It sounded simple; a ten-mile hop back to Lowell to put the airplane to bed. I had been doing pattern work with a student on this raw winter afternoon. The overcast, though dark and brooding, hung well above pattern altitude and visibility at the neighboring Class C airport was reported at ten miles. Tyler had performed very well during this, his first exposure to takeoffs and landings in a tail-wheel aircraft. By the time we had debriefed and finished up the paperwork, darkness had fallen.
Before closing up the office I checked in with my wife, then turned up my collar against the cold and walked out to the airplane. While performing my preflight, I took a quick glance at the beacon a hundred yards off, noting that the haze had increased a bit. Better get a move on. After a normal run-up and takeoff, I made the shallow turn required to line up with my destination. With only one passenger, the Super Decathlon does not take long to get to pattern altitude. In fact, I was hardly out of the pattern before discovering that, yes, conditions had changed.
To stay out of the bases, I adjusted my cruising altitude to 900 AGL. No problem there, but a minute later a couple of wispy, translucent little clouds appeared in my path. I had no time to react but, no problem, I just barged right though them and dropped another 100 feet. The short track between the two airports runs mostly over unlit, rural countryside, but the few lights outside my side window were clear and bright. I felt a small shiver of anxiety as I began to notice that, just ahead, where Lowell ought to be, I could see a general glow, but no lights in particular. There was nothing wrong with Lowell, as I confirmed by turning to put the city off my port wing.
The problem was trying to see through a windshield spattered with ice. Over the past five minutes, flying through a barely discernible drizzle, I had accumulated enough of the stuff to seriously reduce my forward visibility. I flew the pattern anyway, expecting that the forever beautiful and welcoming strings of runway lights would somehow take shape before me.
The runway at Lowell is short, guarded by large trees on each end. I flew a tight pattern and kept my airspeed low, ready to pounce upon the first evidence of safe haven. I turned final and saw…nothing.
Knowing that I was near the trees, I broke off immediately, climbed out, and headed back toward Greenville, and longer runways, and a pattern I have flown, it seems, a million times. This was a poor decision. Grand Rapids was bigger and closer. While the Super-D is not instrument-certified, I would have received help from their excellent controllers and could, perhaps, have followed the ILS “rabbit” toward a stable, if vague, approach. But I did not go to Grand Rapids, did not even call them for flight following. I got myself into this mess and I would get myself out.
I picked up more ice over the next five minutes while returning to Greenville. Approaching from the South, I announced my position and joined the downwind, flying comfortably down the ruts I had worn in this part of the sky. I took comfort in the brightness of the runway lights, the sight of a friend’s house glowing cozily in the distance, the familiar landmarks that feel like tractor beams, drawing your airplane safely home. I saw these things through my side window.
Turning final, I can no longer see even a glow. The rough, pebbled surface of the accumulating ice crystals on the windscreen now refracts all light. Easing down the glide path, which had long seemed so comfortable and familiar and automatic, I now realize that these feelings had all been an illusion. My safety and the safety of my passengers have always depended upon my preparation and the suitability of my ship for the conditions. And here I am, unprepared, stuck in an airplane whose capability is steadily decreasing.
For the first time in my life, I am in the air, wishing I were on the ground. And I have no idea how to get there. I break off the approach and go around. The familiar landmarks are no longer comforting. I announce my position as I again turn downwind, base and final, strangely curious to see if I sound like I’m in trouble.
The second approach is a repetition of the first, an exercise in denial. But, no, the windscreen is black now, and regardless of my efforts to twist and lean and stretch, there is no way to see around the obstruction. For me, the lights have gone out. I am a praying man, and not ashamed to say so, and my prayer at this moment is simple. “I got myself into this mess and I cannot get myself out. For the sake my children (who deserve a more sensible parent), will you please help me?”
Even now, the cockpit is wonderful to me. I love this airplane and the stick feels good in my hand. I do not even feel particularly afraid. I just know that the situation has escalated beyond my ability to deal with it. This is still clearer in my third approach as, during a turn at 80 mph, I feel the onset of a stall buffet. The wings, also, have been collecting ice. A stumbling in the engine prompts me to shift to alternate air. I am running out of time.
On this, my third trip around the pattern, I try to slip the airplane to the ground, sighting the runway through the side window and a corner of the windscreen. I am concerned about a stall and carry a lot of power. The width of the ice of the windshield requires a deep slip to be able to see the runway and I sway crazily down, trying to balance airspeed, direction, and my tiny sight picture. Near the runway, I somehow lose some of the slip and, with it, all view of the runway environment. So near the ground, there’s no time to get it back, so I go around again.
At this point, I face the fact that my name will probably appear in tomorrow’s newspaper. My fourth trip around the pattern is, essentially, killing time (so to speak), casting about for options. There is a large lake nearby, well frozen, but I don’t see it as more survivable, given the lack of surface lighting. Besides, the airplane is flying badly, with wings now well loaded with ice. I conclude that it is time. In two minutes, I will be on the ground.
I keep my speed up in the pattern, especially as I slip down on final. The slip, though extreme, is fairly stable this time. I am going to drive this thing into the ground. The left runway edge lights are all I can see. I try to stay about twenty feet to their right. My landing light is, of course, canted off in a useless direction, so by the time I can see the ground it will be too late to flare.
As I get to the height of the runway lights I begin a flare, not wanting to take out the slip. There is a layer of ice on the runway and, though I have little hope of staying on the runway, it should reduce the side-load on touchdown. In the next moment, I yank back on the stick and (apparently, though I do not remember it) take out the rudder and, after a shockingly mild touchdown, find myself coasting more or less straight down the runway, based upon my distance from the runway lights flitting by. I get on the brakes, and make my way, haltingly, to the ramp, as if by braille.
I am, to this day, surprised at this conclusion. Personally, I believe that a prayer was answered, though you may credit my survival to dumb luck. In any case, my slowness to recognize and respond to the lethal threat of icing nearly produced a widow and four fatherless children and, for that, I will always be sorry.