December 1, 2001
Michael G. Parkinson
In early January of last year I learned that a good airplane and training could save a momentarily stupid pilot.
I flew off and on for more than 20 years before I bought my first airplane about five years ago, a 1960 Beech Debonair that my father-in-law had purchased new. The airframe had less than 2,000 hours on it and was beautifully maintained.
Since I got the Debonair I've tried to keep it well maintained, and I've also tried to maintain my own proficiency. Even though I knew I would not use it often enough to stay current, I finished an instrument rating because I thought it would make me a better pilot. I also completed a pilot proficiency program, which included spin training.
Even after I bought the Debonair I really didn't make many cross-country flights until I changed jobs about three years ago. My new job required a move from southern Illinois to western Texas. Selling a house, making the move, and cleaning up obligations in Illinois meant that I made the round-trip flight from Lubbock, Texas, to Carbondale, Illinois, about 10 times in six months. After spending a couple of days in Illinois during one of those trips, I planned to leave on Saturday morning to be back in Texas in plenty of time for a meeting at my new job on Monday morning.
On Saturday morning the weather in Illinois was beautiful, and a phone call to my wife confirmed the weather in western Texas was also great. The only problem was a stalled cold front that covered most of southern Missouri, Oklahoma, and eastern Kansas. The FAA briefer confirmed that VFR was not recommended throughout most of my planned route, though the visibility and ceiling were much better through northern Missouri and Kansas. The poor visibility and ceiling would cover most of Illinois by Saturday afternoon, so I planned a flight leaving Illinois before the airport there went below VFR minimums.
I took off from Carbondale, planning to stay just north of the poor weather until I cleared its western edge. Then I would turn south to Texas. For the first 200 miles this seemed like a great plan but somewhere just north of Columbus, Missouri, it became obvious I was going to have problems. The ceiling was coming down, and the visibility that was terrible to the south wasn't much better to the north. Just south of Kansas City, with the ceiling about 3,000 feet and visibility about two miles, I decided it was time to stop. I landed, fueled the Deb and checked the weather. Maybe it was "get-home-itis," maybe it was the pressure of knowing I had a meeting at the new job, but I convinced myself I was in the worst of the weather and it would clear just to the west. I took off again hoping to find clear skies.
About 50 miles west of Kansas City I realized I'd made a major mistake. I was checking the sectional to make sure I was above nearby towers. The ceiling was 1,500 feet and coming down. No sooner had I made the decision to turn around than I noticed a white irregular formation on the leading edge of the wing. I had never actually seen rime ice before. The ice was only on the leading edge of the first foot or so of the left wing, but I knew it was time to get on the ground. I set the autopilot, including the altitude hold, while I looked for the closest airport on the sectional. My scan of the chart could not have taken more than a minute but when I looked up I was in total IMC. I could not see the wing tips.
I knew I had flown into this in less than two minutes, so I should be able to fly out. I began a 180-degree standard-rate turn. No sooner had I started the turn than the engine died. I knew I'd let a tank go dry so I leaned over and switched to a full tank. The engine immediately came back to life but my relief didn't last long. I was still in zero visibility and I could hear my instrument instructor reminding me to scan the instruments. I did. The attitude indicator showed the wings near vertical and the nose down, the altimeter was winding down fast, and the airspeed was way too high. Everything in my body said I was in a level, standard-rate turn, but I knew I was in a very real spin. I remembered my spin training: Throttle out, opposite rudder, then nose up. I was really too busy to watch the altimeter during the recovery, but I broke out of the clouds low enough to count the fence posts below me.
I recovered from the spin, climbing back into the cloud in the process, and leveled at about 1,500 feet agl. I broke out of the cloud before I had time to do anything more than realize how lucky I was to be alive. The closest airport was Herington, Kansas, about five miles south. I was very happy to land anywhere. Herington is a truly unattended field. It has a small well-appointed pilots' lounge with a pay phone, but the only phone book was two years old. The only local cab company would not come to the airport, and the FBO's number on the bulletin board was for a location at another airport that was closed for the weekend. From about 11 a.m. on Saturday until early Sunday afternoon, I sat in that little pilot's lounge periodically checking the weather and waiting for my confidence to return.
In a lot of ways I was lucky or maybe just well prepared. I was lucky to have an airplane that was maintained well enough to do everything I asked of it. I was lucky to have had an instrument instructor who drilled enough into me to trust my scan even after I was out of instrument currency. I was lucky to have had a proficiency instructor who insisted on spin recovery training under the hood. Of course, if I'd really been lucky, I would have had enough sense not to make the trip at all or at least to have stayed on the ground in Kansas City.
Michael Parkinson, AOPA 949158, has accumulated over 600 hours in 21 years of flying. He is a college professor and owns a 1960 Beech Debonair.
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