29 December 1983

Flying Popsicle

Liz and I were going to fly a Cessna 172RG from Dayton to Newport News, Virginia. We were going to meet Mom and Dad, my sister, Carol and her husband Bert. It was a beautiful winter day in Ohio. The temperature was 5 degrees, skies were clear. At Newport News it was 1500 overcast, three miles visibility, rain, and 40o. In my flight-planning process I realized that somewhere in that light I would have to fly through clouds between 20 degrees and 32 degrees. These were prime clouds to pick up ice. Since it was 40 degrees at Newport News, any ice on the airplane would melt off when I got close to the ground. At 4:00 in the afternoon we took off from Dayton. The first two hours were uneventful, and then it became dark. Several layers of clouds started to appear. The temperature rose to about 20 degrees and we started flying in and out of clouds. We were picking up only traces of ice, so I pressed on. Over the city of Richmond, there was a big hole in the clouds. I could look down and see the city and the airport. But Newport News was only 50 miles away, so we kept flying. I flew a routine ILS approach toward Newport News and broke out of the clouds about 1600 feet above the ground. Out my left window I saw houses, roads and headlights. I then looked straight ahead and I saw nothing. I thought, "How could this be?" Then I shined my flashlight on the leading edge of the wings, and into the windshield. The wings had half an inch of ice, and the windshield had a quarter-inch. It was rime ice, the kind you would find inside an old freezer that was not frost-free. I still thought the ice would probably melt once I descended another thousand feet, because it was now 38o at the airport. At 400 feet above the runway, the ice was still on the windshield and on the wings. I made a decision to climb back up and think about what I was going to do next. Our climb rate was only 400 feet per minute. With over three hours of fuel gone and with only two passengers, the plane should have climbed at least 1200 feet per minute. The ice definitely had an effect on the airplane's performance, but at least it could still climb. When I called the missed approach, the control tower asked why. I just replied, "Windshield icing." There was a short pause, then the tower asked that infamous question, "What are your intentions?" With less than two hours of fuel left, there was no way I could fly far enough south to get to warmer weather. Plus I would have to climb back through the ice-laden clouds. The ice was on the airplane to stay. I had no option, I had to land at this airport. The tower asked if I wanted to do the visual or repeat the instrument approach. I elected to do the visual approach since I knew the clouds were at least 1600 feet off the ground. I flew a very wide traffic pattern and set up an approach at a 45o angle to the extended runway centerline. That way I could see the runway lights and the airport out my side window. Liz knew we definitely had problems, but at the time she had no idea how serious they really were. When she asked, "What can I do to help?" I gave her the job of reading the altimeter as we descended toward the runway. When I was within 100 feet of the runway surface and at the runway threshold, I turned the airplane to the runway heading. At 100 knots, I flew the airplane onto the runway. It bounced a couple of times, and then started streaking down the runway 40 knots faster than normal landing speed. My only reference to keeping the airplane on the runway was watching the left runway edge lights go zipping by. If they were getting closer, I added a little bit of right rudder. If they were getting farther away, I added left rudder. That worked pretty well until the airplane slowed down and the lights became fewer and farther between. Finally as the airplane almost came to a complete stop, the left wheel fell off the runway edge. I quickly kicked the right rudder and the airplane came to rest on the runway surface. My short and to the point prayers had been answered. We were on the ground and we were safe. I felt an odd mixture of relief, pride and humility. A few seconds later the tower nonchalantly broke in and said, "Take the next taxiway to the ramp." I looked out my left window and saw the taxiway. Once I had turned left, I could not see ahead because the windshield was still iced over. So I called the tower back and asked them, "Where is general aviation?" They hesitantly replied, "Sir, it's directly in front of you." I craned my head out my opened door and saw a very large red neon sign that said 'General Aviation.' I kept my head hanging outside the door so I could see directly ahead of the airplane. I spotted the lineman with the flashlight wands directing me where to park. When I got close enough for the lineman to see the airplane, his jaw dropped. He froze for a second as he looked at the airplane. Immediately after I had shut the engine down, the lineman walked up me and said, "You must be a damn good pilot to have landed this airplane." I said something like, "I must be a really bad pilot to get into this mess." An official from the control tower came down to look at the airplane. He gazed at it for a few seconds, shook his head, and just walked away. I never heard anything from the FAA about the incident. Dad looked at the airplane and said, "Son, that looks like an awful lot of ice on that airplane." The plane looked like a flying popsicle. There was at least half an inch of ice on every leading surface of the plane. There was about a quarter inch of ice on the windshield. I then retold the entire story to Dad and Bert. I also gave them a brief description of all the potential problems that ice can create. Besides the obvious problems of added weight and vision obstruction, icing changes the shape of the wings and the tail so that the flying characteristics may radically change. Stall speed invariably increases. If one approaches this new stall speed while flying on final approach, one wing may stall before the other. The wing that is still flying will rise, and the stalled wing will fall. That makes the airplane corkscrew straight into the ground, resulting in an outcome that is 100% fatal. I was aware of this stall-spin danger, and I wanted to avoid becoming one of those statistics. That is why I kept the airspeed very high all the way to the runway. By the time we had arrived at the Officers' Club, the entire story had been completed. Liz finally realized the danger we were in. Once it had time to sink in, she fainted. We laid her down, and in a short time she awakened, but she was never quite the same the rest of the evening. Once I had put ice on the airplane, I had to do everything exactly right in order to land the airplane. There was little margin for error. Looking back on this episode I should have seen it coming. It was becoming dark, and the temperatures had nowhere to go but down. Though the temperature was reported to be 38 degrees at Newport News, it was in reality 33 degrees. The weather report was an hour old. Given the potential for icing and near freezing temperatures at the surface, obviously I should have landed at Richmond, Virginia, when I had the chance. Since then I have canceled several flights where my destination was going to be near freezing, with potential icing en route or on the approach. This episode was my inspiration to buy a Turbo 210 with deicing equipment four years later. This was the only time in my flying career that I think I was in serious danger.

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