It was Thanksgiving week, a few years ago. The plan was to fly our Piper Arrow from Bowling Green, Ky., (BWG) to Atlantas Dekalb-Peachtree (PDK) to pick up a friend, then to Gatlinburg, Tenn., (GKT) for two others, and return home. It seemed like a neat little plan, easily done using a well-mantained, trusted and reliable airplane.
The forecast was for light rain all day, with temperatures dropping to 33 degrees F after overnight; ceilings around 800 feet. My plan was to be back home by 1800 local, well before the cold front was supposed to move in. I filed for PDK at 7000 feet and took off at 1300 local in light rain. I was on the gauges the whole way, with a 15-knot headwind.
Checking weather for our next leg, we discovered the cold front 70 miles northwest of our final destination, moving at 20 knots. No icing was reported. We took off at 1700 local in light rain and twilight. With the cold front approaching this was a race against time. We were in the IMC the whole time but had a 10-knot tailwind and soon were vectored for the VOR approach.
It was raining, with the ceiling near minimums and very dark. Our first approach was a miss but we saw the runway as we flew overhead. On the second try we nailed it. We loaded the bags in a hurry, did the pre-flight check and took off without further delay.
Contacting Center in the climb to 6000 feet, we learned the freezing level was at 8000. Our ETE to BWG was 1.2 hours. We kept checking the OAT; first it was 34 degrees, then 32, then 30. The cold front caught up with us-pitot heat on.
About 30 minutes from home, rime ice started to show on the OAT probe, then on the windshield. Now its starting to accumulate. We request a lower altitude for warmer air, but could not get lower than 4000 for terrain. By this time, the whole windshield is covered. There was more than an inch of ice on the leading edges; we were 15 minutes from home and losing altitude.
We go to full power, speed is decreasing. Center says BWG is 10 miles dead ahead. The altimeter is reading 2000, then 1800. The field elevation at BWG is 547 feet.
Center agreed to expedite the VOR approach. Soon, we lose another 200 feet and, thankfully, some ice on the windshield starts to fall off. We are getting into warmer air and can see through a few clear spots. If we miss this approach, theres no way we can climb for a second try. Nearby I-65 is the only option.
We intercepted the VOR radial and broke out two miles from the runway. Still, were struggling to maintain 200 feet from the terrain at full power. We made it to the runway, canceled IFR and taxied to our hangar. We kissed the ground when we got out; temperature was 35 degrees F; we still had one-and-a-half inches of ice on the wings and elevators.
Lessons? Dont assume that weather forecasts are always accurate. Always have plan B. Looking back, we should have spent the night in Gatlinburg and flown the next morning.