The Iceman Cometh

How I Got My New IFR Ticket Icy

  Sunday, Nov 28 1992

Today my wife and I journeyed from the San Francisco Bay Area to Van Nuys, California (near Los Angeles)  to visit my oldest brother, whom I hadn't seen in almost 10 years.  I had canceled this trip two weeks ago because of horrendously high winds and severe turbulence in Southern California.

DUATS for the past 24 hrs showed a weak system moving in from the Pacific. My  route (OAK-PXN-AVE-FIM-VNY) forecast called for bottoms of 3,000 and tops at 7,000. Freezing level was at 13,000. Conditions were forecast to improve southward. All in all, not a bad forecast. I filed for 7,000, the MEA over the first half of the route. Although I had gotten my IFR ticket wet by flying in and out of Hayward, CA, these were really just brief jousts with our pervasive costal stratus. Therefore, today's trip would be my first experience with sustained en-route IMC.

We launched at 0935 into light rain and fog, and were solidly in the muck at 2500. I was vectored around the Bay for several minutes before being released on my own navigation and turned over to Oakland Center. This added up to about 30 minutes in IMC . This was my wife's first time in IMC and she was already tired of being inside the cotton ball. For her benefit, I asked Center if he knew where the tops were. He gave the old nod-nod-wink-wink reply, "No sir, but 9,000 is available if you want it." My wife held a thumb up in front of my scan, and I accepted 9,000. The cabin started brightening at 7500 and by 8,000 we were on top.

Once on top I tidy up: lean carefully, trim,  turn off aux pump, strobes, pitot heat,  etc.  After a few minutes I noticed that the tops ahead were higher, so I requested and got 11,000. After another five minutes (about 15 nm north of the Pinoche VOR (PXN), I noticed that the tops ahead were again higher. This time, though, instead of a solid ridge of clouds across our path, it looked as if there were a single large cloud whose tops appeared to be about 15,000. The cloud seemed very thin, diaphanous almost, and I fully expected pop through it  in a matter of seconds.

Immediately upon entering this beast, I felt a strong thump and up we went. The airspeed indicator pegged at 2,000 fpm. In a flash we were at 12,200. I reduced power about 300 rpm and pushed the nose down gently; this provided a slight descent. Center now complained about my altitude. I confessed and promised to correct. I heard the airplane about five miles ahead of me (at 13,000) nervously say , "Center, 41-Romeo is picking up ice and losing airspeed; request diversion to the east over lower terrain." Center approved his diversion.

At almost that instant my wife said, "Oh, look at the windshield." It was completely covered and opaque with ice. The tops of the wings are painted white, so it was difficult to see the clear ice, but it in just the right light it was obvious. Then in a matter of  seconds the airspeed indicator went from 125 knots to 0 knots. "Gee, I've read about this before," I thought in a strangely detached way. "This is the way folks die--icing up and stalling from excess weight and no lift." The thought of perishing was short-lived, however, as my survival instincts told me to "work the problem."  This is probably overstating my rational instincts; in fact, two things argued against catastrophe: first, the drop in indicated airspeed had been too precipitous; second, for a stalled airplane, the Tiger was doing a hell of holding altitude.

Just then I remembered that I had earlier switched the pitot heat off when I broke out on top. I switched it back on and went back to my scan. The gentle descent had decayed into level flight at about 12,500. Without an airspeed indicator I didn't dare fight the updraft more rigorously. As quickly as it had departed, the airspeed indicator returned--indicating about 105 knots. Noting that I had lost about 30 knots of airspeed in straight and level, I pulled the power back to the bottom of the green and pointed the nose down another dot. This established a 500 fpm descent.

Although it was reassuring to know that I was still flying, I wanted down--NOW! "Center, 613's picking up ice and requests an immediate descent to 9,000." There was a pause, then, "613, I have your request; descent unavailable at this moment. Expect lower in 6 miles."

Is this what a PIREP means when it refers to "light" icing? Maybe I'm a flying glacier, poised to fall from the sky in the next instant. With zero experience with ice, and in the absence of positive information to the contrary, I decided to assume the worst. "Center, 613 requests vectors to the nearest VFR." I paused, not anxious to cry wolf, then added, "This is an urgent request." I was prepared to used the E-word if necessary, and probably should have. "Roger, 613. Standby." He had been providing VFR advisories to a Cessna 182 about five miles behind me to the west. "613, suggest right turn to 270 and a descent to 7,000." I put in a standard rate turn as soon as I heard the word "right." This was about a 160 degree turn, and it seemed to take forever. I kept the rate of descent at about 500 fpm just in case I was carrying a lot of ice. At 8,500  the ice on the windshield began to break up--but still no VFR. What I heard next--loud thunks from the front of the plane--made me think that the plane was coming apart.  After a few moments, however, I assumed that these must be the sounds of the prop shedding ice against the nose-bowl.

At 8,000 I spotted the ground, applied power, and began a gentle, shallow spiral. What seems to me to be huge sheets of ice began to melt and creep back on each wing. The sound of ice from the prop increased. I informed Center that I'm in VFR and shedding the ice. He asked whether I'd be continuing on my route IFR or VFR. I told him that I'd advise.

After a couple of circles there was no more evidence of ice. I was still VFR, but just ahead lay the cloud bank I had just done battle with. What the hell--I'll proceed on course IFR, but I'll stay low--out of the ice. I apply full power, raise the nose, and am about to key the mike to talk to Center when I notice something odd: although I'm pitched for 90 knots, I'm only climbing at 50 fpm or so; the Tiger usually gives about 400 fpm here. I think about carburetor ice,  but the RPM is normal. Now what?  The performance degradation isn't likely due to a downdraft, so I guess that I might still be carrying ice--a lot of ice--on surfaces I can't see. If so, the last thing I wanted was to re-enter IMC in that condition.

With my my shirt soaked with perspiration, my spectacles fogged, and feeling mentally wrung out, I decided I'd had enough excitement for one day. "Center, 613 will cancel IFR, and request VFR flight following to Van Nuys."

We descended to 5,500--just under the clouds--and proceeded uneventfully to a CAVU Van Nuys. Over the next few minutes the airspeed indication returned to normal.


Joe Campbell