The Cirrus SR20 pilot was in no mood to argue about whether an IFR clearance had or hadn’t been issued. With ice accreting, and the aircraft no longer able to climb, and peaks of the Sierras nearby, all the pilot wanted was escape.
The scary scenario had developed out of all good intentions. After a VFR departure from California’s Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, the flight encountered reduced visibility in haze. “While in the climb I asked controller for a pop-up clearance. She asked what I meant. I stated that visibility was limited and I need to get an IFR clearance to get on top of or at least between layers. She then told me that would be approved and issued the clearance on V165,” the pilot wrote at the beginning of a narrative filed with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, NASA’s no-fault venue for revealing safety issues within the air traffic system.
Moderate icing began after the Cirrus entered instrument meteorological conditions in an area with a 16,000-foot minimum vectoring altitude. “I stated that I was in IMC and needed lower. She responded by telling me I not was supposed to be in IMC and that I had not been cleared to do so. She also continued to lecture me about what and how she had cleared me. I responded stating something to the effect that I don't really care at the moment, what I really wanted was to stay alive and that meant that I needed out of the ice now,” the pilot reported.
The flight was cleared back to Fresno, and soon broke into the clear. The pilot credited the Oakland Center controller with issuing a terrain-avoidance vector, and reported no further discussion of whether the flight had entered IMC prematurely.
Was this an emergency? Wanting to “stay alive” seems to qualify. But no emergency was declared, an omission that left the controller unaware of the situation’s urgency—a scenario addressed in the FAA’s October 2015 update of an advisory circular, Pilot Guide: Flight in Icing Conditions.
Citing studies of accidents and incidents involving icing and clearance deviations, the AC notes that “a number of pilots expected an immediate response from ATC when they reported difficulties after encountering ice and expected a blanket clearance to escape icing without first declaring a state of emergency. In many cases, such assumptions proved to be not only false, but fatal.”