February 26, 2009
Shawano->Columbia (February 2009)
OK this flight deserves a narrative.. I apologize profusely that my camera was in my suitcase in the back, inaccessible.
The flight was from Shawano, Wisconsin (seeing a friend/customer) to Columbia, SC, Owens Downtown. That’s KEZS to KCUB for anyone that wants to fly it in X-plane or look it up on a map… basically Green Bay WI to Columbia, SC.
I was flying 842X, since 428X was in the shop getting a de-ice system installed. (I typically lend one plane to a friend or employee when flying the other, but in this case had only 842X available with the 428X down for the de-ice install).
The sky was clear blue over Green bay… a quick look at http://radar.weather.gov/Conus/index_lite.php showed clear sky in the Shawano Area but a massive front clear from Texas to New York.. I was going thru it, no doubt about that! The plan was to blast off from Shawano VFR, air-file an IFR plan to penetrate the front, and then cancel all radar on the other side of the front and proceed home on my own. I do it this way so that I can listen to my techno enroute (which I can only really do when VFR, not on the radios).. and explaining it this way also lets me say that I ‘Blast Off’ and ‘Penetrate’, which I like to say a lot.
ANYHOO, the windsock was standing straight up at the horizontal, pointing at a 90-degree angle across the runway. With careful crosswind take-off technique I lifted 842X without any sideways-action, thanks to constant awareness on the rudders to hold runway-ehading (think of it as a ‘high-gain’ control system: I was lightning-fast to apply a LOT of rudder if there was ANY deflection of my heading from runway heading. This is exactly like entering a LARGE gain in the Artificial Stability screen in Plane-Maker.. you get a precise response, but at the risk of oscillations if your frame-rate gets too low! I had had my coffee, though, so my internal frame-rate was HIGH, and I held runway heading just fine. A quick snappy roll to the left as I lifted (literally lifting the right wheel first) to aim my lift vector into the wind, preventing any sideways drift across the runway. Everything looking good so far, erect windsock be damned! Well, it took maybe 5 seconds to slam my head into the ceiling from the turbulence, literally knocking my headset off! The vertical draft were sudden, violent, and unexpected. I do a lot of flying on windy days, and 842X and 428X can usually shrug off the turbulence with the heavy frames and short wings, but this one caught me by surprise and was ruffling my birds feathers quite a bit.. much like driving down a dirt road at maybe 50 mph in a sports car.. a high-frequency rough ride. At full power in Green bay in the winter, though, the air was cold and dense, and 842X was batting out full heat, with a climb rate of easily above 2,000 feet per minute.. in mere moments I was out of the turbulence and into smooth air, sailing across the snowy fields of winter Wisconsin at 190 knots.. and then I noticed the wind: 50 knot crosswind, 40 knot headwind.. at only 5,500 ft! Thats a 65-knot wind, from the side and front, at only 5,500 ft! Suddenly 190 knots airspeed was not looking so good for a non-stop from north Wisconsin to South Carolina. To further complicate things, my straight-line path from WI to SC took me right over Lake Michigan. When at 17,500 ft I can make that crossing and almost never be out of gliding range of the shore, but the wind was such a bear that I was stuck down at 5,500 to duck under the worst of the headwinds… I clearly would NOT be within gliding range of the shore… and this was winter in Chicago coming up. The only safe move was clear: Go due south to stay WEST of Chicago’s massive airspace, since going EAST of it would put me over the lake. So, down south I flew, at 5,500, staying just west of Chicago O Hare, with maybe a 50 knot crosswind and 40 knot headwind. I could just see the Sears Tower and the Great Lake in the distance. I was over nothing but farmlands and fields, looking at the skyscrapers of Chicago on the horizon! OVER the farmlands, SEEING the city… seeing it all at once! This really makes Chicago seem small! As soon as I got south of Chicago I made my East turn to Columbia, SC, and climbed to 17,500, with now a 60 knot crosswind and maybe 5 knot headwind component. I listened to techno, VFR, for as long as I could, but soon the front loomed large in front of me.. no way to go through there VFR! I called flight service, got the latest weather (the data on my G1000 in the cockpit is MUCH better than any briefer could ever give me, but I still call out of habit.. it just seems like I am skipping a step if I don’t call a professional briefer for the weather, somehow, even though he does not tell me anything that is not already displayed in the cockpit. Descending to 17,000 ft (an IFR altitude) I entered the front and was soon in solid white cloud, the strobes still just barely managing to light up the bits of snow/sleet/rain racing past me at 195 knots. The temperature was -15 degrees C… in THEORY, icing was unlikely at so low a temperature. Theory sure did NOT hold true to practice, though! In short order, the wings and windshield were all coated with what looked like white sandpaper: Ice building up on the wings and windshield… and, presumably, everywhere else! Did I mention that the other plane was sitting in a hanger getting a de-ice system installed? And this plane had none. I had a heated PROPELLER, heated pitot tube, windshield defrost, and heated engine-air.. but nothing for the wings or tail-feathers. I turned on all the (limited) de-ice systems I had and got 9,000 ft from Center to head down to warmer air. With the terrain at 1,000 ft, and the freezing level at 10,000 ft, my escape from this encounter was guaranteed: I had plenty of warm air to descend to. And THAT is the trick for icing conditions: Don’t risk getting IN if you do not have a safe way OUT. Do NOT get into conditions in which ice may form if the freezing level is at or near the surface: You have no way to descend and melt off the ice! Only fly when it is warm enough near the surface that you can descend into warmer air to melt off the ice. OR when it is SOOOOOO cold that ice can NOT form at ANY altitude. (Because the moisture is ALREADY crystalized into ice crystals that bounce right off the plane, doing no harm). On THIS day, though, I THOUGHT it was too cold for ice to form at 17,000, (it still formed somehow) and I had a freezing level at 10,000 ft, giving plenty of room to descend into the warmer air as an escape route. The escape worked exactly as planned: Approaching 9,000 ft, the ice began to disappear from the wings, and there were a few mild ‘thunks’ as bits of ice came off the underside of the airframe and smacked into the landing-gear struts or lower vertical stab. Just as this was happening, I popped OUT of the solid cloud I was in (like a 195-knot watermelon seed being pinched squirted out of a cloud) and had visibility of maybe 100 miles, with clouds below, above, and rising up on various sides up to 100 miles away! The sun was setting, so the clouds on the right were all pink and red around the edges, and gray in the center, with a sunset-red backdrop behind them. The floor of clouds below me was dull gray and white, and bright hit clouds up above me were catching the sunlight. The clouds off to my left were dark gray or black, hidden from the sun by the curvature of the Earth. Again, aviation makes the whole world tiny: Chicago appears to be a group of buildings beside a cornfield, and earth curves such that the clouds on your right are in sunset framed on red, the clouds on your left are in the evening, framed in black. As I was surrounded by clouds of all colors, sizes, distances, and altitudes, was was streaming up the windshield and back along the wings, all along the wings, as the ice melted off the plane and bits of local rain streamed back along the airframe… all while the engine just sort of hummed and I was warm and dry in the cockpit! Totally surreal. I get reminded about what an amazing job people did building this airplane on flights like this.
Clearing the area over the next dozen minutes or so, I the tops of the clouds were soon above me at maybe 20,000 ft, and up I went to 17,500 ft, canceling IFR and putting the techno back on, as night fell.
Soon all was dark brooding wet gray, with city lights stretching out maybe 20 miles in every direction, lights poking through a visibility reported as abut 8 miles. This may SEEM VFR, but the sky and ground were TOTALLY indistinguishable from each other… it was NOTHING but lights splattered out in the gray. In fact, there were cases where you would SWEAR the horizon was at a point in front of you, but then see lights way up in the sky.. only to see that they were not moving, so were in fact the lights of some distant city or factory or power-plant! The logical fallout being that what you THOUGHT was sky was actually.. ummm… DIRT. Confusing sky and dirt is a dangerous pitfall in airplanes, so this was a nice reminder to follow the G100 home. Soon enough, 842X interrupted the techno to announce ‘Vertical Track!’, which is it’s code-word to start the descent to follow a 3-degree glidepath down to the destination. With vertical-speed mode selected and reduced power to start cooling the turbos and cylinders, down we went to Owens… I can never quite tell how far I am above the runway at night, so I went to a nose-high attitude at maybe 10 or 15 feet above the ground and adjusted power to keep a pleasant-enough descent-rate until a ‘noticeable’, but not scary, arrival.
Pulling in, the line-dude waved his lit-up wands at me to tell me where to park, and then went running away to do his next chore the moment I stopped.. nobody had any way of knowing all that I had just seen!