Never Again Online: Tomahawked by ice

January 1, 2002

I knew that I was in big trouble when the aircraft flew differently than it ever had. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I was an instructor at one of three flight schools at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. The recession of the 1990s was in full swing by the winter of 1992, and I had been employed as an instructor for four months. I had three full-time students, and my paychecks averaged $80 every two weeks. I was married with a 5-year-old daughter, and I held down a part-time job on most nights to help pay the bills.

The day of the incident, I had just dropped off my wife and daughter. Because of poor weather, I had already canceled my VFR flights, and I had heard about a possible rescue mission to pick up two Piper Tomahawks that were used for traffic reporting. The pay I was getting was low, but a little pay is better than none, so I offered to help.

I informed the pilot who was trying to retrieve these two stranded Tomahawks that it was practically IFR. We needed to fly the localizer-only portion of the ILS 9R approach with our no-DME, VOR-equipped Tomahawk back into Flying Cloud after picking up the aircraft at Minneapolis' Crystal Airport. He told me that all we needed to do was have the controller call out the initial approach fix for us. I was aware of his personal stake in getting the airplanes back to Flying Cloud, since he was one of the pilots who had diverted into Crystal Airport because of IFR weather that morning. The flight school management was not happy that traffic reporting would not occur during the following morning's rush hour.

I knew that the weather could support ice formation in the clouds, yet I would not agree to conduct the flight below the ceiling, since I was not familiar with the topography along the route. But after looking over the weather at Crystal, the other pilot was convinced that I should follow him under the clouds toward Flying Cloud — there had been a report of icing in the clouds almost directly along our route. So I reluctantly agreed to follow him under the clouds, and we started preflighting.

I was leery of following another airplane underneath a ceiling of 1,500 feet agl, but the other pilot got out of the chocks quickly and was airborne before I got to the end of the runway. After takeoff, I could not find the other aircraft, and after getting into the clouds soon after takeoff I decided to get a clearance for an IFR flight to Flying Cloud, usually about a 25-minute flight. Everything was uneventful until I heard the ice beginning to form on the aircraft. I chewed my gum fast and tried to determine how far I had to go. That was a difficult task with no DME, but the controller said I was almost halfway there. I climbed and pressed on. The carb heat and the defroster were on full tilt. The power started to drop steadily, so I went to full throttle, and that seemed to solve the problem.

I received a vector to the final approach course and was able to hold the localizer fairly well, but I was having trouble holding altitude. The controller asked me to report my altitude, and I simply switched off the transponder's altitude reporting mode. This made him scream the question at me a second time, because it looked like I might be low. I switched the altitude mode back on. I think the controller may have thought that I had crashed, and he was angry because he had reluctantly agreed to call out the IAF for me.

At about this time, the aircraft began to fly strangely. I was more concerned with airspeed than altitude at this point. When I lowered the nose slightly to gain airspeed, the aircraft began vibrating. So I raised the nose to its original position and felt trapped between a stall and this unexplained vibration. Seven years and 2,000 hours as a charter pilot later, I realized that I had experienced a sequence of tail-plane stalls on that flight as a result of ice collecting on the Tomahawk's tail.

I broke out at about 1,500 feet agl. Not only was the aircraft behaving erratically, but the windshield was completely iced over. I had to yaw the aircraft in order to see the runway. I knew that there was no way I could land this aircraft practically blind. As luck would have it, the ice began to melt and slowly I was able to see. I frantically searched for the runway, and after what seemed like an eternity it came into view. I came in fast to avoid stalling. I figured that if the aircraft was reasonably stable at 100 knots in cruise, it would be OK on final at that airspeed. The thought crossed my mind that I would have to use the entire 4,000-foot runway.

The runway was very slick and after touchdown at mid-field I tried to use aerodynamic braking as much as possible. However, it became clear that I was not slowing down well at all. I had to slam on the brakes, and I decided to try and turn the aircraft toward the last taxiway. This ploy worked, and I turned the corner at high speed under moderate control.

What I had just done could have been the opening paragraph of an accident report. "Tail-plane stall — aircraft iced over — fast airspeed on final — aircraft not equipped for IFR!" It took me years to overcome this flight experience and the stinging fact that everyone at the flight school eventually learned how severely the Tomahawk was covered with ice.

I should have known better, and I paid the price. The relationship I had with the flight school dissolved the next day, and on more than one occasion over the next several years I was reminded of this embarrassing incident. I have always felt that I came closer to crashing that day than any other.


Cal Harris works for a major airline and is a part-time flight instructor with more than 3,500 hours accumulated in 10 years of flying.


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