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The Ice Man

by Michael Lenz
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Editor's Note: The following article is divided into four parts. In the first section, the author interviewed the pilot and recorded his first-person account of an icing encounter that nearly turned fatal. In the second section, he interviewed the Air Traffic personnel involved and presents a behind the scenes look at how they handle this emergency situation. In the third section, an Aviation Safety Counselor reviewed the information and offered his advice to pilots. In the fourth section, the author summarizes the safety messages to help other pilots avoid getting into a similar icing situation.

The Pilot's Account

'Two images will stay with me for the rest of my life,' recalls Heath Wells. 'One is the 'ping' sound of improperly loaded detonators igniting. These detonators were intended to ignite an improvised explosive device that was part of an enemy ambush that occurred while on one of my two combat tours in Iraq. Had they done their job, I wouldn't have experienced the other image.

'That image is of trees suddenly appearing directly out the front window of the rented Skyhawk as I cleared clouds at 1,500 feet above ground level in a 30-40 degree dive. 'This was on the return leg of a Christmas trip on December 26. My passengers were my brother and sister-in-law. We had flown west from the Washington, DC area to spend time with family in St. Louis during the holidays. This was my first trip with my new instrument rating earned on December 21, 2005'five days earlier. I remember the relief at passing the check ride obtaining the IFR rating and thinking now I could complete the Christmas trip without any worries. I was in for a big surprise!

'I had received both a DUATs and Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) briefing on the morning of the return trip from the St. Louis area. There were PIREPs for icing with a cold front oriented north and south in central Pennsylvania. This was expected to move east during the day. We departed from St. Louis' Creve Coeur airport for Columbus, Indiana, and experienced some light icing on climb out, but it sublimated after climbing through about a 1,000-foot cloud layer, and we flew in VFR conditions on top.

'During the fuel stop in Columbus, I checked the weather from the fixed base operator's weather terminal. I expected to be able to continue on top with marginal VFR conditions in the Bedford, Pennsylvania area. We would then make our decision regarding whether or not to continue to our destination of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which would hopefully have seen the cold front pass by then.

'I didn't know the front had stalled, and the clouds and moisture lay right over the area where I was about to attempt an approach into Bedford. I had to keep requesting higher altitudes, from 7,000 to 9,000 feet, as I was approaching Bedford to stay VFR on top. Temperatures at 9,000 feet were slightly below freezing and as I was cleared for the initial approach altitude I hoped to descend into warmer air.

'As I descended, the aircraft accumulated ice in hard IFR conditions. The wing struts were barely visible. As I attempted to level out at the assigned altitude of 4,500 feet, I realized I couldn't hold the altitude and stay above stall speed. I kept descending trying to maintain airspeed, and I was able to maintain about 4,000 feet for a couple minutes as I confessed my situation to the controller.

'Then I watched the attitude and heading indicator spin as the aircraft rolled! I immediately remembered my unusual attitude recovery techniques and reduced power and looked at the turn coordinator to get the aircraft right side up. After breaking out of clouds and seeing the trees, I elected to proceed to Bedford with the help of the aircraft's GPS.

'I declared an emergency'this got me the controller's undivided attention and we were now discussing minimum terrain elevations instead of minimum instrument altitudes.

'I didn't have the luxury of executing an instrument approach now. The aircraft's performance was severely limited and I wasn't sure how much longer I could even continue flying. The airspeed was gone even though the pitot heat had been on. I was limping along in marginal VFR conditions, with turbulence and no airspeed to spare.

'The GPS showed the Somerset Airport about six miles directly behind me, and with my airspeed indicator gone and my altitude and ideas beginning to run out, I figured a landing at Somerset might get this nightmare to end.

'Somerset had snow-covered runways and a crosswind that exceeded my and the aircraft's crosswind capability. I made a low approach, down to about 200 feet and didn't like what I saw. I had the rudder in all the way and was still not able to hold the centerline. Several of the runway edge lights were buried in drifting snow. There was strong turbulence, too. I thought this might be my only option, even if it meant sliding off a slippery runway. The airport looked quiet, almost abandoned, and I wondered if anyone would be available to help us, because I knew some aircraft damage and even injuries might occur on landing. I decided to go-around.

'The controller and I started discussing other options, one of which was Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Johnstown was nearby, but had a very low ceiling and only a half-mile visibility. I asked for 'anything better' when a commuter pilot indicated that Altoona was not bad with good visibility and winds right down the runway. I said, 'I'll take it!'

'This meant limping over a ridgeline where I saw the hills disappear into the clouds. The words of the my IFR designated examiner were echoing in my ears as he pointed out obtaining an instrument rating brought the risk of a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accident. I would have to climb back into the icy clouds to get over the hills.

'As I did, the controller pointed out obstructions relative to my position. The elevations he was reading were close to my altitude. All I could do was press on and hope I cleared the terrain and obstacles. An occasional glimpse of the ground was helpful.

'With the GPS counting down the miles to Altoona, I was within two miles of it and still didn't have it in sight. I was once again trading altitude for speed, listening to the sound of the propeller to judge airspeed. I wondered what was next if I couldn't see it. Did I have any other options? Then, there it was! It was a beautiful sight!

'I completed the landing to runway 30. I didn't extend the flaps thinking I didn't need any more drag. This turned out to be a key to safely completing the flight as I learned later that flap extension could change the airflow over the horizontal stabilizer and elevator and cause them to stall. A stalled tail will cause the aircraft to nose down, with little chance for recovery.

'I learned a lot that day'too much in fact. I'll be a better pilot for it, but I realize there is still much to learn.

'The one thing I know I am never going to do again, at least not without a copilot and known de-icing equipment, is proceed into thickening clouds, when the temps are near freezing. With more experience I would have known the right decision would have been to divert and ponder the weather from the safety of an airport snack bar over hot chocolate.

'I'm still flying, and I enjoy it, but I'm not ready to give my life for it. I hope this is the only time my name appears in the FAA statistics.'

Behind the ATC Scenes

If you even wondered what goes on behind the scenes in such an event, here's a look as told by the people involved.

On duty that day at Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) was Terry Pitts. Terry has 21 years of experience, all at Cleveland ARTCC and all in the geographic airspace known as Area 5, where this event occurred. Area 5 contains four low altitude sectors with a number of non-towered airports with instrument approach procedures. Controllers in Area 5 are experienced at working aircraft all the way to landing. This is probably the exception in many ARTCC's, but it was very valuable in this event.

Terry had worked other icing events before, but none like this. When pilots had requested assistance with ice, Terry's experience had been to get them to improving weather, or even VFR, and they landed uneventfully. Terry recalled one icing encounter, about 15 years ago; that he observed while another controller was working the aircraft. This ended in a fatality to a high-time pilot, the sole occupant. That case involved a piston twin, and Terry watched the sudden loss of control. 'I was amazed at how quickly it happened, and I never forgot it.'

'This case was very different,' Terry reports. 'We had been a bit concerned about the airplane from the beginning as he had difficulty holding altitude'at first going above the assigned altitude. That altitude of 7,000 feet was for separation with arriving Pittsburgh traffic, and there had been reports of turbulence over the ridgelines, so we thought the altitude excursions were linked to updrafts. When the pilot said he needed higher altitudes to stay on top of the clouds and out of ice, I immediately granted his requests'each time having to stop descending traffic to keep them clear of the Cessna. This is opposite the way it should be done. Usually, the potential conflict with a descending aircraft has to be resolved before allowing a climb, in case radio communication would be lost. I thought the chances of that were small, compared to the problems of a Skyhawk accumulating ice.

'Things turned from concern to a full emergency as the Cessna was descended to 4,500 feet, the minimum instrument altitude, and cleared for the GPS Runway 32 approach into Bedford. I knew time was critical when the pilot reported being unable to maintain altitude. 'My ability to help would be based on keeping the aircraft in radar contact. Radar contact is based on line-of-sight coverage between the aircraft and the radar transmitter. In mountainous terrain, it's common to lose coverage at lower altitudes. I tried to get the pilot to climb to the minimum instrument altitude, but that wasn't going to happen and, for the most part, radar contact was lost.'

Terry declared an emergency to his supervisor, Mike Wilson, shortly before the pilot did. Mike, a CFI, joined Terry at the scope. Stacey Parham, the radar associate controller at the position with Terry, also started getting information on weather and conditions at nearby airports.

As the pilot tried to continue under the clouds to his original destination of Bedford, he was near and at times below the minimum elevation figures as shown on the sectional charts. Then when the pilot saw the Somerset airport on his GPS, a landing was attempted there. The crosswind and snow-covered runways precluded this.

Terry watched each update of his radar display for the Skyhawk. An occasional radar position was what Terry needed to keep the pilot advised of terrain and obstacles. Controllers at Cleveland Center have sectional charts above their control positions, and Terry kept referring to the chart for terrain and obstacles. Mike Wilson saw that it was difficult for Terry to keep looking up at the chart mounted above the scope, so he removed a sectional from another display that was not being used and set it in front of Terry.

Other controllers, who were available, were helping out too. The instrument approach charts for the area were being reviewed for minimum safe altitudes. As these controllers learned a key point that could offer assistance, they would quickly write a note and hand it to Terry. Stacey had quickly pulled together the information on weather and conditions at nearby airports and had that ready for Terry also.

After the pilot's unsuccessful attempt to land at Somerset, Terry provided information on Johnstown, which was the closest airport. Weather there consisted of a 300-foot ceiling with only a half-mile visibility. But Johnstown had an airport traffic control tower.

When the Cessna pilot heard a commuter pilot report the conditions at Altoona, which were significantly better than Johnstown, he decided to go for it. There was a ridgeline between the Cessna and Altoona. Now it became a dicey and potentially deadly game, as the Cessna was able to maintain roughly the same altitude as the ridgeline and towers. Terry described the terrain and obstructions based on last known positions from the increasingly scarce radar hits. Without good radar contact, Terry felt somewhat helpless, his eyes riveted on the scope, awaiting the occasional appearance of the Skyhawk. Mike, Stacey, and the other controllers watched intently, providing help where they could.

The pilot finally reported Altoona Airport in sight. They suggested runway 30 would be best for the winds. Then they waited as he attempted the landing. It was a long wait, but finally Altoona AFSS called indicating the pilot, passengers, and aircraft were down and safe.

Terry received an Outstanding Flight Assist award for his work this day. He's also thinking about retiring next year. Before he does, his experience can hopefully be passed along to those who will take his place. Whether you're a pilot or a controller, there is no substitute for experience.

To hear the Pilot/ATC transcripts of this event and learn more, go to

An Aviation Safety Counselor's Review

Walt Echwald is an Aviation Safety Counselor from the Washington Dulles Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), who listened to the ATC communications on this event and also talked with the controllers involved. From his experience, he offers the following observations, which apply to new instrument pilots and all winter operations.

  • The FAA has published some excellent manuals on weather and instrument operations. These are well worth the time to review be-fore the season's change and we shift into winter mode.
  • Always preflight the pitot static heating system before launching. It is a simple thing and pilots should always determine if it's operational. If not, postpone the flight until it's working.
  • Too many pilots rely on ATC to get them out of a bad situation. This pilot should have established two alternates in the event conditions change. They change more in the winter. Knowing this, and how to handle it, is something that comes with experience.
  • The situation he was faced with before takeoff called for a thorough analysis of the weather. Updating the weather from AFSS while en route might have avoided this situation. The pilot could have learned of the conditions well ahead of time and diverted to an airport clear of the icing conditions.
  • As far as I am concerned I would not have flown my airplane (a PA-30 Twin Comanche) in that weather with the risk of icing.
  • The controller did his job well by getting the aircraft down safely in Altoona. But the pilot had limited options at that point and in some respects was along for the ride. Before take-off he should have planned for weather options, so that he would have known where he could go if conditions deteriorated and he had to divert and land.
  • The best advice I could give this gentleman is to find a flight instructor with considerable experience in winter and tight IFR weather. Then fly with him on an actual instrument cross-country trip. He will then understand what it takes to be in command and fly safely.


This icing article and counselor's comment is offered now, while much of the country is enjoying late summer and early fall weather, because we know what's coming'ice!

The safety message goes beyond just an icing encounter. The pilot involved had recently obtained his instrument rating and this event points out the hazards of inexperience. Fortunately, this ended safely; however, each year there are accidents occurring to pilots who have newly acquired private pilot certificates or instrument ratings. These accidents can be attributed to the pilots encountering conditions for which they have theoretical knowledge, but little or no practical experience to manage.

As you'll see, the safe outcome was likely due to a combination of things. The pilot is bright, competent, disciplined, and well trained. The controllers working the flight were highly experienced.

It gives us something to think about regarding how experience with icy winter clouds can be safely acquired while remaining legal and, above all, safe. Flight into known icing conditions without certified de-icing equipment is contrary to the regulations. Even with certified equipment, skillful pilots have an 'out' planned, should the de-icing equipment not be adequate for the conditions.

The instrument flight training provides basic preparation for IFR flights, but the rating enables pilots to undertake flights in conditions that they are probably going to experience for the first time. This could even include actual instrument meteorological conditions or IMC. New IFR pilots find that flying in IMC is quite a bit different than practicing under the hood or using a simulator. There is a basic disconnect here'just when the pilot needs an instructor most, there isn't one in the seat next to him or her. This can be remedied by taking an instructor along on the challenging cross-country flights a new instrument pilot plans to make. A plan to ramp-up experience and acquire more training related to the way you plan to fly is the key. This can be tailored to the unique weather challenges posed in your part of the country.

Steve Wallace, FAA's Director of the Office of Accident Investigation, put this best, when he quoted his father's response to hearing the news of Steve having obtained his instrument rating. His father, a Pan Am pilot, said, 'That's great, son. Now, don't use it!' This icing encounter in Pennsylvania shows what he meant by that. The experience to get the safety and benefit of an instrument rating has to gained carefully. Steve did just that. He took the comment 'Don't use it' to mean ease into it, or ramp-up your instrument flying experience safely. Steve recalled, 'I was in Seattle, which had a lot of days with 1,000 foot overcast, tops at 3,500, decent visibility and no issues of ice or convective nasty stuff. Good stable Puget Sound weather. I considered those to be flyable single-engine IFR days. Anyway, what I did mostly was file and fly IFR in VFR conditions all the time, and punch through the overcast once in a while. In doing so, I was setting my own minimums.'

You can ramp up your experience level safely by always leaving yourself an 'out.' This applies in ice, thunderstorms, or the challenge that low ceilings and visibility conditions present when alternate airports are few and far between.

After this encounter, the pilot agreed to some additional training in winter operations. He said there is no training, however, that could reinforce the lessons learned, and leave an impression equal to seeing the trees and ridges in southwestern Pennsylvania looming large out the front window of the Cessna as he was attempting to regain aircraft control. He realizes he's lucky to have a second chance to continue flying.

Readers have a chance to use the information in this article to manage the risks they face and safely acquire experience instead of pushing the limits nearly to the breaking point. There is no substitute for experience. The key is to gain that experience safely'while leaving you an 'out.'

Michael Lenz is a Program Analyst in Flight Standards Service's General Aviation and Commercial Division.

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