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Weather Article

Weather and Flight Experience

California Icing Encounter

On December 29, 2002, our IFR flight from Bakersfield Meadows (KBFL) to Phoenix Deer Valley Airport (KDVT) started with clearance direct to Palmdale (PMD) and 11,000 feet, then as filed [Soggi intersection, Palms Springs, Thermal (TRM), Blyth (BLH), Buckeye (BXK), Phoenix (PXR) and then home (KDVT)]. Along with me for the flight were my fiancée and her two children. If all went well we would be home by 13:30 MST.

A cold front passed through the Bakersfield area the afternoon and night of December 28. The front was fast moving and passed from north to south. The next morning the sun shone brightly, and the pre-flight weather briefing from FSS confirmed that the cold front moved quickly through southern California and into southwestern Arizona. The enroute weather forecast indicated a low chance of precipitation, brisk westerly winds aloft (30 to 35 knots at 12,000) with the freezing level around 4,000 feet MSL. Surface winds were expected to pick up in the Phoenix area around 14:00 MST with gusts near 30 knots. There were no Pireps related to icing anywhere along the route.

Sky conditions at Bakersfield just prior to our 09:00 PST departure were 4,000 scattered, 8,000 scattered, 10,000 broken. The winds were light and variable. The temperature was about 40 degrees F after an overnight low in the high 20s.

Our Cessna 182 had been hangared so we started with a dry airplane. Just as I finished the preflight a slight drizzle began. By the time we had our clearance the drizzle stopped. We departed RWY 30R on the Meadows One Departure cleared to 8,000 feet and 11,000 feet 10 minutes after departure. Approach quickly cleared us direct to Palmdale and 11,000 feet. As we proceeded south we entered clouds at about 5,000 feet, at which point the temperature was 32 degrees F. At 6,000 feet light rime began to appear on the wing struts and windshield. Ice continued to accumulate as we climbed through 7,500 feet but I could see the sun starting to appear - at this point I thought the worst was behind us. At about 8,000 feet and on top of the clouds, LA Center gave us a vector to avoid descending traffic and amended our altitude to 9,000 feet. The vector sent us back into the clouds and ice continued to accumulate.

I reported our situation to LA Center. The controller asked if I wanted to go higher (still in the clouds) or lower. We were now about 35 - 40 minutes into the flight - I was expecting to break out of the clouds as we approached Palmdale. Not wanting to descend through the clouds (and ice) I asked for higher and was cleared to 11,000 feet. After slowly climbing to 9,500 feet it became apparent we were not going to reach 11,000 feet - full power and a climb attitude was only producing a slight gain in altitude and decreasing indicated airspeed.

Still in the clouds, unable to climb, with a windshield completely iced over and a 10-year old throwing up in the back, I was not having a good day. I advised LA Center that we were unable to climb and that it appeared we were continuing to accumulate ice. I asked for vectors for an approach to the nearest suitable airport. The controller offered a VOR approach to General William J. Fox Field (KWJF) about 5 NM away, cleared me to the minimum vector altitude (6,000 feet) and asked me to advise when I had the approach plate out. Experiencing more than a little stress at this point, I couldn't find the chart (using Jepp charts, I later found that the plate was filed with reference to the community of Lancaster). I told the controller I couldn't find the chart and asked if it was referenced to Palmdale - he simply replied with a negative and asked me to report the field in sight. I advised that I couldn't see forward through the ice-covered windshield and asked for vectors to Victorville (KVCV) - about 30 NM to the southeast to give myself time to get better prepared for an approach and hopefully shed some ice.

About this time we broke out of the clouds and I immediately felt a sense of relief at the warmth of the sun shining through the opaque windshield. Now at about 6,000 feet the temperature was above freezing and with the help of the windshield defroster the ice began to melt away. I did not know how much ice was on the airframe but the airplane was flying about 10 - 15 knots slower than I would have expected - probably due to air intake blockage.

At about 20 NM from Victorville I asked for a visual approach and we were cleared to 4,500 feet. I reported the field in sight at 10 NM and was switched to the Tower. Tower cleared us to land Runway 17 and to report turning right base. As we turned base, ice began to slide off and strike the tail. I assured my fiancée that that was a good thing and there was no need to be concerned. One hour and 15 minutes after departing Bakersfield (about 45-50 minutes in IMC), we landed at Victorville in a 10 to 12 knot crosswind, using no flaps and gently touching down about 10 knots faster than normal.

After clearing the runway and stopping to contact Ground (and God), a chunk of ice fell to the concrete from the left wing strut. Once we parked and got out to take a look, most of the ice was gone. I did find about 1/4 inch of ice still blocking the wing-root vent ports.

Using the telephone at the FBO I contacted FSS, reported our icing experience and asked for a weather briefing for the remainder of the flight. The forecast was for rain in the Palm Springs area and overcast skies at about 8,000 feet. Thermal was also experiencing rain showers. We were happy to spend that night in Victorville and were grateful to enjoy beautiful weather the following day for the completion of our trip.

Since this experience, I have read quite a lot about the dangers of ice and I know I made several mistakes that we fortunately got away with.

  • First, with clouds in our path, a mountain range to clear and a relatively low freezing level - we should have stayed on the ground in Bakersfield and waited for better circumstances.
  • Second, I should have immediately asked for vectors back to Bakersfield at the first sign of ice.
  • Third, I should have asked the controller to amend the vector instructions that sent us back into the clouds (and more ice) once we broke out at 8,000 feet.
  • Fourth, I should have been familiar with all the airports along my intended route.

I'll do things differently next time!

I would like to recommend that ASF's safety advisor "Aircraft Icing" be aggressively distributed to all AOPA membership this time of year. The information contained in this document is very valuable and might help the next pilot make better decisions before and after ice is encountered. Thank you for your excellent work to make general aviation safer.

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Topics: Icing, Safety and Education, Navigation

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