Stay Ahead of the Airplane: Icing and Risk Management

During my time as a pilot in a Part 135 environment, one particular trip stands out as the most challenging/dangerous flight in the Northeast. It was one of those days where I woke up well rested and confident about the flights I was scheduled to complete. Leaving Hyannis (HYA) that morning was uneventful, with calm winds and near perfect sunrise array. It was a simple, VFR flight up to Boston (BOS) to await the main part of my line which included two roundtrip flights to Lebanon, NH (LEB). After landing in Boston and unloading the passengers, I walked inside to the Operations room where I was greeted by the news no pilot wants to hear: my schedule had been altered. In place of the Lebanon flights I would now be transporting a full plane of passengers to Saranac Lake, NY (SLK). One thing about planning and being comfortable with a certain airport is that the familiarity with instrument approaches (IAPs) and terrain increase the pilot’s confidence during the flight. Saranac Lake was an airport I had visited only once before and on a beautiful VFR day, this day would be nothing close.

Schedule Change: Preparing for Unfamiliar Airports

I was given one hour notice to change my flight planning and decided to add 20gal of fuel to the plane for the increased headwinds along the route. The weather forecast for that section of NY State was anything but friendly, calling for OVC007 ceilings and 1mi visibility for my ETA. Saranac Lake’s airport is nestled in the hills of the Adirondack region and, although beautiful, creates problems for radar coverage and radio communications at certain altitudes. The airport has two runways available for landing, however only RWY 5/23 had an IAP with usable minimums for the forecasted weather conditions. I prepared myself for the ILS 23 which would favor the winds and reviewed the approach thoroughly. After a few last minute glances and checks of the weather, the passengers were loaded and I received my clearance for the trip.

In the Clouds, Over Your Head

In this operation, the Twin Cessna was used to its fullest capacity. The 9 seat configuration allowed for 1 passenger to sit adjacent the single-pilot, making for a very memorable experience for someone who rarely flies. The weather in Boston that day was VFR with a BKN layer around 2700ft, taxi and takeoff went as planned with no complications. As expected, we entered the clouds just North of Boston and never exited them until eventually landing in Saranac Lake. Climbing to my planned cruise altitude of 8000ft was routine with the temp dipping to -2C giving me an awareness that I was entering in possible icing conditions. The Cessna 402C is equipped with both Anti/De-icing methods and is certified to fly into known icing so I was prepared for this possibility. As we crossed the NY boarder, Boston Center inquired what the ride was like at 8000, meaning the level of icing/turbulence I was experiencing at the time. My reply was light rime/light turbulence but nothing I could not handle, I would soon regret thinking that last part.

It was approximately 15 min further into the flight when my right-seat passenger tapped me on the shoulder asking “What is that noise I just heard? Like something hitting the side of the plane.” She was referring to the pieces of ice being melted by the prop de-ice and flung against the nose baggage compartment of the aircraft. I knew we had been slowly accumulating ice but when enough starts collecting on the propeller to be noticeable, a change in altitude and power setting is required. I began by increasing power to a high cruise setting and made the request with Boston center for a descent to 6000ft. Reaching 6000ft, though the temperature was slightly higher, ice continued to accumulate and airspeed began to diminish. With the approach into SLK about to begin, I requested a decent to the enroute MEA of 5600ft hoping to gain another degree of temperature. After being cleared for the approach, I could no longer receive or transmit to Boston Center at lower altitudes, I was on my own. Beginning the approach was routine but the power setting used to keep the correct airspeed was much higher than usual, due to the ice’s effect on the aircraft. I decided to perform the approach at an airspeed higher than normal, attempting to prevent a stall or loss of directional control due to icing.

As forecasted, the weather at SLK was OVC006 1mi –RA and that made the approach very challenging. Not only was I worried about the effects of the icing already on my plane, I was also worried about the event of missed approach (MAP) and how it would perform in the surrounding mountainous terrain. Luckily, I was able to see the runway and make a normal decent to landing to many relived passengers. After the passengers were de-planed, I breathed a sigh of relief and went to inspect the plane for any residual ice. I found plenty along the wing’s leading edges, tail section, and propeller hubs. Since there’s no control tower at SLK, I made the phone call to Flight Service to cancel my IFR flight plan.

Learning and Experience

The things I learned from that flight were simple, not the least of which is weather can change in a matter of minutes. I was prepared for and expected Trace to Light Rime icing in the clouds, however I was not prepared for Moderate Mixed icing/Turbulence. So in conclusion, as pilots we should always be actively learning from our experiences. Taking away something from every flight and increasing awareness of our own abilities.

Cold, Alone and Afraid: Flying in the Northeast