October 1, 2003
I almost killed myself twice in the same night. It all began back in the early winter months of 1985. I had just bought a 1977 J model Mooney 201. I had about 4,800 hours, and had obtained my instrument ticket about a thousand hours earlier. I was engaged in a project in Montreal, Canada, traveling there twice a month from my home in northern Florida. I would depart home on Sunday afternoon and return from Montreal on Friday afternoon. Since I wanted to utilize my new Mooney, I flew myself from Florida to Pittsburgh, which took a little less than five hours, and then continued out of Pittsburgh International Airport to Montreal via commercial carrier.
I had completed this routine several times, and had found that the Mooney could make the trip nonstop with 45 to 60 minutes of reserve fuel, depending on the winds.
That memorable Friday began as usual, with me returning from Montreal to Pittsburgh, heading home after a week of engineering consulting work. I reached Pittsburgh International about 3:30 p.m. on schedule, called the FBO van, and was busy with the preflight and checking weather by 4:30 p.m.
Flight service informed me that there was some significant rain on the most direct route over Tri-Cities in Kingsport, Tennessee, so they recommended that I take a slightly more easterly route down over Roanoke, Virginia, then Augusta, Georgia, to Macon, Georgia, and finally to my home airport in Marianna, Florida. Also, the tops were reported to be around 9,000 feet, so I filed IFR for the suggested route, using 11,000 feet as the requested altitude.
By a little after 5 p.m. I was airborne. I climbed up to 11,000, breaking through the overcast at about 8,000 feet. As I watched the sunset, I was cruising south, heading home after a hard week's work. As I got down over the Appalachian Mountains, the tops rose above my flight level, so I was in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). However, the ride was smooth, and I was IFR qualified...then night fell.
After a while I noticed that it was dark — not just dark, but really dark! I took a flashlight out of the seat pocket and turned it on.
The windshield was coated with a layer of ice!
Next I directed the light onto the wing. There I could see a bar of ice forming on the leading edge, growing as I watched. I realized that the books say that the pilot should climb to warm air above in this situation, but I was already at 11,000 feet, with no oxygen on board. I knew that if I climbed to 13,000 feet and was still in this icing situation I would really be in trouble. Thus, I elected to descend.
I informed Washington Center that I was encountering ice and needed to descend to 7,000 feet at once. They immediately gave me the clearance for this change.
At 7,000 feet I was still in the clouds and had picked up a heavy load of ice. I had the engine firewalled, yet I was able to mush along at only about 100 knots.
After leveling off at 7,000 feet I again scanned the wing with my light. An ugly coating of rime ice covered the entire wing, with the leading edge extended three or four inches by the deadly cargo. And worst of all, I was still collecting ice at an alarming rate.
I felt my pulse throbbing in my temples as I told Washington Center in a trembling voice that I was still in an icing situation and needed to descend to 5,000 feet. They again gave me immediate clearance.
I realized that some of the mountain tops in that area were slightly above 5,000 feet, so I confirmed the altimeter setting and descended down to 5,500 feet, where I was at last clear of the clouds. Luckily I had room to stay above the mountains, and at the same time stay out of the horror that existed above me in the clouds.
For the next hour I continued to mush along, still at near maximum power, barely flying, but elated to be in the air. As I neared the Roanoke area I saw breaks in the overcast, and a beautiful starlit sky above.
I again called Washington Center and requested clearance to climb to 9,000 feet. Once cleared, I found that I was only able to climb at about 40 feet per minute, but finally I got above the clouds into a moonless sky full of twinkling stars.
By the time I reached Augusta I had shucked all of that terrible clinging horror, and the Mooney was again zipping along at normal cruise speed. I wondered if I had enough fuel to make it all the way to Marianna without stopping, as I had done on all of the previous trips.
I realized that one of the golden rules of flying is to never believe fuel gauges and always calculate fuel consumption. However, I knew that the flying conditions that I had endured during the first phase of this flight made it impossible to accurately calculate what the Mooney's consumption had been. I had owned the aircraft for only a few months, and as far as I could tell the gauges had been reasonably accurate.
As I approached Macon, each tank registered one-quarter full. I decided to fly past Macon to Albany, Georgia, about 25 minutes from Macon and 25 minutes from Marianna, on the first tank. I reasoned that if I had not depleted the first tank by the time I got to Albany, then the one-quarter tank on the other side would be enough to get me home. If the first tank ran out before Albany, I would stop there.
At about 15 miles out of Albany I could see the lights of the city with the airport beacon peacefully blinking on the south edge of town.
Then the engine sputtered. I quickly switched to the second tank and the engine resumed its smooth hum. I needed to land at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany and get some fuel.
At this time I was on with Jacksonville Center. They cleared me down to 2,000 feet and switched me to Albany Tower. I was still about 10 miles from town, perhaps 15 miles from the airport. Just as I leveled off and prepared to call the Tower the engine sputtered again.
The second tank was already empty.
From my position away from the airport, and the angle of attack for descent, I could tell that there was no hope of gliding to a safe landing. And even worse, if I came up short I would crash directly into the densest part of town since the glidepath was directly over downtown.
I desperately looked out of the side window toward the east, hoping to see a potential landing site. There was nothing but absolute blackness out there. Instinctively I put the nose down, turned on the boost pump, and switched back to the first tank. The engine caught! Perhaps some of the unusable fuel had run forward.
I told the Tower that I had a critical fuel situation and needed a straight-in approach. They turned up the runway lights and cleared me to land.
As I turned off the active runway onto the taxiway, I was cleared to the FBO — and had made it about halfway there when the engine died. A call on the unicom frequency sent a tug out to tow me in. I stayed at the FBO for almost two hours before I mustered enough courage to climb back in and fly the short leg home.
Usually two or three problems acting in concert conspire to create an accident. That was certainly the case in my two close escapes this night: unexpected icing, a resulting unusual fuel-consumption situation creating a shortage of fuel, inaccurate fuel indicator gauges, and — most of all — bad decision making.
Never again will I fly night IFR in a single-engine airplane. Do not get in the air if icing is even a remote possibility. I constantly watch for ice formation when in clouds and react immediately if any is detected. I also do not fly the Mooney for more than four hours without refueling, even though it will fly for another hour and a half.
Sid Riley, AOPA 80707178, has logged over 10,000 hours in 40 years of flying. He still owns the 1977 Mooney 201, which he has flown over 6,500 hours, and through four engine replacements.
An original "Never Again" story is published each month on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/never_again/).
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