I had obtained my private certificate when I was 17 but had taken a hiatus from aviation to complete college. I entered the Air Force through the ROTC scholarship program and was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, for technical training. Keesler Air Force Base has a very nice aero club and I decided that its selection of Cessna 152 and 172 aircraft offered me the perfect chance to get back into flying.
Upon arriving at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, I found an equally intriguing machine, a Piper Lance. I was checked out in the airplane in a total of five flights and about six hours of flight time. I accumulated 40 hours in the Lance without incident, and once again hung up my flying ambitions as my new wife and I focused on settling down.
Another seven years passed. I joined a local flying club and spent 10 hours with an instructor knocking the rust off and learning to fly the club's Piper Arrow, as well as meeting the insurance requirements. Then came the opportunity to fly to Tucson, Arizona, from Omaha, via Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I would pick up my sister and brother-in-law. With one daughter, a pregnant wife, and two more passengers, this mission required a bigger airplane. A quick refresher and checkout in the club's Lance had us on our way. Although my flight log had numerous long cross-country trips, this particular trip generated three out of four of my personal "Never Again" incidents.
The first leg of the journey had us flying from Omaha to Colorado Springs, with the last half of the flight after dark. I had all the airport information printed and stacked on my kneeboard, along with flight plans and other material covering the entire trip.
As we approached City of Colorado Springs Municipal, about 20 miles out, I began to descend to position myself for a smooth entry to the traffic pattern. Colorado Springs sits at 6,187 feet msl. Well, Albuquerque, which was part of the second leg of my trip, is nearly 1,000 feet lower. Unfortunately, Albuquerque was stacked under Colorado Springs on my kneeboard and as I flipped through my charts, I stopped at the wrong one. Since the name was covered by the clip, I didn't notice my error until it was almost too late.
As I calculated the descent, I was thinking, "We're at 8,500 feet and we need to descend to (let's see...) 6,300 feet to enter the pattern." While I descended through 6,500 feet, that little voice inside got louder. So, I stopped our descent and leveled off as I began to assess the situation. The city lights up ahead were too high on the horizon and the angle too flat for me to be at the right altitude. As I began to check the chart a third time, my wife grabbed my arm and drew my attention to the lights on an outbuilding of a rapidly approaching ranch. The lights couldn't have been more than 50 feet below us. I mashed the prop forward, applied full throttle, and began climbing for all I was worth. At about 8,000 feet, I decided it was safe to level off again and pulled the charts off the kneeboard to discover I had been looking at Albuquerque. I put the Colorado Springs chart on top of the kneeboard and contacted the tower.
My first instructor was adamant about always leaning the engine during runup when over 3,000-feet field elevation or density altitude. This item was set aside because about 75 percent of my total time had been spent on the coast and in the flatland.
The one thing the charts don't always highlight is the importance of leaning the mixture, though it's often on there in fine print. I knew the airplane was heavy and that I'd never flown it this heavy before. On takeoff, it seemed a bit sluggish, as I expected. But the airspeed came up, I had 25 degrees of flaps, and the numbers worked, so I continued.
As I lumbered off the runway with the mixture full rich, my mind began working overtime. We were barely climbing, no longer in ground effect, but the end of the runway was too close to abort. I raised the gear and flaps. Tower cleared me over to departure and I was still less than 200 feet off the ground.
I began to review the preflight, the runup, the takeoff roll...wait — the runup! A quick leaning of the mixture, and there came the 300 horses I've become accustomed to in this airplane. Thankfully, it was a cool day and the density altitude was not a significant factor.
As we proceeded south of Pueblo, Colorado, clouds ahead looked mighty ominous. I decided to bounce my concerns off the controller who was handling me under VFR flight following. He agreed that I probably didn't want to continue my present flight plan under VFR. He suggested a western route over the pass that I had evaluated earlier. I agreed and he gave me a vector to intercept the radial to the new VOR.
The base of the pass was over 9,000 feet and there were mountain peaks higher than 13,000 feet. We climbed to 12,500 as we entered the pass. The northern edge of the winter storm over the Rockies was beginning to intrude into our flight path. Visibility began to diminish, but it was still at least five miles. I could make out the horizon ahead and still had legal VFR conditions. I noticed a runway, and with a quick check of the chart, we identified the airport. I elected to fly past it and got myself into a situation that had a very high probability of disaster.
About 20 miles past the airport, as conditions continued to get worse, I discovered that what I thought was the horizon was a darker band of clouds. I couldn't descend, I knew there were rocks in those clouds off to both sides, and climb performance was in the toilet.
The windscreen went white. We cleared the cloud, but I still couldn't see out the windscreen. I realized we had picked up a coating of ice that was too thick to see through, and my heart skipped a beat. I forced myself to switch to the instruments and then gave a quick glance to the leading edge. I saw a half-inch of jagged ice protruding from the wing. Almost sick with anxiety and noticing that my passengers now suspected something was wrong, I asked them to keep an eye out for an airport and informed them that we would be looking to get out of this weather.
I called the controller currently handling my flight. I admitted that I was VFR between layers and had picked up some ice. I practically begged for help, but he confirmed my suspicions — his equipment couldn't help and no one else had been foolish enough to try this route yet today, so there were no pireps. He cleared me off frequency to talk with flight service. A review of the charts along with my recollection of the weather maps told me there should be clear air to the northwest and no mountain peaks in that direction. It was a gamble, but there were definitely ice-laden clouds behind us, more clouds in front of us, and I knew that another encounter like the previous one could leave the wings incapable of generating lift.
I could see light through the clouds above, but I knew ice was worst at the tops and I would have to climb through it to get there. Making a gentle turn to the north seemed to be a better option than trying to climb out of 12,500 feet to wherever that occasional ray of sunlight was coming from.
Having made that decision, changing course, and then trying to find the frequency for flight service, I entered another cloud. I was squinting to make out the horizon around the ice when I noticed a change in wind noise. I switched to the instruments and saw an increasing left bank approaching 30 degrees and a descent rate of nearly 200 feet per minute. I corrected the situation, resumed a northerly heading, and regained my altitude on instruments.
Then the most glorious sight of my life appeared in front of us as we broke out of the cloud into severe clear. We were out of the clouds, but now I could see the ice, now about an inch thick, maybe more, on the leading edge and I was amazed we were still flying. My rear-facing passenger confirmed that the stabilator was just as bad, if not worse. The controls were mushy and I couldn't see through the windscreen, but suddenly there was hope.
Since the radio was still on a center frequency, I checked back in, and the controller hesitantly asked about our status. I exuberantly reported we were in the clear. We resumed our course, skirting the northern edge of the clouds, and continued our flight toward Phoenix. The ice began to evaporate and blow off the wings. Eventually I could see through the windscreen again, and by the time we got to the nearest airport, it appeared not only safe but also prudent to continue the flight. It was obvious we were flying an experimental aircraft. With the ice-modified leading edges, our true airspeed was 170 knots, and I really didn't want to find out what my stall speed was while trying to land. By the time we got to Phoenix the ice was gone. We continued on and landed in Tucson safe and sound.
Prior to this encounter, I had found it difficult to understand how pilots could unwittingly fly VFR into instrument meteorological conditions, but now I get it. When you're near clouds in reduced visibility, sometimes closer ones blend in with farther ones and you can't see boundaries at all. The better choice would have been to stay on the ground that day.
Michael Stone, AOPA 1590614, is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and a captain in the U.S. Air Force.
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