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Most Recent

The Ice Man Cometh

October 26, 2020

As the time nears for the US to set it's collective clocks back to standard time, the country's pilot's who fly in the upper three quarters of the US should be converting from a summer to a winter mindset. Those who ply the winter skies know that engine preheats, numbing preflights, done while skidding around the airplane on a slippery ramp, and boosting recalcitrant engines, will be facts of flight during this season.



While for the last several years my winters have been thankfully spent where ice is something you make sure you have plenty of before a party, I have enough memories of my frigid flying days to last a lifetime. Strangely, out of the many winter flying hours spent on instruments in cloud, my recollections of winter flying that I would classify as unpleasant almost all took place on the ground, or in the very early stages of flight, before entering IMC.

The winter's ice and snow covering the ramp makes every step a potential fall and makes moving an aircraft by hand an opportunity for a YouTube video. I can't count the number of times I have ended up on my back or worse, on my back under the airplane I was attempting to pull with a tow bar.

I have always hated cold weather. The very act of having to bundle up like Ralphie in 'The Christmas Story' irritates me before I ever get out the door. I resent the fuss and bother of multiple layers restricting my movements and the aggravation of actually putting on all the various items that are supposed to keep you warm, seems worse to me than being cold, at least while I'm still inside and warm. As a consequence, I don't wear enough and I am usually cold all winter, and when I'm cold I'm grumpy.

But there is also the ice that waits in the sky and this ice can be way more dangerous than a fall on a slippery ramp. It starts as a faint line on the leading edge of your wing that you notice in the dim gloom of the gray that surrounds you, forming it seems out of nothing and growing by the minute, sometimes by the second.

General aviation aircraft are at most, equipped to safely experience airframe icing only long enough to get out of it. Even with the Known Icing options, most aircraft cannot sustain even moderate icing indefinitely. The five years that I spent as a Multiengine Demonstration Pilot for Cessna, based in the Northeast allowed me to experience plenty of airframe icing. Winter didn't slow the requests for demo flights nor the necessary traveling of my territory, and about the only cancellations I made were when the destination airport had closed because of snow accumulation or by going below minimums.

Flying the well equipped, (for the time) Known Icing Approved airplanes allowed me to dabble cautiously in the ice, seeking altitudes and locations where the accumulation would stop or slow to acceptable levels, and in those five years and hundred of hours of winter flying, I don't remember an occasion of high pucker factor.

I do remember one January approach at Portland Maine, when the icing was reported as severe, but the cloud deck was relatively low. I decided that with the deicing going I could safely make the approach for the short time I would be getting ice. It worked out well, but I remember being unable to open the cabin door of the 421, until the ground crew came and chipped me out. Over three inches of ice projected from the spinners of the airplane.

On another winter flight, I was flying a 414 from Morristown, NJ to Latrobe, PA, when the right engine began to lose oil pressure. As usual, flying the pressurized twins had allowed me to be on top of the clouds, and when the pressure left the green I decided to shut the engine down to avoid damage and land at Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. With the engine caged, I entered the clouds at seven thousand feet and immediately started gathering ice. The approach and landing went fine, but I still remember the unusual sight of the feathered prop blades growing crowns of ice.

As I said, the two times that ice really got my attention (code for scared me silly) didn't involve accumulating ice in flight, but was caused by ice on the airframe that was there when the flight began. I know, I know, you don't leave the ground with ice on the airframe, but I was young and had only READ this, not experienced it. I have found there is a great void of understanding be-tween the two, especially for young heroes.

I was flying an early high-gear 182, in fact one of the very first, when Cessna simply moved the main gear back on a 180, added a nose wheel and voila, created the 182. I had accumulated maybe 500 hours, had a Commerical license, but no instrument rating and of all things, pos-sessed a Part 135 certificate that said I could take people's money for flying them places, as long as the sun was shining.

My charter customer, who was also one of my flying students (great lesson for my student here) was scheduled for an evening meeting in the little midwestern town, so we arrived late the pre-ceding afternoon and stayed over.

The early spring temperature was freezing when we arrived at the airport about 7 AM the next morning and the airplane had a layer of frost on the upper surfaces. I knew enough to remove the frost, but it had rained the night before and droplets of water were also adhered to the wings and tail. We easily removed the frost by sawing a rope across the surfaces, but the frozen droplets were unmoved.

Long story short, I flew anyway and scared myself into the following week. By the hardest efforts of both the airplane and I, we managed to struggle back to the runway we had just departed. Lesson learned; do not fly if there is ANYTHING adhering to your aircraft. And I never did again, at least not knowingly, and yes there is one more story about ice here.

Fast forward to a winter morning when I was working for Cessna. I had just preflighted the 340 I was taking that day and was removing the previous night's inch or so of slushy snow from the wings of the airplane. The temperature had risen above freezing so just one push on the snow at the leading edge of the wing would send that section of snow sliding off the trailing edge like an avalanche. Clearing the wings was short work, but the tail on the 340 sits high and proud and without a ladder I could only reach the front foot or so of the top of the horizontal stabilizer. But, I thought, since the snow was melting, the air from the props on takeoff would make short work of the slush on the tail, wouldn't it?

It was an assumption that almost killed me. It turned out that there was a 3 or 4 degree difference in temperature from the low area where the FBO sat, and the end of runway 18. The slush did not slide, it refroze.

I have never flown anything that wanted to remain on the ground as badly as that airplane did. Disbelief stayed me from aborting when I should have, and finally it was fly or die at the end of the runway. The airplane left the ground at 120 knots and started a grudging 200 fpm climb while feeling laterally as though it was balanced on a beach ball. When the airspeed reached 125 I retracted the gear, hoping that it didn't upset the fragile aeronautical balance I had. The airplane didn't fly any worse, and once clean, the rate of climb grew to 500 fpm. I gave my Creator thanks that this would not be the day that I would die, and promised myself then and there that I would never again take an airplane into the air without being positive it was squeaky clean.

Almost forty years later, I've never broken that promise.




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Steve Weaver Aircraft Sales - Route 3 Box 696 - Phillipi, West Virginia - Phone 304-457-4523 - Fax 304-457-4799 A picturesque bed and breakfast located on the Tygart River in the scenic hills of West Virginia.

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