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March 25, 2013
For a few years I enjoyed the luxury of working for two weeks in Alaska and living the other two weeks of the month with my family in the Rocky Mountains of Northern Utah. I commuted to and from Anchorage by way of Salt Lake City (SLC) on a major airline. The most fun part of my commute was the forty-five minute flight from my home in Logan, Utah to SLC in my Skyhawk 172.
Upon one particular return from Anchorage, I arrived in Salt Lake City at 08:00 to find that the airport was socked in with RVR of 1000 feet or less. I made my way over to the general aviation area, where as usual I met with an instructor-friend who would routinely fly down in my plane to pick me up. My friend had actually flown in to SLC the previous evening to spend the night building some twin-engine time and seeding the clouds over the airport so that they might dump their moisture in the form of snow - the intent being to open the airport.
He greeted me and gave me the grim news that we might just have to drive back up to Logan instead of flying that morning because even the big jets weren't taking off in that low visibility. Although we didn't have the same commercial restrictions keeping us on the ground, for safety reasons we sat tight and continued to get updated weather reports. After a couple of hours it looked like the weather was breaking and it appeared imminent that the heavies were going to be taking off.
My instructor-friend gave me the gist of the weather, and the options. One of those options was that this could be my introduction to IFR training. Sounded like an acceptable plan, and I had been contemplating the IFR rating anyway, so we got our clearance and were first holding short with a clearance to take off.
Although I found myself in the very situation that VFR rated pilots are severely warned to avoid, flying through the clouds was a pretty neat experience for me and it really didn't seem terrifying at all. It was easy because of my confidence in the competence and ability of my instructor.
Heading home and established at our cruise altitude of about 12,000, I remained completely focused on the instruments, not daring to look outside and risk getting disoriented. I noticed that I wasn't able to maintain altitude and my airspeed was down to about 80 knots. I questioned my friend about this and realized that he hadn't been paying close attention, in fact, I realized later he may have experienced a micro-burst of sleep.
He told me to look out the window and see the ice that was building up on my wheel pants. He had really good situational awareness and knew that at this juncture, because of the mountains to our right, we really couldn't cut the corner on our trip to Logan. He called in to SLC Control and informed them of our situation and asked for a lower altitude. We were allowed down as low as 11,000 and although it wasn't much easier to maintain a higher airspeed and altitude, at least things didn't seem to be getting any worse.
We soon made it to our waypoint, made our right turn and it was downhill from there. As we arrived into Cache Valley, Utah the clouds had pretty much cleared and the airport was in sight. Salt Lake Control called us once, and then a second time because my friend apparently had another microburst of sleep. We cancelled our IFR flight plan and carrying a little extra airspeed to compensate for the ice landed uneventfully into Logan.
After we taxied over to tie-down, we checked for any residual ice on the wings. There remained about a sixteenth of an inch of ice. So right there I had one more valuable first hand learning experience. Feeling and touching the ice I learned that this was not rime ice but the slick smooth slippery ice, the kind that accumulates from flying through very wet clouds. I also learned that it doesn't take much to affect the performance of an airplane, but even so, that doesn't necessarily mean that one is doomed to catastrophe.
I also learned that the confidence that newly minted pilots feel, and the degree of confidence those pursuing an IFR ticket feel is directly proportional to the confidence that they have in the skills and expertise of their instructor. In this case I had high self-confidence and a high level of confidence in my friend. What I learned from that experience was that with regard to the piloting skills and dealing with the weather my confidence was well placed. But there are factors that aren't restricted to piloting that I should have picked up on.
The human factor is something that reasonably I could have been expected to recognize as a factor in any activity. It doesn't take a highly skilled pilot to recognize that fatigue can be a factor in any type of safety - driving safety or industrial safety as well as in aviation safety. Because we had a safe outcome and a great learning opportunity, we'd have to say that fatigue wasn't a factor. If however we had an unfortunate event during the flight, then fatigue would certainly have been a factor, and it probably would have gone undiscovered.
This experience was one of the most valuable flight lessons I ever had, and was an incredible laboratory to learn first hand about weather. A positive outcome was never seriously in jeopardy, and it was a magnificent way to learn about flight on the edge of the envelope of my particular airplane.
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