Close Calls is a column detailing the “close call” experiences of fellow pilots. I invite you to contact me at CloseCalls@TheAviators.TV to anonymously share your stories. The experience shared and lessons learned will be of benefit to all readers. Confidentiality will be assured and I will not use your name or aircraft ident without your permission. If your submission is used in Close Calls you’ll receive a copy of “The Aviators: The Complete First Season” on DVD.
Our pilots were on their way to the sun of Florida from the winter chill of Erie, Pa. with plans to stop in western South Carolina for fuel. They had originally hoped to depart before noon but life got in the way so their departure was delayed until closer to 6 p.m. The spring weather hadn’t changed all that much through the afternoon but they’d now be flying most of the trip in the dark of night. Both of our pilots were instrument rated so they filed IFR.
In the left-seat was the owner of the aircraft with a private pilots license and in the right was his friend, an airline pilot. They were expecting some clouds over the mountains of West Virginia but they were to dissipate on the other side of the mountains.
About 90 minutes into the flight while cruising at 8,000 feet they were approaching the cloud cover. The outside air temperature was right around zero degrees Celsius and they didn’t want to fly right into the soup. As happens all to often, there were headwinds present and climbing 2,000 or 4,000 feet would cost them as much as 30 knots of speed. So the question was to climb or to descend?
Our PIC thought that descending to 6,000 feet would take them below the clouds and still provide terrain clearance so he thought a descent to 6,000 feet was the best choice. Our co-pilot went along with the decision.
Thirty minutes later, now well into the dark of night, the view of the ground was becoming occasionally interrupted by wisps of cloud. Our co-pilot increased her diligent look out the window with a flashlight to spot ice. All had been clear until now but each pass through a bit of moisture got her more and more concerned.
The wisps increased in frequency over just the next few minutes and before long they found themselves in instrument conditions. “I think we’re starting to pick up some ice,” noted our co-pilot.
Our PIC replied, “I might be able to get down a little more, but not much. Should we climb through?” Our co-pilot suggested, “Let’s see if we can get back up to 8,000.” So our pilots called for clearance to 8,000 feet and began their climb.
Passing through 7,000 feet, and in what seemed like much thicker soup, our co-pilot sternly advised, “We’re picking it up! I think we should land.” Without pause our PIC called to ATC informing them of the situation asking for vectors to the nearest airport with an approach. Just as quickly, the controller cleared our pilots to 5,000 feet with vectors to Beckley, W. Va.
Our co-pilot kept monitoring the leading edge of the wing as she called up the ILS approach on the iPad. The ice was continuing to build as long as they remained in cloud. Our PIC was working the somewhat tense, unplanned descent and change in direction when before long they were relieved to be free of the clouds.
Our co-pilot briefed the approach while our PIC flew vectors to the ILS. The plane was flying well. Whatever ice they had accumulated wasn’t making any discernible difference, but just in case our PIC thought he’d shoot the approach a little hot and keep the speed up.
He had the crosshairs lined up perfectly with the field now in sight. Our PIC rode the glideslope right down to the threshold. The aircraft roared by the piano keys and the wheels touched the ground. It was only then that the throttle was finally pulled all the way back.
They slowed then turned off the runway and taxied to the quiet ramp. Our PIC thanked his co-pilot for her excellent judgment and help throughout the unscheduled approach. She was almost apologetic but he assured her she had absolutely no reason to be. Landing was the right call. It may have been the only call.
As they exited the aircraft they were greeted by a friendly gentleman from the FBO. They began to more closely examine the build up. The gentleman noted, “Ah, you picked up a little ice.” Our co-pilot then pulled off a foot long, c-shaped slab of ice from the wing root. “Boy, you picked up a lot of ice!” he corrected himself. Our pilots decided that the trip wouldn’t resume until the next morning, weather permitting.
On the way to a nearby hotel our PIC was reflecting about what could have been done differently. He thought that the decision to descend as they were approaching the area of cloud cover left them with fewer options. While the winds might have been worse higher, they might have been able to fly over the entire cloudy area in clear skies rather than ending up sandwiched between the mountains below and the ice-laden cloud deck.
Each choice had pros and cons. And on this night, the cons of the choice to descend won out. But as is the nature of aviation, with every challenge, pilots must come up with yet another solution. For our PIC in this case, with a whole lot of good help from his great friend in the right seat.
Anthony Nalli is the Executive Producer of the hit television series The Aviators (www.TheAviators.TV). Anthony can be reached at CloseCalls@TheAviators.TV. The Aviators can be seen on PBS in the United States, Travel & Escape in Canada, Discovery in Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia, and online on iTunes and Hulu.
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