Phoenix, AZ to Santa Monica, CA

Saturday, April 11

It was great to wake up and know that we would be home that day. I looked at the weather and showed Dexter that if we had stayed in Albuquerque we would still be stuck there, because there was currently a thunderstorm circling the town. He said he knew Albuquerque was a place to get stuck.

I filed an IFR flight plan and studied the freezing levels, ceilings, and radar maps for our route of flight. It was drizzling off and on. The radar showed arms of rain that were sweeping through the Phoenix area. We had a quick breakfast downstairs at the hotel and headed to the airport.

[Part of our Spring Break 2009 Trip.]

I debated having the FBO pull the plane into the hangar to load us up. In the end I figured that we were going to be in the plane for at least two hours and we would dry out just fine. Dexter was cheerful and helpful.

(When I picked up my instrument clearance from the controller at Deer Valley he read me a latitude and longitude as part of the clearance. That was a first. There are so many intersections in the sky now that I was very surprised they couldn’t give me one of those.)

The last leg (via SkyVector)

The last leg (via SkyVector)

There is a flight training school at Deer Valley which trains primarily foreign nationals. It’s call Trans Pac and there is a lot of Engrish spoken in the pattern. That makes it harder on the controllers, since they already have to work a little harder with a student (the student is more likely to make a mistake, things need to be explained with a little slower delivery to begin with), which makes the controllers a little snippy. They were snippy with me, but it was hard to dent my good mood. Dexter looked so please to be making it home on the schedule we had made the night before we left St. Louis. He had a blanket tucked around him in the back seat and was watching the rain on the window.

It was bad weather in the Phoenix basin again, and as I mentioned before, they are not really used to it. So they had a bunch of larger planes from Southwest and other airlines stacked up in the sky around the city. As I was departing I heard them talking to incoming planes saying things like, “Hold west of KLAATU, two mile legs, expect further clearance in twenty minutes.” And that means that the airline pilots have to tell their passengers that they won’t be landing at the appointed time, and they didn’t even really know when they would be landing. (There is a new ATC system that is meant to keep this from happening, the computers aren’t meant to let the flight take off unless you have a slot to land at the airport you are headed to, but it’s not a perfect system, and if the weather deteriorates suddenly at your destination everyone is flying in circles for a while. Not circles literally, it’s more a rectangle with rounded corners.)

My concern wasn’t visibility, we were inside a cloud fairly quickly, it was temperature. Little planes don’t typically have any protection from the accumulation of ice. So if you fly into rain, or even a thick cloud, the moisture will freeze on the outside surfaces of the plane. How much will that affect the flying of the plane? Well, there was a recently crash in Buffalo of a much larger plane with de-icing equipment and it looks like it was taken down by ice. The charter jet that killed some of the Ebersol family was unable to take off in part because there were icing issues. I have had one small encounter with icing before, and since then I’ve seen a streak or two of ice on the wings, but I am extremely careful about it. NASA says that even a coating of frost on the wings (something you would accumulate on the ground) can destroy a third of the lift that the wings generate.

So I am cautious. One reason we delayed our departure from New York is that the freezing level was lower than the tops of the hills we would need to fly over to get to our first stop. So if we needed to go up into the clouds they would have been below freezing. We waited a day.

As we climbed up to six thousand feet leaving Phoenix the OAT (Outside Air Temperature) dropped to thirty-six degrees. I told the controller that I couldn’t climb any higher until we were free of the clouds. He said he would need to have me climb higher a little further along the route, otherwise he couldn’t see me on the radar. I said we could drop out of the clouds further on and just go VFR in the rain until we were clear, but we couldn’t climb up to where the temperature was below freezing. Fortunately, he seemed to figure it out and vectored us to a slightly different route where we got out of the clouds sooner.

Soon we were up in the blue sky again, in the blazing sun. Dexter said, “I like when we are above the overcast.” We had talked about that before, that as we sail over the clouds we know that on the ground people are sad that it is a cloudy day; we are up in the sun.

We leveled out at ten thousand feet and buzzed along toward the coast of California. As we closed in on Blythe the clouds thinned out below us and we were over the desert again. We could see the mountains and hills of the Joshua Tree National Monument (a great national park) to our right and the flat desert which leads to Mexico and the Sea of Cortez to our left. Up ahead was a towering cloud. That was a little strange, since it wasn’t on the forecast I read a few hours before, but it looked like I could skirt it to the south. I told ATC I would be deviating for a build up and they said to just report back when I was direct Blythe again.

Blythe is a tiny town out in the desert, about midway between Phoenix and Palm Springs. There’s nothing there. There is a VOR (a navigational radio aid) and a little airport, but it’s really just a plotting point on your course.

We brushed the cloud as I tried to veer around it to the south. Flying around clouds in the sky is a little like exploring canyons, hills and plains on the ground. You don’t really know what you are going to find around the next corner. (Adam and I had a great time the summer we flew East together, dodging around clouds and figuring out their shapes from the shadows we saw on the ground.) My assumption that I could scoot a little to the south and climb a little bit to avoid the cloud was wrong. The forecast had missed this cloud, but it was huge. Foop. We flew right into it, mid-turn and climbing.

Well, there’s no danger in a cloud. Being in the clouds is what I trained for. And it’s not like there was precipitation showing on the XM NextRad picture. I leveled out and continued my climb. The gray overhead got a little lighter, which made me think we were only a couple hundred feet below the top of the cloud. There was a hissing noise inside this cloud. After two or three minutes in the cloud I glanced at my wing and saw clear ice building up along the leading edge. It was less than a sixteenth of an inch thick, a band an inch wide and ran the length of the wing. There was nothing on the windshield and it didn’t run back along the wing surface, but it had formed quickly.

I hopped on the radio right away. “One romeo delta is picking up ice. We need to descend to eight thousand feet.” ATC said they had opposite direction traffic, a King Air, at nine thousand feet and I would have two wait three minutes for them to pass by me. It had been cold in the plane even in the sun, so Dexter had passed me a blanket. I had that along my left side and up over my shoulder, to keep the slight draft and cold air from the canopy off of me. It was twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit outside. I was sweating like it was July on the beach. I tossed the blanket on the other seat. “One romeo delta, we could take a turn to the south or a turn back east, anything to get lower right away.” The controller was prompt, but explained that the fastest way down was to continue on course. Anything else and the King Air would take longer to pass me and I couldn’t descend until it was clear.

I hit the timer on the PFD. I checked the ice on the wing. It was now nearly two inches wide and a sixteenth of an inch thick. The hissing noise continued and, in my mind, it was microscopic water droplets which were painting themselves onto my below-freezing plane. I looked back at the timer: four seconds had passed.

What kills pilots of little planes (and their hapless passengers) is often an unwillingness to act. When you train, especially when you are instrument training, you learn to always have a Plan B. A way out. The back door. Flying into a cloud, your back door is usually, immediately, a hundred eighty degree turn. That means you are no longer in the cloud. Once you have been in the cloud a couple minutes there might be better options. Descending to warmer air, as long as you know there is warmer air below you, is a good one. That was my plan, but I was being held in stasis, just watching the ice spread a little wider on the leading edge, while another (larger, faster, twin engine charter) plane flew under me. The timer said fifteen seconds had passed.

I glanced back at Dexter. He smiled. I thought of all the trust he and my other passengers put in me ever time they climbed into the plane. I knew that if the timer said three minutes or if the ice showed up anywhere but the leading edge before three minutes I would declare an emergency and begin a descent. I could drop two thousand feet a minute without difficulty and I knew there was warmed (and cloud free) air below me. I had some good outs.

Ice would take the plane down by increasing the weight we were carrying, but we were missing two passengers and baggage, so that would be a while. Or by increasing the drag on the plane to slow it down below a speed it could fly, which was why I was watching the airspeed like a hawk. Or by destroying the wings’ ability to generate lift be changing its shape. The last one we knew the least about. NASA has done a whole bunch of studies (and continues to do more) about icing on airplanes. They have concluded that it is very hard to predict. Whatever the ice did to the wing, more speed would be a fine answer, which just mean pointing the nose of the plane toward the ground. A minute in and I had a few good choices, a very careful eye on the leading edge of my wing and constant observation of the airspeed indicator.

It was a sweaty ninety seconds after that (so before the promised three minutes were up) that the controller said, “One romeo delta, you are cleared to descend.” The ice was just a shade over a sixteenth of an inch. The band was probably two and a half inches wrapped over the edge of the wing. We were tooling along at one hundred thirty knots true airspeed and I pushed the stick forward. (I had already taken it off the autopilot, because you can feel a stall coming but the autopilot can’t.) The hissing continued outside, but in just a minute were had dropped out of the heavy cloud and into a space between layers. It was twenty-eight degrees out there. I continued down through eight thousand, telling the controller were were still in icing conditions. At seven thousand feet we dove out of the lowest cloud into clear, warm air. We were rocketing along at  a hundred eighty knots. The clouds just above were a blur and the airframe hummed with the thick air it tore through. Our throttle was pulled back a bit, so as I leveled out the airspeed bled off. Soon we were back to a hundred twenty-five knots, and I checked back in. “One romeo delta is level at six thousand, free of clouds. The outside air is thirty-six degrees fahrenheit and we are still carrying a little clear ice.”

The rest of the trip was, comparatively, uneventful. After being low for a bit near Blythe, we eventually started a slow climb back up. We flew over Palm Springs at ten thousand feet and even climbed to twelve thousand to go through the Banning Pass. Dexter got a good look at Lake Arrowhead. On our descent into Santa Monica we did refuse to continue our descent at one point because it would have put us back in the clouds. It made me feel better that there was a Cirrus coming the other way that refused to climb UP through the same clouds, telling the controller, “Unable to climb, it is thirty degrees here, so too cold for us to enter the clouds above.”

At eleven thirty in the morning we rolled onto runway two-one at Santa Monica, returning after a little more than forty hours of flying. We would have made it in time for Rudy’s event, but it would have made him anxious, and it was great to have a long flight with Dexter.

On our next adventure we hope to shoot some video.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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