Every flight in the life of a pilot is a unique one and almost all of them are special in their own sense. Here is an account of a pilot about his least favourite flight!!
The pilot, Paul, recalls the flight he took on a beautiful February day. He asked his buddy Shaun to join him. They made all the right decisions during the flight, except one – taking off!!
That time of the year brings in some rain or a few storms in San Diego. Paul was not able to fly for nearly a week. The weather cleared a day before his talk in Las Vegas.
It takes him roughly 80 minutes to fly in his Van’s RV-7. The weather looked VFR as the pilot checked his iPad, and he cross checked with the Flight Service as he moved to the airport.
It was planned to be a quick visit to Vegas, a short presentation and fly straight back to home. The pilot gave 10,500 feet as the highest altitude and a total time of six hours. No adverse weather conditions were confirmed by the Flight Service.
They had a wonderful outbound flight, and after the lecture, Paul returned immediately to his airplane. Night was sinking in, so he decided to file an IFR flight plan for flight back to San Diego.
RV-7 was a homebuilt experimental aircraft. It doesn’t boast of the latest technology, but has a nicely fitted Dynon glass panel. By the time Paul departed it was already pitch black.
Mountains on all side, in the middle of the desert, Paul and Shaun were flying at 10,000 feet. Paul was scanning the instruments just like they are supposed to be. Then, Shaun pointed out to Paul that they are in clouds.
They had flown only for 20 minutes and it was forecasted to be VFR conditions. Paul murmured, it is good that he filed IFR.
Just after couple of minutes, Shaun said it is raining. Shaun took the flashlight and scanned the wings surface and replied back that they have got ice on the wings.
The leading edge of wings was covered with nearly half-inch of gritty-looking white foamy stuff. It’s been four years since Paul started flying and has 1,600 hours of flying experience.
For the first time he felt terror. He passionately responded, they have got to do something.
His first response was to climb down, and ATC cleared him for 9,000 feet. The Outside Air Temperature was around 1 degree. They decided to go down to 8,000 feet.
The OAT was still 31 degrees, so they asked ATC to go down further, but were denied. The minimum altitude for their airway was 8,000 altitude.
Paul and Shaun were forced to evaluate the options available to them. They were nearly halfway to San Diego. They can cancel IFR and move down 1,500 feet, which will be enough to get rid of ice.
They are flying in the middle of desert, it is completely dark outside, and there is terrain on all sides and there is ice on the wings, will it be right to cancel the IFR.
Within the blink of an eye, he ruled out that option.
Paul asked ATC clearance for immediate 180 degree and he got it. They had been flying in icing conditions for only about 5 minutes. It all likelihood they will return back to clear skies in five minutes if they reverse now. It was something they were taught in flight school and was an obvious choice.
ATC asked if the aircraft is equipped with de-icing equipment. Not on this experimental homebuilt RV-7 airplane.
ATC radio back – “Do you want to declare an emergency?”
What will it accomplish? They will not be vectored off the airway and will not go lower. They just wanted to move out the cloud and descend to lower altitude.
Paul made a very slow 180 degree turn. RV-7 is an experimental airplane, but this experimental aircraft is now flown in an experimental manner. He was not sure of its stall speed or any other characteristics with ice on the wings.
Ice had now started to appear on the windshield also. Both Shaun and Paul looked at each other in silence as they flashed light on the wings. They were waiting desperately to clear the mountainous terrain, before they can ask for lower altitude.
The 10 minutes it took them to exit the cloud seemed to last forever. The airplane was now flying in clear skies, but the ice was still there on the wings. Thankfully it was not accumulating anymore.
After repeated negative response, Paul was finally allowed to descend to 7,000 feet. Traces of ice on the windshield had now turned to moisture.
Paul and Shaun decided to make a no-flaps landing or circle the airport so all the ice can melt. To their relief, they finally saw Las Vegas’ lights and were allowed to descend further.
As Paul saw shrouds of ice pushed away from wings and windshield, he started to breathe better again.
The wings of the airplane were completely cleared of ice by the time they turned for final, so they put down the flaps and prepared for a routine landing.
The airport was desolate and dark, but they lived to tell the story to the fuel truck guy. The cowling and the spinner of the airplane still had a quarter inch thick of ice. Paul and Shaun decided to return back to home the next morning.
Analysis of the Flight: Paul had not checked the weather for the return trip. According to him, it was only a day’s flight, however, there was a gap of many hours between the two flights and since the weather was last checked.
Weather is never constant. As per regulation FAR 91.527, a pilot is not supposed to fly in known icing conditions when the aircraft does not have anti-icing equipment.
It is the duty of the pilot to check for icing conditions. As per FAR 91.103, every pilot in commond shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all the available information concerning flight.
They should have started working on a solution as soon as Shaun reported that they are in clouds. Had they turned around immediately, they would have avoided icing conditions altogether or had saved precious few minutes.
Another big mistake was that Paul did not checked the weather on Dynon. Pilots should make it a habit to check weather information that is available from equipment.
Another point to consider here is of declaring emergency during icing conditions. Many pilots who learned about Paul’s incident supports his decision of not declaring emergency. But, this is an error.
Icing conditions can be declared as emergency. ATC might have told for less icing conditions at lower or higher altitudes. They may have been directed towards better weather conditions.
They decided to put the flaps while landing. It was another mistake. When they saw no ice on the wings, they thought that their airplane is safe. But, there was ice on cowling. Possibly, there was ice on tail too.
Paul should be thankful to his friend Shaun who first noticed that they are in clouds and precipitation. Paul, if he had been alone, would not have noticed that anything is wrong, till the airspeed starts to bleed. By that time it would have been too late.
The best part of this flying was that both the pilots did not panicked. They turned on the pitot heat and weighed all the options with calmness.