back to me sitting at the kitchen table, safe, warm, in my pajamas, with a steaming cup of coffee, talking to the weather briefer. Why, oh why didn't I ask these questions then?

Now, I had never been in ice before, and I immediately felt my stomach sink. I looked over at Cherryl and saw that she had already picked up on the trouble. She just looked at me seriously and proclaimed, "Ice!"

I contacted air traffic control (ATC) and explained that I was picking up ice and could not stay at 4,000. They immediately cleared me to descend to 3,000. By the time I got to 3,000 I had about one-quarter inch on all the front surfaces of the airplane. I couldn't tell if ice was continuing to accumulate, so I kept my eye closely on the OAT probe while I tried to sort things out in my head. Is this altitude OK? Can I go lower? What about the higher terrain around Reading? Should I turn back?

My passenger was getting nervous. I was nervous. The windscreen was now frozen over and that made me more nervous. I put the cabin heat on and pulled out the knob for the defroster. I didn't have high hopes that it would be powerful enough to do anything, but I was rationalizing that intelligent engineers designed this thing just for this reason. So it must be good for something! Right?!

I set the autopilot and informed ATC that I was still picking up ice and requested a lower altitude. The radio crackled, "No, I can't clear you lower. Say intentions."

There was a long pause. I looked at the OAT probe and genuinely couldn't tell if the ice had grown any. I told ATC my intensions were to return to Lumberton, New Jersey's Flying W Airport. They explained that traffic was heavy and requested that I stand by. Next they gave me a couple of turns for traffic. Then a series of problems started. First, my mind was focused on the ice, and it was difficult to concentrate on my other tasks. My mind also was focused on my nervous passenger. She is my number-one flying partner, and I don't want her to fear flying.

ATC was really busy this day and they were talking very rapidly. The controller came on the radio, changed my clearance to return to Flying W, and told me to intercept the Robbinsville 232 radial and descend to 2,000. As I was setting the frequency, I noticed with a heart-shearing jolt that the airspeed was 55 mph! I instinctively pitched down and felt us rise out of our seats; this scared my passenger, and she let out a scream. Her scream gave me a second shock. It was not until I checked the other gauges and the power setting that I realized I was not near a stall. I then realized that the pitot must have frozen over. I turned on the pitot heat with a slap to my forehead.

I had begun to turn the omni-bearing selector (OBS) to 232 when I heard a loud sound of air rushing! I looked at the attitude indicator and to my horror, I saw that the aircraft was in a descending, right-wing-low attitude of 35 degrees or more. I would love to tell you what the airspeed was, but the indicator was rebelliously displaying zero. I picked up the wing, leveled the plane, and noticed that the autopilot had cut out. Hmmm, or had I forgotten to turn it back on after the descent? On my plane there is no audible warning if the autopilot is turned off.

The controller blurted through the radio with obvious frustration in his voice, wanting to know why I was not turning to intercept the 232 radial. Now I was caught between the adrenaline rush of all the previous blunders and an embarrassment flush for being so behind the airplane. I reset the autopilot and advised him that I was turning.

It was at this point that I realized I was starting to sweat and this was when I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. This was also the moment when my brain started taking a holiday. I attempted to set the OBS again. "OK, I need to put 232 on the top of the the bottom...wait...I want a To From flag...232 radial...radial?...what's a radial?...oh my God, what's my name! Think! Just think!!"

After all the excitement and ATC's vectors I had become completely disoriented. I tried to gain some comfort by looking down at my faithful and trustworthy portable GPS for situational awareness. To my amazement, I discovered that somehow the GPS had zoomed all the way out to the continental United States. What the heck! Was this a conspiracy? All I could see was a little airplane on the East Coast of North America. Twenty button pushes later (and an equal number of expletives) I zoomed back in, cussing that I didn't need this or any other distractions.

ATC then came on the radio and began reading me the final clearance for the VOR-A approach, but they had me maintain 2,000 until PONDE (the final approach fix). They must have decided that my workload was not high enough, so they kept me in IMC and told me to prepare and write down modified missed instructions because of traffic congestion. After a quick scramble I located my kneeboard, which had inexplicably found its way between the seats. I wrote down and read back the new clearance.

Cherryl finally had the approach plate for our home airport, and she handed it to me. As I took the plate out of her hand and attempted to read it, the paper betrayed my tenuous veneer of calm and revealed my right hand shuddering uncontrollably. I had to make a conscience effort to steady my trembling paw.

I struggled to enter the VOR-A approach into the GPS but it wouldn't take. Now what? After two attempts and some head scratching, I realized I needed to uninstall the route to Reading first.

Finally, I got the approach plugged in, and the first sigh of relief came when I saw that beautiful pink line from the little airplane on the screen to the final approach fix and then from the FAF to the airport. It was literally a head-clearing sight!

Next the pitot finally cleared and I watched the airspeed indicator jump to life. Sigh of relief number two. Now at 2000 feet, I was not picking up any more ice and, as a matter of fact, the ice had begun melting off the windscreen. When I finally got to the final approach fix and descended out of the clouds at 1,800 feet and found myself on a 45 for the right downwind of Runway 1, I let go a third sigh of relief.

As I entered the pattern I remembered that flaps are bad with ice, so I landed with only 10 degrees and 10 extra mph. When I parked at my hangar I watched incredulously at all that ice sliding off my wings, tail, cowling, and windscreen. As I stood there and contemplated the unusual attitude I had experienced in flight, my mental collapse, and all my poor decisions, I vowed that I would learn many lessons from this flight.

First of all, I should have queried the flight service specialist for more information about icing. I should have known that the freezing level was right at my assigned altitude and I never should have launched. Second, I needed to add pitot heat and defrost to my IFR before-takeoff checklist. Third, I needed to have all the approaches out for the departure, alternate, and destination in case I found myself coming back sooner than planned. Last, when I think back on this, I should have confessed to ATC that I was overwhelmed and needed assistance. They could have given me vectors when I was disoriented, and this would have reduced my workload dramatically. Remember, they are there to help, not judge.

Gene Wentzel, AOPA 4446117, is an instrument-rated commercial pilot who owns and flies a 1971 Cessna Cardinal RG.

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Posted Thursday, October 06, 2005 10:05:59 AM