I is for Icing

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Yes, Mom. This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Today’s post is a cautionary tale, so Mom, you may want to skip this one and just pretend that “icing” refers to the pink stuff on your granddaughter’s favorite cupcakes.

Back in the days of flying freight in a small, twin-engine, propeller-driven aircraft, the company would occasionally have “interns” – usually low time pilots – who would accompany the regular line pilots on their routes to gain experience. I initially welcomed one such pilot to join me on my routes because I had thought that if I could share my workload, I would have less to do.

I was wrong.

I essentially became a flight instructor all over again. My new student was a nice enough person, but he lacked initiative and on one cloudy, cold, miserable night, he tried to kill me.

We were flying from Milwaukee up to Green Bay. The clouds were thick and low, and we had no choice but to travel through them. It was his turn to fly, so I monitored the flight’s progress and communicated with Air Traffic Control.

We were perhaps halfway to our destination when I noted that we were beginning to pick up some ice on our wings. Although this isn’t a critical situation – our aircraft was equipped with rubber “boots” on the leading edge of the wings and tail for the purpose of removing ice in flight – it is certainly a situation that warrants attention. Something that he wasn’t doing in the slightest – he was reading a book.

When I mentioned that we were picking up ice, he casually flipped the switch to activate the boots and returned to his book without so much as a glance out the window.

“That’s it?” I asked, incredulous. “Shouldn’t we think about doing anything else to complete this flight safely?”

“Like what?” he asked, nose still buried in the paperback as the rate of ice accumulation increased.

This is the point where I lost my temper. I immediately asked the controller for a higher altitude where it should be colder and less conducive to icing. Then, I informed him that we would have to come back down through the icing on our approach, which meant we needed to pay attention and fly at a higher than normal speed to avoid stalling, crashing, and subsequently dying. Finally, we would have to make sure the plane was free of ice before we could depart again, which could prove to be an problem since there was no one on the field at that time of night to provide deicing services.

“Can’t we call dispatch for help?” he asked, his attitude (finally!) a little less complacent.

“What are they going to do? We’re on our own out here. You know, if you’re not paying attention and thinking about what’s going to happen next, especially in less than ideal conditions, an airplane – any airplane – will bite you in the ass in a heartbeat.”

I flew the approach, and when we landed, we had quite a bit of accumulation on our leading edges. Thankfully, the boots took care of most of it and I removed everything else by hand prior to departure. We climbed straight up through the icing layer and remained virtually ice free all the way back to Milwaukee.

I hope he learned a valuable lesson. There’s usually a whole chain of little things that lead up to an accident, and all it takes is one broken link to avoid it.

Pay attention.

7 thoughts on “I is for Icing

    • TotallyTawn says:

      It certainly can be. It can also be nothing more than a link in the accident chain, as shown by the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo. Ice may not have been the primary cause of that incident, but it was definitely a contributing factor.

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