March 25, 2013
My encounter began one March morning in western Pennsylvania. I was a Part 135 pilot in a PA-32 and PA-34 and that morning I was to fly to DET to pick up cargo in the '6' and return to AFJ. I had talked my buddy into going along (hate flying alone), and assured him that it would be a short day. If only I knew!
Departure was for 0600 so the alarm was for 0430. A sleepy (maybe bored) briefer informed me that a low was passing thru northern PA, to look for IFR conditions, with possible icing in precip (typical winter briefing). Didn't sound like anything I hadn't encountered in all of my 2000 hours of flying. My first clue was the quarter- inch of ice on my car as I stepped on to the driveway, slipped and spilled my 1st cup of coffee. It was a bad omen. The highway to the airport was treacherous, and I wondered if they had done anything with the runway.
To my amazement the temperature at the airport was 36 degrees Fahrenheit and no ice! Obviously an inversion was lurking somewhere, so my case for ice was a weak one in trying to convince the owner that flying the '6' was not a good Idea. Still, that little voice that we all have back there said "take the Seneca", which had no boots but had a windshield hot plate and hot props. He relented finally at my insistence. I remarked to my friend, I think I won that battle, but lost the war! Checking one last time with FSS, there were no pilot reports of icing, keeping in mind this was at 0530, but there were heavy snow showers along my route, AFJ to AKR to DET. I filed for 4000 feet, thinking that if I did get into trouble, I could always return to AFJ, visibility was 6 miles with overcast at 1500ft. So away we went, climbing into the inversion at 2000 ft and I was feeling better already!
The outside air temp. was 38 degrees Fahrenheit. PIT approach had us on radar, but held us at 3000 ft for inbound traffic, and told us to expect higher soon. I rodgered that, and suddenly it was like we flew into a sea of cotton! The ice began to attach itself to the Seneca at a rate that I had never seen before. I flipped on the prop ice and windshield, and heard the ice banging off the ice plates up front. I called PIT and told them we were in ice and need up immediately, but I got the old "standby." I waited what seemed like an hour (probably was 3-4 minutes). He eventually said climb to 4000 feet. As I got to 4k, we were still putting on an alarming amount of ice, I asked for 6000 ASAP. He came right back with this request with no delay. With max power and only 2 onboard, the Seneca at Vy would only hold at 4500 ft. I told my buddy "this ain't good." I knew we needed an airport now! I made my urgent call to PIT, and he cleared me present position direct PIT, stating we were 35 miles west.
As I started to bank to the new heading, the Seneca shuddered and fluttered, I recognized a wing stall, so I told the controller I could not make PIT. Then the dreaded, "what are your intentions?" I told him I was at full power and descending. At once he came back and said I show you 18 miles out directly on the ILS 1 of CAK, would you like that approach?" I did not have much of a choice! We switched to CAK approach and the controller comes back with, "CAK is indefinite 100' ceiling vis 1/8 mile in heavy snow, what is your status? I said we have no choice but to land. He then cleared us to land. The Seneca was coming down the glideslope "locked on" 500 feet per min. with full power, no gear or flaps! Just as we got to the outer marker the controller states "we just came up to a mile!" "Caution, snow has only been removed from half of the runway." You are cleared to land."
There it was! Those beautiful lead in lights! At the last possible moment, I dropped the gear, the Seneca stalled on to the runway, however one wheel caught the unplowed part, and we were suddenly sideways! We came to a stop looking east, but unscathed. We taxied into McKinley Air and shut down. We sat for a moment, didn't say much, then got out to look at the airframe. A mechanic came out of the building with his mouth open, and stated, "I have never seen this much ice on anything and I've been in the business 20 years!" His co-worker came out and remarked, "How did this plane get here?" The mechanic said, "These guys just flew in!" "That plane could never fly like that!" his co-worker blustered. To attempt to describe the amount of ice may sound like a "fish story," but the wing leading edges "cupped" 14 inches from edge to edge, halos on the spinners were 12 inches in diameter, the ADF antennae was as large around as a baseball, the nose was still carrying 6 inches. All this ice and it had only been 30 minutes from take off! I was only airborne 10 minutes when the ice overcame the airframe to the point that it was an emergency. Needless to say I have a tremendous respect for potential icing conditions to this day. And still get that "ole chill down my spine" when I hear "severe ice".
Pilot Safety and Skills
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Doing your part to stay safe and proficient includes knowing the first steps of your emergency checklists. Learn from a retired F-15 pilot how to study emergency procedures the Air Force way.
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