Zero Seven Papa, Are You Declaring an Emergency?

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A harrowing first-person account by a low-time instrument pilot who was flying home IFR at night with his wife in their Piper Tri-Pacer when he ran into a nightmare: severe icing due to an encounter with unforecast freezing rain. If you flight light planes in IMC during the winter, this story will send chills up your spine.

April 19, 1996.

There I was, 5,000 MSL (about 4,000 AGL) with my wife beside me in our 1954 Piper Tri-Pacer. The problem was that I was at full throttle and pitched for a standard climb, but we were descending..

I'd been cleared to 7,000 and instructed to contect Center upon reaching that altitude

TriPacer Zero Seven Papa is 25 miles off of Park Rapids at 5000 and cannot maintain altitude, we're turning back.

Center responded :

07P are you declaring an emergency?

Piper Tri-Pacer N1507P Oh boy, not those fateful words! I thought for a moment. Was I really going to say the E-word? Was I?

It was barely one week after getting my instrument rating, my first real IMC cross country, and my wife's first IFR experience...and things were not going well.

Just then a severe engine vibration started. I mean so sever I thought the engine might rip off its mounts (if it hadn't already). I immediately pulled back on the power and dropped the nose.

Zero Seven Papa has severe engine vibration, we're iced up badly and cannot maintain altitude, I've pulled the power and have lost the airspeed indicator. We're turning back to Park Rapids!

Again Center responded:

Roger 07P, understand you're turning back to Park Rapids. Are you declaring an emergency?

What I wanted to say was "What more does it take!" But this wasn't the time for witty rejoinder.

We were iced up bad, real bad. I fought to look away from the panel to see what was almost three-quarters of a inch of clear ice glued to the front half of the wing struts. It was in three distinct layers, each about a quarter of an inch thick. The lower layers adhered further back than the top layer.

I looked at the pitot tube and saw a one-inch ball of ice stuck to the end. It looked like a horizontal lollypop. No pitot heat in this Tri-Pacer, either.

The ice covered the bottom of the wing, making it look as smooth as a well sanded composite. All the details were gone — inspection plate covers, flap hinges, screw heads — all concealed under the ice blanket.

I keyed the mike to say the words that I had feared to say. What the hell, I thought — if I get out of this one, I'll gladly deal with the FAA!

Affirmative. Zero Seven Papa is declaring an emergency at this time.

How'd I get into this mess? Our earlier 125 mile flight from the Blaine Airport in Minnesota northwest to Park Rapids — to have dinner with relatives — had been uneventful as we flew through and on top of a cloud deck of about 5,000 MSL and landed Park Rapids in good VFR conditions.

After an early dinner, we planned to depart for home at 6 p.m. Cloud bases then were 1,200 feet and the only significant issue was the possibility of icing climbing through 4,000 MSL to our cruising altitude on top. I asked my wife, Gail, to look for icing on the struts and tires as I had noticed a several degree drop in OAT to just about 0C. She replied that she didn't see anything. I checked out my window and saw nothing that would indicate any icing conditions.

Two minutes later, all hell broke loose...

As we climbed out of 4,500 it was becoming obvious that we were nearing the tops of the clouds. An occasional whisper of lighter skies encouraged me that we'd soon be on top and I'd be able to relax a little as I was nervous as hell. The air was bumpy and I was working up a sweat.

I knew my experience level. As an IFR pilot for all of one week, I was as green as they come. But even I knew something wasn't right with this picture. Airspeed read 90, attitude indicator showed us pitched for a climb, but the VSI was showing no climb, and maybe even a little descent.

"Scan, scan, scan. What's wrong?" I asked myself. Why aren't we climbing? I checked everything: carb heat, engine instruments, flaps up, throttle and RPM okay. Everything checked out. Damn, must be ice. Need to get out of the clouds, need to get just a little higher.

I released just a small amount of back pressure from the yoke and then pulled back to a best rate of climb pitch. Almost on top! I can feel it! 5,000 feet, blue sky with just whispers of cloud above us. Almost there! Almost...

Suddenly, the altimeter started to drop and the vertical indicator slumped to about 700 FPM decent. Oh *$%#! The airspeed still read 90. That can't be! This airplane doesn't stall at this airspeed or in this attitude. Then I remembered my pitot lollypop, and the situation started to become clear.

By this time Gail had become nervous as I had been talking out loud about getting on top. Having picked up that it was the ice that was keeping us from climbing, she looked understandably concerned.

I dropped the nose and released pressure on the yoke. I cranked in a couple of turns of down trim to reduce the pitch angle. I wasn't going to let this puppy stall again with the airspeed indicator inop.

That's when I called Minneapolis Center and said the E-word.

Zero Seven Papa you are cleared direct to Park Rapids, altitude your discretion at or above 3100, weather at Park Rapids blah blah blah...

Like I really cared about the winds and temperature at the airport right now.

OK, how do I get back to PR? I'm 25 miles out, power gone iced up. I knew I was scared. Center knew I was scared. Gail knew I was scared. I was really getting scared.

I felt like I was starting to loose it. Overload: confusion, fear, lost... But at the same time, I realized the only one who could help me was me. It was all up to me to get us out of this. All the stuff I was supposed to have learned in IFR training was going to have to pay off now...in spades.

The plane felt like a lead sled. After several attempts to bring the power back up, I must have thrown the ice off the prop, because now it would throttle-up smoothly. Finally some good news. Full power.

My highest priority task was now clear: to find a pitch attitude that would keep the plane flying and stop my descent...or at least reduce it. The ASI was still frozen at 90, so I used "feel" and the attitude indicator to find the best pitch. With full power and a 300 FPM descent I could stay just above what felt like an impending stall . This seemed like the best compromise available.

Next task: I knew I had to turn around. But to what heading? I'd become completely disoriented as to assigned headings, so I couldn't remember a course reversal number to work with.

Center radioed they had put a airliner in a hold overhead as they would loose radio contact with me as I descended. I changed frequencies as requested and they asked for periodic updates on my situation. A call from the airline pilot came next saying he was overhead and would stay with me. Right after that Center reported they could no longer receive me clearly and for me to relay through the airliner.

For a short period of time, I felt lost. Confusion and panic were starting to set in and I started to think we wouldn't make it. I was worried throughout the whole ordeal that maybe the vibration wasn't prop ice after all...maybe something was coming apart in the engine, maybe it would go to hell again.

"Fly the plane, fly the plane," I kept hearing this voice in my head. Actually it was many voices, the voices of all the instructors and other pilots I'd flown with who over the years had said a thousand times "fly the plane!". So I did.

I requested the airliner ask center for a reverse heading to fly back to PR. I said I was disoriented and had made several turns off-course since things went bad. Center said that I was below their radar coverage and they couldn't give me vectors, but they advised that if I was still on my previous outbound course, a heading of 300 would get me back.

I'm not sure if it was the turbulence or the situation — or maybe it was me — but it seemed harder and harder to control the airplane. I struggled trying to stay straight and level, but wasn't doing a very good job of it. I was overcontrolling badly, banking 30 degrees left, than right. I've never flown this badly, I thought. I better start flying better or we're not going to make it.

My wife bumped my shoulder to get my attention and asked very seriously "are we going to be all right?" I didn't know. I told her that I thought so but to be honest ,didn't know. "Your lips are saying you think so;" she said, "but, your knees are saying were screwed." Gail doesn't miss much. My legs were shaking badly and I had not realized it before.

Then the airliner radioed that Minneapolis had requested "say souls onboard". It was a real hard thing to key the mike. "Tell Minneapolis that zero seven papa has two very scared souls on board," I responded. What else could I say? It was the purest truth I'd ever spoken.

When Center asked for souls on board, that was a real turning point for me, A reality check on my mental condition. I knew then that not many people get asked that question and have the opportunity to talk about it later. This wasn't a practice approach. I couldn't flip up the hood and say "damn." No missed approach on this one.

I had to fly better than I had ever flown before. I had to think better and faster than ever before. I had to get it right this time or we were going to die. I wasn't about to kill my wife and myself and leave our children orphaned. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my system.

I started the turn inbound but nearly lost it as the left wing and nose dropped, and the airplane didn't respond to my control inputs to roll level and pull up. Vertical speed was over 1,000 FPM down. I figured a spin had started as the DG began to spin quickly to right. I pulled the power, dropped the nose, kicked opposite rudder, and held it until the DG stopped spinning. I held the nose down for a period of time I thought would be adequate, and then pulled back after leveling the wings and added power again. We got going pretty fast but slowed down quickly also. The attitude Indicator came slowly back to normal and I pitched and powered back again to best rate of "descent" as it were.

I thought about the recent articles I'd read that argued that spin training was not necessary. Right!

A glance back to the DG reminded me that I had again forgotten the heading to fly. I took a deep breath and decided to reprogram the VFR GPS I had with us. It was originally set for Blaine and under normal circumstances would have been my primary reference for a return heading but I wasn't thinking as clearly as I normally was when I was just out shooting approaches.

Punch in the "nearest airport search" function. Bingo! Why didn't I do that long ago? Dummy...

Frequently I told the airline captain what was going on. It felt good to have someone to talk to who would understand what I was saying and possibly what I was going through.

The GPS gave me a heading number but when I made a very shallow turn to that heading on the DG, it became obvious that the DG had precessed a lot (or tumbled) during that little spin episode. To avoid another situation like the last, I turned slowly — mostly with rudder and very shallow — to a GPS course that agreed with the GPS heading to PR. Slowly we kept descending throught the grey murky swirls of thick clouds.

We're finally heading in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go, I thought to myself.

Scared, sweating, and angry with myself for putting my wife helplessly into this situation, I sat there balancing the pitch with the "feel" of the airplane hoping I could milk out the altitude we would need to get us back to the runway.

At first I thought that all I could do was stay on course and wait. Then I remembered one more thing my CFII once told me: if you run out of things to do, you're forgetting to do something! So I kept scanning, double-checking everything, pre-landing checklist. I started working on options, thinking about what was coming up next. Trying to get back to one step ahead of it.

I'm a experienced skydiver and my wife has made one jump herself. While we waited to break out of the clouds, I thought about how stupid it was for us to ride this 42 year old fuel tank into the trees or swamp below when — if we had had chutes — we could have just jumped and been assured of our lives. I've made hundreds of jumps, and I was starting to have doubts we were going to make it back to the airport. No fear, no questions, no regrets, Just open the door and jump.... Screw the plane, I thought, that's what insurance is for.

Not a terribly productive train of thought, I decided. No chutes aboard. Fly the plane.

It seemed like two hours — actually about six minutes — before we reached the bottom of the cloud deck. We broke out of the clouds at 1,100 feet AGL but were still unable to maintain altitude. Airspeed now read zero. Not that it mattered; I wasn't going to believe the ASI no matter what it said at this point.

The windshield and side windows were iced over and we could only see directly left, right or behind, and nothing forward. I'd landed once before using the GPS to align to the runway so I thought I could do it again. That gave me some confidence, and I needed all that I could get.

When we went below 600 feet Gail and I looked desperately for a place to set down, I had told her we might want to take our chances on a road or field as we were getting down pretty low and I didn't think we'd make the runway,. But there wasn't anywhere else to go. No roads or fields, just trees and swamp. Our decent rate was down to about 200 FPM or less now, and seemed to be getting better. Unfortunately the visibility was only just over a mile so our ability to see possible landing sites was limited. I knew I had to keep on the GPS course to the runway. I couldn't turn away just because I thought I saw something.

Center relayed through the airliner a request for what approach I wanted. This struck me as hysterically funny. Here we are, about 400 AGL without a VOR signal, 8 miles GPS from the airport, and Center wants to play it by the book.

Tell Center 07P is 400 AGL and has no forward visibility due to ice on the windshield. We're going to align to the runway with GPS and hope we don't hit anything.

The airliner relayed Center's reply:

07P climb to 3,100 as soon as possible to minimum IFR altitude, if able. Be advised there are towers east and north of the airport

Great, just what I needed: towers! Makes the prospect of missing the airport even more delightful, I thought to myself.

Things started getting better. Three miles out I was able to climb some as the ice was coming off a little at a time. A three-inch hole had started to defrost near the bottom center of the windshield. I got up to about 500 feet AGL but decided to increase airspeed rather than altitude for the remaining few miles. We had been riding at just over minimum controllable airspeed for a long time and I felt better going just a little bit faster.

The GPS did its job, again, and we soon were dropping down to the runway. The GPS showed a 100-knot ground speed over the threshold and I still had power at 100%.

When only a couple of feet above the runway I pulled power back just a little and pulled back on the yoke enough to maintain flight. Wrong, the plane stalled and hit the runway like a ton of bricks. I had taken the precaution of asking my wife put her coat over her face and fold her arms to protect her head. I didn't think I would be able to control the overweight skinny legged milk stool at that speed, but I was wrong about that, too.

I braked hard. I couldn't see much out the little hole defrosted on the windshield so I wanted to stop real bad. Then...we were stopped. On the center of the runway. In one piece!

Large sheets of ice were falling off the bottom of the wings and crashing into pieces that scattered down the runway. I turned around to see fire trucks and police cars waiting with all their lights on sitting on the ramp. I had not noticed them before, They were not in my three-inch view path, I guess.

Hey! We made it!!

I thanked the pilots of the holding airliner, and I meant it. I don't know if they were trying tintentionally o be calming or assuring, but they were. The Center controller had been cool and professional, sympathetic to my situation and impressively quick in putting the airliner overhead to keep me in communication. I thanked him also. When the airliner relayed we were down and okay, you could hear the relief in everyone's voices. Mine too.

And I thank my wife who, after helping to bust the remaining ice off the airplane, was brave enough to get back in and fly back with me when I really needed someone to fly with.

"Unforecasted freezing rain" said the FAA inspector investigating the incident about a month later. I'm okay with that, there was no way I could tell it was freezing rain at the time. I felt particularly good about the "unforecasted" part — at least the Feds didn't have known icing to hang my ticket on. In any case, I promised they'd never hear the words "Rick", "Wagner" and "Ice" in the same sentence again, and they were okay with that.

I guess you could say I learned a lot from that one.