You Never Forget Your First

10:11 PM

There is one thing all new instrument pilots must know: At some point – usually right after you get your rating – you will come face to face with the The Beast...that frozen monster we know as clear, rime or mixed ice. Your task as an IFR stick is to know how to avoid this confrontation, but when The Beast sneaks up on you, then knowing what to do really becomes a matter of life and death.

As I write this, I am smiling, knowing I am as yet undefeated in these battles with en route ice. Yes, of course I will have more encounters, but after surviving this first one, I know that the next one will have a safe outcome...as long as I follow the procedures drilled into my brain by my CFI-I, Jim Hunt of Eugene.

Here is how this weekend's encounter with icing came down:

We had departed Medford, Oregon after a day of lollygagging in Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. If you are arts patrons like Julie and myself – and if you love live theater like we do – then Ashland might be considered almost sacred ground. We strolled, shopped and ate, then headed back to Medford Air Service in their very nice crew van. Skies overheard were broken but going scattered, plenty of blue poking through the gray. Looking north, I could see more of the same, so I filed for 8,000 msl and blasted off IFR.
So far so good. We had just came southbound a few hours earlier, and even though the freezing level was hovering close to our cruising altitude, we did not get any ice in and out of the clouds at 7,000 msl...
Level at 8,000, those broken going scattered clouds all decided they wanted to become one, and soon we found ourselves in a solid layer. My OAT gauge read about -2C, so I immediately knew this wasn't good. My CFI-I taught me to always be considering my options, so when I saw accumulations of ice building fairly rapidly on the stem rising up from the OAT just above my side of the windscreen, Plan B was initiated. I had been prepared for a return to MFR and already had the ILS 14 plate on the yoke, a good plan it turns out. As calmly as possible, I instructed my pax that I'd made a decision and we were immediately returning to MFR. I quickly asked Cascade for and got a 180 turn, with a descent ASAP.
O.K., I had made the right call, this I realized as the windscreen almost instantly loaded up with ice by the time I had finished initiating my 180. So on my very first IFR flight with a passenger (or without), I drew on my training and kept my focus where it belonged:
Yeah, it sort of creeps you out when you can't see a damned thing out of the windscreen. And it didn't help that Cascade vectored me around some northbound departing traffic. But my training was superb – attitude, altitude, scan, scan, scan – just keep your head in the game and trust your instruments. Soon, we descended to under 6,000 and the ice quickly melted away, and we made a non-event VFR landing back where we had started. With lowering conditions, we ended up with an RON (remain overnight) at a nice hotel, and flew back IFR today in between layers, moderate turbulence, major-league quartering winds aloft, and a full-on ILS back to EUG. But...no icing.
This bout with ice in flight was an eye opener on many levels. First, I now know how fast it can accumulate, and secondly, I'm convinced that my skills at knowing when ice MIGHT be up there are as sharp as they need to be.

But most importantly, I know my IFR training as a student of Jim Hunt was right on. I knew what to look for, and what to do when I met up with ice. I was able to fly out of the situation without making some grave mistake, and I was prepared with a perfect "Plan B" as an out. I do not believe I have sufficiently said thank you to Jim in public for preparing me to achieve this huge rating, so consider this post to be those kudos for a job well done.

Because had Jim been sloppy, or if he had glossed over how serious icing can be en route, or if he hadn't been the occasional hardass when my skills went rusty, there is a possibility that this encounter could have been much different.

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