Ice In The Desert
Heading to Mesa, Ariz., from Dallas, Texas, we landed my twin Travelair for fuel in El Paso. It was a cool February morning, at about 0200. Weather included scattered clouds with a 30-knot headwind. Talking to a cargo pilot who had just flown the same route in reverse, I learned the winds were strong but there was no ice or other problems.
Off we went. It was a very dark night, with a high cloud layer blocking any moonlight. About 45 minutes after takeoff, I noticed what appeared to be a storm cell ahead of us. I made a slight course change but minutes later showers started to hit the plane.
The headwinds increased to over 50 knots and it was raining heavily. I filed a pop-up IFR flight plan, asked for a block altitude and joined the airway. About then the cell we were trying to dodge became a full-blown thunderstorm, with lightning flashing every second. The sound of thunder was deafening. I wanted do a 180-degree turn, but the winds were strong and increasing in velocity; I feared a stall. Groundspeed dropped to under 80 knots. God, I thought, is this the last thing I will ever see? The cockpit of a 1960 Travelair?
By this time, the headwind had increased to 90 knots and the autopilot was working hard trying to keep up. Ice banged the side of the plane as it was flung from the props. Despite the rain, thunder and ice, it got quiet in the cockpit. Mouths got very dry. Just when I thought it couldnt get worse, airspeed decreased rapidly. The autopilot was trying to maintain altitude, hanging us on the props. Thanks to magazine articles about such equipment, I reluctantly disengaged it.
I was able to maintain 10,500 feet but that would soon change: Ice was building on the wings. Soon, ATC cleared me to 9000, a clearance I refused so I would not just decend into the perfect ice scenario. It seemed like we were doing jail time, waiting for this nightmare to end.
Finally, some city lights appeared through a break in the clouds. I cancelled IFR and dove through the hole. When we came out, I could see our destination airport. Luckily, we landed safely.
Ill never forget that night in the mountains. Funny things can happen there at night; they can be very unforgiving. Ice in the desert? Yes, and lots of it.
Timing Is Everything
Most twin owners buy them for redundancy in engines, alternators, vacuum pumps and the like, knowing that if one of these should fail we always have another as a backup. Not necessarily.
On a recent one-hour local flight, I experienced a vacuum pump failure on my twins left engine. No big deal -I keep a spare on hand and replaced the failed unit with a new one before the next flight.
The next day, I had a similar one-hour flight and, to my amazement, the right vacuum pump also failed. If I had been on a longer trip, I would have lost both pumps in one single flight. Both pumps were installed at engine overhauls just over 200 hours before. Murphys Law is still alive and operating. Who knows what awaits us on the next flight?