It was many years ago and I had recently earned my instrument rating. I was one of those fortunate individuals who breezed right through instrument training. However, that experience birthed in me a dangerous overconfidence that almost cost my wife and me our lives.
Our planned trip was from Punxsutawney, Pa., to our home in Columbus, Ohio, in our flying club’s Piper Cherokee 180. The Cherokee was a reliable and sturdy older bird, but it had no glide slope, DME, or autopilot. The forecast was a typical winter scenario with clouds and possible snow. I don’t remember if icing was mentioned, but looking back, it’s likely it was included as in most winter briefings. Perhaps I just didn’t want to hear that part of the forecast. Our Columbus destination was to be well above IFR minimums at the time of our arrival, so that clinched my decision to go. The last half of our trip would be at night, but so what? After all, an airplane doesn’t know whether it’s night or day. Just make sure you keep the needles where they should be, right?
When I leveled off in the clouds at my filed altitude of 8,000 feet, I could see small patches of blue above the tops. Somewhere in my memory bank I seemed to recall someone saying that icing is usually worse near the tops, but I quickly dismissed the thought because there was no sign of ice. I wanted to log some IFR time, so I decided to stay just below the top of the cloud deck (dumb decision).
Night came with a surprisingly smooth ride in solid IFR. Akron Tracon was working us through their area, and I was thinking about our arrival in Columbus when suddenly the airspeed indicator died. I had a quick discussion with myself and decided the airplane was still flying even though the gauge said I was moving at zero miles per hour. The pitot heat was on but apparently inoperative. Had I checked the pitot heat during the preflight? (Obviously no—big mistake.)
Fortunately, the only thing I had done right so far was not to panic. Shining my flashlight on the leading edge of the wing, I saw the problem—a heavy coating of clear ice! Wow, where did that come from? I immediately informed Akron that I needed to get my airplane on the ground—now! Their report of current conditions included a 700 foot ceiling and “blowing snow” (translation: snowstorm). Although I didn’t declare an emergency (another dumb decision), the approach controller knew from the sound of my voice that I was in big trouble. He informed me they would light up the inactive Runway 01 at Akron-Canton because it was the closest approach. He then began giving me vectors to intercept the ILS localizer, but his transmissions were starting to break up, apparently because of ice on my communications radio antenna. During this time I continued descending with almost full power.
The MDA for that runway was 386 agl, but what kind of visibility would I have in that snowstorm. Needless to say, the pucker factor was increasing rapidly. By this time I could understand only a few words from the controller. Wait! Did I hear a heading to intercept the localizer? That was the last transmission I heard from Akron, but I turned to the heading, hoping against hope that I heard correctly. My wife told me later that she was praying hard through all this. She has no pilot training and never expressed interest in getting involved, but she knew we were in trouble.
With full power and no airspeed indicator and wondering if we were going to fall out of the sky at any moment, I stared at the localizer needle that stubbornly remained at full deflection. Was it frozen, too, or had I misunderstood the intercept heading? There was no outer marker or compass locater for that approach, so I had no idea how far I was from the approach end of the runway. (This was in the ancient days before GPS.)
I had no other option now except to continue on the same heading. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I almost shouted with relief as I saw the localizer needle begin to move. Descending at 500 fpm, I knew that a missed approach was not an option. The possibility of a stall would be reduced if I maintained a constant no-flaps descent instead of the recommended quick loss of altitude and then leveling off at the MDA. That was one of the few good decisions I made during the entire flight.
How close was I to stalling? Who knows? I certainly didn’t know because I was now an unwilling test pilot with a dead airspeed indicator and a heavy coating of ice. Finally, those beautiful approach lights came into view. I maintained full power until only a few feet above the snow covered runway, but it was a long runway and required no braking. When we finally stopped rolling, and my hands quit shaking, I turned to my wife and said, “I think we’ve had enough flying for today, what do you think?” There was no humor in her response.
Reflecting on the whole experience, I realized that I was a very fortunate pilot who made several bad decisions and dumb mistakes that could have brought our flight to a tragic end. I learned that instrument proficiency involves far more than just keeping the needles in their right places. In the following years, the importance of making right decisions carried this better educated pilot through several hundred hours of flying on the gages. I had to learn the hard way, and I wouldn’t recommend that kind of classroom to anyone.
Robert I. Parry, (AOPA 00593083) is an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 2,300 flying hours. He lives in Lewis Center, Ohio.