Weather Warrior

I was thinking this route was truly one of those dumb decisions


I flew from Ft. Worth to Denver shortly after getting my instrument ticket late last year and picked up more ice than I ever care to have on my aircraft again. Even with the prop heated on my Mooney 252, it was still shaking and shedding ice, signaling to me that it was time (a.k.a. past time) to descend to lose some ice. I remained over flat terrain in west Texas and eastern Colorado and managed to learn a lot about ice build-up and its impact on aircraft performance.

The guys on the glycol truck in Denver said theyd never seen so much ice on a small plane before – and I hope I never do again. Given the temperatures in Denver at the time, the ice remained in descent and even after sitting on the ground for nearly two hours.

My next exciting icing lesson came in late April near Redding, Calif. While the decks were plenty high for visual approaches into RDD, you had to get vectors to get below the deck. I wanted to do an IFR approach for practice, so I selected a DME arc to the north. As I entered the arc, I encountered a different cloud bank in which my plane went from ice-free to completely coated with clear ice in a matter of seconds. I immediately turned back toward RDD for direct vectors for the visual and then asked for permission to do so. Fortunately, all the ice came off easily on the descent into the valley.

A few months later, I took a trip to South Lake Tahoe with a friend. We were leaving on Sunday and conditions were solid IMC with occasional light snow flurries on the ground, but generally stable air conditions and tops about 12,000 feet. For departure I received a clearance and departed to the south and into the wind, which was about 20 knots down the runway.

However, had I read the departure climb requirements more carefully, I would never have accepted the clearance. The climb rate was achievable by the 252, but only at max climb and assuming no downdrafts. Given the IMC and rising terrain to the south, I was lucky there is a bit of wiggle room built into IFR departures, to say the least.

In repeating the scene, I would depart to the north, even with the strong tailwind, given a relatively very long runway at TVL, the flat lake to climb over upon departure instead of the rising Sierras, and the presence of a single blue hole through the clouds as well.

A few weeks later I was on a leg from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Austin, Texas. There was a massive storm front that extended from south Texas all the way into Tennessee and Kentucky. Sigmets abounded.

I flew as far as Mobile, Ala., VFR then flew along the southern line of the thunderstorms toward Galveston.

As per radar images and weather briefings, the storms remained more than 50 miles to my right as I flew westward into Louisiana and Texas. Unfortunately, however, the cells that were forecast to be moving northeasterly decided to move easterly instead – and sit on top of Galveston for my 10 pm IFR arrival. Embedded thunderstorms at night while flying single-pilot IFR, getting the dickens knocked out of me for about 15 minutes in an area ATC had simply notified me had some precip on the screen.

The updrafts and turbulence were incredible, and I encountered headwinds in excess of 75 knots in the cells. I never thought my number was up, but I was not enjoying being in an airplane. I was thinking this route was truly one of those dumb decisions and that I fly for fun, and this was not fun.

Other lessons to consider: Thunderstorms, a dicey instrument departure and severe ice, all in the first five months of being instrument-rated. Youve been busy. You may want to reassess your approach to weather decisions and diversions. While a Mooney 252 is a capable airplane, especially as yours in equipped, its not an airliner, Mooneys marketing slogans notwithstanding.While no serious instrument pilot wants to be a weather wimp, it seems to us youre coming in a little too aggressively.


Quiet, Too Quiet
I was making a 50-mile hop with my daughter on a beautiful sunny day, the kind of day when everyone seems to be out flying. As we neared our destination, I listened on the CTAF for traffic and heard none.

I radioed my position and intentions and asked for a wind check. No reply. Strange, I thought. A beautiful day and no one is flying.

I continued making position reports until over the field when some broadcast, Hey buddy, youre on the wrong frequency. I double-checked my paperwork and concluded I did have the right frequency, and mentioned this on the radio. Nope, the other voice said. Try this one.

I tried it and the radio sprang to life with other traffic in the pattern. When I landed, I corralled a CFI and asked him how I could have the wrong frequency. I was getting it from a state-issued guide rather than one of the official sources: an aeronautical chart or the Airport/Facilities Directory.

I had bad information, and I shouldnt have relied on the wrong source. My fault, lesson learned, disaster avoided.

Other lessons to consider: We wonder what you would have done had the other person not been monitoring what was probably an outdated frequency. Did you also consider the fact that your radio may have failed? Were you prepared to act like a no-radio airplane and conduct your traffic pattern accordingly? Anytime the radio gets quiet, you need to verify the frequency, verify the units operation and keep those eyeballs especially alert.


Pining for Home
I had been soloing my ultralight aircraft after only 16 hours of two-seat flight training and zero weather training. Since studying for a private pilot certificate, I understand and appreciate the significance of the temperature/dewpoint spread.

I was launched my ultralight one fall morning into a clear sky, but I noticed a few patches of fog on the ground. I figured they would clear up as the sun got higher. I took off with two hours of fuel and immediately went to zero visibility for about 15 seconds.

It was spooky, but I continued to climb until I broke out into a perfectly clear sky. After about 30 minutes it dawned on me that, not only could I not find my familiar landmarks, I couldnt see the ground anywhere. The fog had quickly formed into a 500-foot ground cover. I climbed to 1,500 feet and could see nothing but fog.

I would have killed for my GPS right about then, but Id left it in the hangar. I descended cautiously into the fog to see if I could make contact with the ground, but it was too thick.

I felt like I had no choice but to circle and try to stay in the same general area. I thought I was about three miles west of my landing strip. I began to sweat about as fast as the engine was burning fuel. Gas was getting low and I started to think about how to deploy the ballistic parachute without landing in some power lines. No matter what, I figured I was doomed to descend into the Desoto National Forests tall pines.

The fog thinned slightly and I thought I saw two white dots beside a ghostly looking area below. Surely those could not be my two white lawn chairs that sat next to my pond. I flew out about a quarter mile, turned tightly and tried to reacquire the dots.

Fuel was about gone, and Id be coming down soon no matter what I did. I took a chance by slowing to near stall speed over the dots, passing over 100-foot trees I couldnt really make out, then diving. It would either be my landing strip or it wouldnt.

I chopped the power and nosed over steeply. The ground came dimly into view. It was my landing strip, but I was about 40 degrees off the centerline, way too fast and half the strip was behind me.

I put it on the ground and hit the brakes, sliding through foot-deep grass to within eight feet of my neighbors fence.

The fog lifted exactly 11 minutes after that landing. I drained the fuel tank and calculated that I had eight minutes of fuel remaining. I realize now that radiation fog can form as quickly as a person exhaling breath on a bathroom mirror.

I learned in no uncertain terms that flying in instrument conditions with no instruments or training is exhilarating, but its definitely not fun.


Citation for a Hood Ornament
After receiving a VFR departure clearance from the Class B airspace, I contacted ground control and was cleared to taxi from parking to runway 19R. After contacting the tower, I was cleared to taxi across 19R and to take position and hold on runway 19L.

I was held in position for longer than usual, about 90 seconds, before I got my takeoff clearance. At that point, I switched on my recognition, strobe, landing and taxi lights and began my roll down the runway on a dark moonless night.

The weather was clear and visibility was unlimited. The Cessna 441 Conquest I was flying was extremely well-lit. Just before rotation, another aircraft taxied across the runway in front of me, perhaps 1,000 feet down the runway.

I rotated immediately and, as I flew over the crossing airplane noticed it was a Cessna Citation, which was now clear of the runway. I told the tower controller about it and he switched me to Departure immediately – much earlier than usual – with no comment about my report.

The new controller acknowledged my complaint and gave me a phone number to call after reaching my destination.

This was clearly a communication breakdown between the tower and ground controller or with the crossing aircraft. The phone call with the tower chief was a futile attempt to place blame.

After 43 years of commercial flying, I was scheduled to retire the following month. With that career coming to an end with a record clear of any accidents or violations, I wasnt interested in pursuing the matter any further, other than filing a NASA report.

The end of the story is that there is no end. Runway incursions will continue to be an issue as long as there are airports. Pilot and controller vigilance cant be too strongly stressed.

Thing about what would have happened if a transport aircraft had been in my position. It would have been impossible for it to rotate prematurely, as I was able to do. The end result would have been disastrous regardless of who was at fault.

Every pilot needs to give a second thought to crossing an active runway without first snapping the neck 90 degrees in each direction – with or without a clearance to cross.


Sudden Silence
A week ago I was taking off like I always do, except this time, on liftoff, I stayed at about 50 feet while accelerating to about 90 knots.

As I reached the end of the 2,000-foot runway, I pulled up and started climbing. Everything was going fine until I got to about 500 feet, when the engine began to lose power.

I checked the gauges and found no obvious reason for the power failure. The fuel tanks were about a quarter full.

The airspeed started to drop off, so I lowered the nose to avoid a stall. The engine promptly quit.

I looked for a landing site but realized I was over a large orchard. I recalled all the stories you hear about people who try to turn back to the runway and fail, but I had no other choice other than to land in a tree.

They had just taken out some trees to the left of the runway, so I dropped the left wing and started a turn. I dropped the nose a bit to keep up the airspeed and held right rudder so I would not go into a spin and made the turn OK.

In the process I lost about 200 feet and was coming down fast. I flew between some trees heading back to the runway, then touched down in the grass next to the runway and coasted to a stop on the runway. It was a real good dead-stick landing and both the plane and I were unscathed.

I inspected the airplane on the runway and found nothing wrong. Then I hit the starter and it fired right back up like nothing had ever happened.

I taxied it back to the hangar for a more thorough check. I found a piece of plastic floating in the fuel tank. It must have gotten stuck to the end of the pick-up tube and stopped the fuel flow. I have since put several hours on the airplane and the problem has not recurred.

What I learned is to takeoff with a normal climb. If I would have on this occasion, there would still have been runway under me when the engine stopped and I could have landed safely on the remaining runway.

Other lessons to consider: The most glaring problem with your technique is cross-controlling the airplane with right rudder in a left turn. Thats an invitation to a spin, not a preventive measure. We sure hope it was a typo, or else you are luckier than you imagine. Taking off with a normal climb may have prevented your problem, but it might not have. Perhaps the deck angle when you pulled it up, coupled with the quarter-full tank, allowed the plastic down there in the first place.


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