Never Again Online: The last option

November 1, 2003

No matter how much water I drank, my mouth remained dry. This was my physical reaction to the danger to which I had subjected myself, my wife, and my two daughters.

It was a beautiful, sunny day while cruising VFR on top in a rented Cessna 182 at 9,500 feet over an overcast layer en route from Bend, Oregon, to Spokane, Washington, at Felts Field where I am based. Prior to departure, the weather at our destination was reported to be 900 feet overcast with tops 1,500 feet higher and temperatures slightly above freezing. There were no relevant pilot reports available. Finally, an airmet reported occasional light ice in the clouds above the freezing level, with freezing levels above 8,000 msl. No problem, I thought, having shot the ILS/DME 21 approach into Felts Field many times. Even if I did pick up ice, its impact would be minimal since my time in the clouds would be short-lived.

As I neared Felts Field the controller issued vectors and I set up for the approach. The cloud tops had risen to 6,500 feet msl from their forecast 4,500 feet. As I neared the localizer at my assigned altitude of 4,500 feet msl I noticed two things. First, the ice that had been a possibility became reality in the form of a thin mixed layer; second, I still had the flag on my one and only glideslope needle, which indicated that the glideslope was not functioning. As I was handed off to the tower I called the missed approach and was given altitude and heading instructions.

I had more than 300 hours total time with more than 50 hours in the previous 12 months and 35 hours of actual instrument time: I had very little experience with ice. I requested a climb to VFR conditions. I also requested the same approach again to verify the failed instrument, but with the requirement that I intercept the glideslope on top to prevent further icing. Approach control obliged and the glideslope needle never came to life. As stress set in I mentally ruled out any form of an ILS approach at any airport and asked for the VOR 3 Left approach to Felts. Now, with a thin veneer of mixed ice, I proceeded with the VOR approach. As I went into IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) and neared the inbound course I noticed mixed ice on the strut in amounts that I had never seen before. I was still more than six miles from the airport and had more than three-quarters of an inch of mixed ice on the leading edges. I looked at the altimeter and noticed that I had let the aircraft drift almost 400 feet below minimums. I immediately called the missed approach, got out of the ice, and climbed to VFR. I told the controller I wanted a heading into the sun for at least 20 minutes to let the ice sublimate off the airframe. Fortunately, the temperature at 6,500 feet was 37 degrees Fahrenheit and I had plenty of fuel remaining. As I leveled off I began thinking about the few options I had left. Meanwhile, the controller stripped the frequency of all other aircraft as he undoubtedly heard the pitch of my voice rise. He and I discussed fuel remaining, weather at surrounding airports, and recent pilot reports. Thankfully, I had topped off the 88-gallon extended-range tanks of the Cessna prior to departure, which gave me time to think, although at this point my mouth felt like the Sahara Desert. Of all the surrounding airports, the weather at Felts Field was still the best.

Normally controllers want to know of a pilot's intentions. This was the first time that a controller had ever given me an option. He offered the localizer-only ILS approach back into Felts. My decreasing mental capacity at this point did not initially allow me to understand his suggestion. I had become so stressed that flying the ILS to localizer minimums had never occurred to me. I explained to the controller that I had no IFR DME on board. The DME is necessary to fly this localized approach since the step-down points are identified by DME fixes, not marker beacons. My only DME information came from a "VFR only" GPS unit. He explained that he would stay on frequency with me throughout the approach, give me the DME fixes based on his radar, and clear me to land. I decided that this was my best option, and my wife later said that she suddenly noticed a sense of relief in my disposition as I was satisfied that I had made the best decision I could make.

We turned away from the sun with approximately three-sixteenths of an inch of ice remaining on the leading edges and headed for the approach. We stayed high as long as possible to minimize the potential for icing. Once on course, I never let that localizer needle vary from center as we descended through the overcast. Surprisingly, there was no icing during this approach, and we popped out about 200 feet above localizer minimums. The approach strobes were a beautiful sight and after all my blunders of the day I managed to grease the landing.

I remain tremendously humbled and take many lessons from my experience that day.

  • Be proactive in times of emergency or high stress. Tell controllers what you want. No one understands your situation better than you.
  • Approach and center controllers can be extremely helpful in times of crisis.
  • A published ILS/DME approach means you need an ILS and a DME. In this situation the DME fixes act like marker beacons that allow you to cross-check your glideslope at certain distances from the airport. Additionally, without an IFR DME, I was unable to fly the localized ILS.
  • Ice can form at temperatures above freezing.
  • Plan on equipment failures.
  • Always have an out. Flying around feeling stuck on top of a cloud layer was a very frustrating experience. I was instrument-rated and felt like I was running out of options because of icing weather.

I want to thank the people at Spokane Approach Control for keeping a level head when I wasn't able to. Whenever I tell fellow pilots about the events of last December, I always try to convey the lessons I learned. I see it as doing my penance.

Timothy Lewis, AOPA 1056701, has logged 360 hours total time and is a private pilot with an instrument rating.

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Posted Wednesday, November 05, 2003 11:03:38 AM