Twenty-Eight Degrees

There's an old saying in aviation: “It's better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than to be flying, wishing you were on the ground.”

There are dozens of aphorisms that get passed from instructor to student through the decades. If I had to pick just one to pass on to the students I hope to one day instruct, I think this would be it. It is a beautifully pure distillation of the philosophy behind aeronautical decision-making. It is also frighteningly true.

For about thirty seconds around Hour 288, my mind was flooded with a thousand competing thoughts. I was frightened---more frightened than I'd been in my life. I was flying blind, deaf, and mute. I had a critical decision to make and only seconds to make it. Quickly weighing my options, with survival seemingly in the balance, a quiet voice reminded me that, at that moment, I was flying while desperately wishing I was on the ground. It's a voice I hope never to hear again.

* * *

Hour 282

By the spring of 2005, I had settled into a great new job in Seattle. One of its many benefits was the travel: they'd pay for me to attend conferences all over the world once or twice a year. That spring I planned to attend conference in Los Angeles. Not exactly the most exotic locale, I'd be able to fly there myself!

South of Seattle and through most of Oregon, pilots enjoy the long, flat Willamette Valley, where the easy terrain makes for easy flying. California's Central Valley is similarly tame. Things get interesting in between. For over a hundred miles, the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges dominate the border between California and Oregon. The craggy terrain juts impressively up past 14,000 feet at the peak of Mt. Shasta. I'd crossed this range on a couple of previous trips. The views were breathtaking.

Pilots of single-engine airplanes are usually leery of mountainous terrain because the options for emergency landings are limited. On the morning of my trip, I checked the weather and discovered I had much more serious concern. Multiple layers of clouds were pervasive along the entire coast, ruling out a flight by visual flight rules. The aviation weather service had also issued a warning for in-air icing above 6,000' along the entire west coast. The airways that traverse the Siskiyous were covered by this warning and require an altitude of 10 or 11,000' feet, well into the danger zone.

Ice is a grave threat to small airplanes. Once it accumulates on the wings, two bad things happen. The first is that ice adds weight. The extra baggage can keep the plane from climbing, and may even put it past its rated weight limit if the plane was heavily loaded from the start. Second, more insidiously, a layer of ice changes the shape of the wing, converting a surface that had been precisely engineered to generate the most lift into a random shape that doesn't work nearly as well. In some cases, the engine's air intake can also ice over, starving the cylinders of oxygen. The combination of these factors can be deadly: just as the pilot needs extra performance to escape the icing conditions, the plane both has less performance to give and more weight to carry.

That morning, clouds were layered all the way up to 20,000 feet, meaning a climb above the weather wasn't an option; my normally aspirated engine strains just to reach 12,000' on a warm day. I decided I had just two options. The first was to make the trip along the coast where I could stay lower, in warmer air. It meant doing a six-and-a-half hour trip in eight hours, but I wasn't in a hurry. The second option was to abandon the idea of flying myself and buy a ticket on a cushy commercial jet instead. 737s, after all, come with turbofan engines that can easily power the craft above the weather, anti-icing systems to protect the wings on the way up, and free peanuts.

I called the aviation weather service on the phone. When the weather is poor, I feel safer getting a human's opinion rather than just looking at a computer printout.

Yeah, I definitely wouldn't try to go over the mountains,” the briefer told me. “But your coastal plan should work. Freezing levels are forecast to remain at 6,000' through Washington and Oregon.” Steering around the mountains along the coast, I'd be able to fly low enough to stay just under the freezing level.

Satisfied the trip would be safe, I filed a flight plan to my fuel stop in the coastal town of Fortuna, California. Most of the trip was uneventful, peacefully flying in between layers of stratus. The temperature stayed a couple of degrees above freezing. Reaching the California coast, a broken layer of clouds had formed beneath me. I descended into it on the instrument approach into Fortuna. While enveloped in the mist I looked out the side window and realized a thin layer of ice had formed on the leading edge of the wing. It was the first time I'd ever seen ice on the plane.

Before taking off, I'd re-read a brochure on in-flight icing. “If ice forms, take immediate action,” it had intoned. “If you wait too long, it may be too late! Ice can form quickly!”

My heart started to pound. But after a few moments of thought, I reasoned that the situation was probably well under control: I was already descending towards warmer air. The ice on the wing was minimal and not visibly growing. I could already see the ground below so I knew I'd be out of the clouds in less than a minute. There was more than 4,000 feet between the clouds and the ground. I decided to just continue in the descent. As expected, I quickly popped out the bottom of the clouds. The ice melted completely away before I even reached the ground.

That's how you do this, I thought to myself as I taxied to the fuel pumps. I was proud that I'd made a series of decisions stretching back to the morning that had gotten me this far safely. I couldn't help but smile.

I refueled the plane, stretched my legs, and grabbed some snacks from a vending machine. Then I dialed the aviation pre-flight briefing service to get an update on the weather before launching again. I did not hear what I expected.

You're flying down the coast?” the briefer asked, with alarm in his voice. “There's strong westerly flow bringing very moist, unstable air in off the ocean. There's an AIRMET for icing above 6,000 feet extending inland about twenty miles. Areas of low ceilings throughout your route of flight; VFR not recommended.” He continued like this, making it sound like flying down the coast was certain death. “I'd head inland where it's warmer and dryer,” he said. “Flying down the Central Valley looks like a better option.”

Well, sure. If I were in the Central Valley, I'm sure flying down it would be just dandy. But I wasn't. I was on the coast, and some rugged peaks of the Siskiyous still stood in between.

Look, uh...” I began, trying to keep from sounding frustrated. “I called a briefer this morning and he said going over the mountains was a terrible idea compared to going over the coast. But from what you're telling me, the coast is a bad idea. Have conditions changed since this morning, or...”

Well, the mountains aren't a good bet, but the Valley is looking great. I don't know any Cardinals rated for flight in known icing, you know.”

Cute. “But I'm not in the Valley. I have to cross the mountains to get there.”

True, but if you can find a way to reach it, the Valley should be safe. I think it's a safer option than the coast.”

Okay,” I said, looking at my charts. “Well, let me file a flight plan on Victor 195 to Red Bluff.” That airway would take me over about 40 miles of high terrain, ending in the warm, wide-open Valley: Nirvana. I decided I'd try it, at least. If things looked bad once I got in the air, I could always turn back, try to stay low along the coast, or even spend the night in Fortuna to wait for better weather. I thought back to Steve, the flight instructor I'd met at Hour 236 in Holbrook, Arizona, who had coached me past the thunderstorms that had stranded me there. “You can always poke your head in there and turn back if you don't like it,” he'd said of the dark clouds. Would the same advice hold here, I wondered?
* * *

Hour 287

I launched into the cloudy skies, apprehensive. At about 6,000', I briefly climbed through the same layer of clouds I'd descended through before landing. This time no ice accumulated: a good sign. But the higher I climbed, the colder the air, and the larger the threat grew.

Normally, eastbound flights are at odd-numbered thousands---7,000', 9,000', 11,000', and so on. The altitude required to cross the mountains on that particular airway was 9,400', but I didn't want to climb all the way to 11,000. Lower air is warmer air.

Oakland Center, Cardinal 97H...” I transmitted, talking to the controller for that region. “Can we stay at 9,400' on this segment?”

Cardinal 97H, affirmative, maintain 9,400.”

I was in clear air, but clouds surrounded me above and below, left and right. I'd lost sight of the ground. Fifteen minutes later, as my chart told me I was crossing the higher terrain, I approached a cloud bank dead ahead at my altitude. It towered high above me---I probably wouldn't be on top of it, even if I had climbed to 11,000'. The bank extended as far as I could see to the left and right. Entering clouds seemed inevitable.

I checked the thermometer. Twenty-eight degrees.

If there's ice, do a 180,” I said out loud to reinforce it in my brain. “You'll do a 180. If there's ice just turn around and go back. Just do a 180. Don't be a hero, just do a 180.” I hoped that saying it would make it easier to do it.

I penetrated the cloud and held my breath with one eye on the wing. It seemed clear, until thirty seconds later---

bang bang bang bang

A hard shower of hail hit the windscreen. The sound was deafening and terrifying.

The racket stopped after about ten seconds. There was now a thin layer of ice on the wing's leading edge which had been clear moments earlier. I can't believe this is actually happening, I thought. It was time to execute my plan to turn back, just as I'd said I would, just as I'd promised myself, just as my instructors would all insist I do.

I keyed the microphone: “Oakland Center, Cardinal 97H needs an immediate 180 degree turn!”


The response was shrill static. Somewhere deep in the noise, barely perceptible, I heard what sounded like a human voice, far too quiet to understand. I began to panic.

It's the ice, I realized. Water attenuates certain radio frequencies. Maybe the plane's antenna had frozen over. Or maybe the ice in the cloud was dense enough to be blocking the signal. Either way, I couldn't hear the controller, and it seemed likely he couldn't hear me. A lump formed in my throat. I had never felt quite so alone.

For a few moments, I was stunned: the situation seemed unreal. After a few long seconds, I gathered my wits enough to start reviewing my options:

One was to just turn the plane around in the blind, without the controller's clearance. Nothing was visible out the window but the solid white interior of a cloud. I knew from my chart I could turn around without hitting terrain, but with no visual references and no radio contact with air traffic control, I couldn't be sure I wouldn't run into another plane. I tried to weigh the very real danger of ice with what I judged to be a tiny chance of hitting someone else: I was in a fairly remote patch of airspace and, in the past twenty minutes, hadn't heard any other aircraft on the frequency that were nearby. But there was no way to know for sure. Assuming ATC was still reading my transponder, I could set it to 7600---the special code that indicates I'd lost communication.

Another option was to grab my handheld radio from my flight bag and try to contact Oakland Center again. If problem was an iced-over antenna, my little radio might fare better. But it was tiny and only reliably transmitted a couple of dozen miles---fine for talking to a nearby control tower, but who knows how far Oakland Center's radio receiver was? And in fumbling around with this radio, I might just be wasting precious time. Every moment that slipped by was a moment I was penetrating deeper into the cloud. Should I turn back before things get worse?

I tried the aircraft's radio again: “Oakland Center, Cardinal 97H is turning back!” I shouted into my headset. Again I heard nothing but static.

bang bang bang bang – The hail started again, harder and louder than before, then stopped. The wing's leading edge was now coated with about a quarter-inch of ice. It had accumulated almost instantly. My heart was beating its way out of my chest, my ears heavy with the sound of pumping blood and my stomach a tight knot. I felt ill, in mortal terror.

Could I even turn back now? I knew there were at least two areas of heavy icing behind me, and turning around would guarantee that I'd go through both of them again. But what other option did I have? Ahead of me might be a dozen more areas of icing. Turning back would at least return me to the safety of lower terrain.

I longed to be on the ground. Why, I mused, had I even started flight lessons in the first place? Maybe Mom was right after all.

One thing was certain: I had to take action immediately. Self-flagellation and regret would have to wait. I started to turn the plane around when I saw the most improbable and beautiful sight I could imagine: a trace of blue sky directly above me.

A moment later I emerged from the cloud. My radio immediately crackled to life: “...Seven Hotel, did you say you want a 10 degree turn?”

Standby!” I shouted. I was in clear air, but it wouldn't last. Another cloud bank was dead ahead; I'd reach it in less than a minute. I estimated it was only one or two thousand feet thick. Could I climb above it? It would be risky: with all the ice on the plane, the climb performance would be poor, plus I might be badly misjudging the height of the cloud. But would a climb be safer than turning back into the ice that I knew was surely behind me? I had to pick one immediately.

97H would like a climb to one-one, eleven thousand,” I said.

Cardinal 97H, climb approved,” came the immediate reply. I screwed the propeller's pitch knob all the way in and pulled gently on the yoke until the plane slowed to its best-climb speed. I watched, barely breathing, as the cloud got both larger and lower in the windscreen: which would win? The plane came though for me, just barely grazing the cloud bank as I climbed above it.

The victory was short-lived. A few minutes later, the lumpy cloud tops continued to rise with the terrain, forcing me yet higher, to 13,000'---the highest I'd ever flown. At this altitude, bottled oxygen is required after thirty minutes. I had none, and tried hyperventilating to keep my blood oxygen high.

I continued at 13,000', occasionally turning left or right to avoid the occasional cloud that was higher and stay in clear air. The worst seemed to be over. I was still highly stressed, but seeing sunlight and taking heavy breaths, my panic subsided. I flew on, checking the GPS incessantly, willing it forward, trying to stay focused as it counted down the distance left until the safety of the valley.

Twenty minutes passed. Each one felt like an hour.

At last, I reached the promised land; the mountains and solid undercast gave way to a thin broken layer of clouds with beautifully flat ground visible far, far below. I asked for and received a descent to 7,000'. My blood pressure began to return to normal as I flew down the valley. The temperature climbed to 35 degrees and over the next ninety minutes, the ice melted away slowly, almost reluctantly, until it was gone.

* * *

When you start flying, you get two bags,” my instructor Gary told me once. “You get a bag full of luck, and an empty bag for experience. The trick is to fill your bag of experience before your bag of luck runs out.”

I certainly learned my lesson about ice. A backup plan is vital, and in a small airplane, a descent is usually the best backup plan. Tangling with ice when there's no way to descend is a really bad idea.

Encountering ice during a slow climb over flat terrain is usually pretty gentle: small traces appear slowly, giving the pilot time to react and descend again. But, as I later read, mountain ice is a different beast. The protruding terrain can abruptly force an air mass upward thousands of feet, causing moist air to be suddenly super-cooled, just waiting for a trigger---such as an airplane---on which to quickly turn to ice. This can be deadly.

By the end of the day, my bag of luck was lighter, but my bag of experience had grown, too. I just hoped it was growing fast enough.


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  10. Reading it felt like I was also out there flying a real fighting plane. Thanks for writing this, my childhood dream was to fly one.

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