Zero Seven Papa, Are You Declaring an Emergency?

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 besideme in our 1954 Piper Tri-Pacer. The problem was that I was at full throttleand pitched for a standard climb, but we were descending..

I’d been cleared to 7,000 and instructed to contect Center upon reachingthat 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 N1507POh boy, not those fateful words! I thought for a moment. Was I really goingto say the E-word? Was I?

It was barely one week after getting my instrument rating, my first realIMC cross country, and my wife’s first IFR experience…and things were notgoing well.

Just then a severe engine vibration started. I mean so sever I thought theengine might rip off its mounts (if it hadn’t already). I immediately pulledback 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 timefor witty rejoinder.

We were iced up bad, real bad. I fought to look away from the panel to seewhat was almost three-quarters of a inch of clear ice glued to the fronthalf of the wing struts. It was in three distinct layers, each about a quarterof 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 wellsanded composite. All the details were gone — inspection plate covers, flaphinges, 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 Airportin 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 about5,000 MSL and landed Park Rapids in good VFR conditions.

After an early dinner, we planned to depart for home at 6 p.m. Cloud basesthen were 1,200 feet and the only significant issue was the possibility oficing climbing through 4,000 MSL to our cruising altitude on top. I askedmy wife, Gail, to look for icing on the struts and tires as I had noticeda several degree drop in OAT to just about 0C. She replied that she didn’tsee anything. I checked out my window and saw nothing that would indicateany icing conditions.

Two minutes later, all hell broke loose…

As we climbed out of 4,500 it was becoming obvious that we were nearing thetops of the clouds. An occasional whisper of lighter skies encouraged methat we’d soon be on top and I’d be able to relax a little as I was nervousas 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 asgreen 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 theVSI 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 andRPM okay. Everything checked out. Damn, must be ice. Need to get out of theclouds, need to get just a little higher.

I released just a small amount of back pressure from the yoke and then pulledback 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 slumpedto about 700 FPM decent. Oh *$%#! The airspeed still read 90. That can’tbe! This airplane doesn’t stall at this airspeed or in this attitude. ThenI 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 aboutgetting on top. Having picked up that it was the ice that was keeping usfrom climbing, she looked understandably concerned.

I dropped the nose and released pressure on the yoke. I cranked in a coupleof turns of down trim to reduce the pitch angle. I wasn’t going to let thispuppy 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 rightnow.

OK, how do I get back to PR? I’m 25 miles out, power gone iced up. I knewI was scared. Center knew I was scared. Gail knew I was scared. I was reallygetting 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. Itwas all up to me to get us out of this. All the stuff I was supposed to havelearned 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 powerback up, I must have thrown the ice off the prop, because now it wouldthrottle-up smoothly. Finally some good news. Full power.

My highest priority task was now clear: to find a pitch attitude that wouldkeep the plane flying and stop my descent…or at least reduce it. The ASIwas still frozen at 90, so I used “feel” and the attitude indicator to findthe best pitch. With full power and a 300 FPM descent I could stay just abovewhat felt like an impending stall . This seemed like the best compromiseavailable.

Next task: I knew I had to turn around. But to what heading? I’d becomecompletely disoriented as to assigned headings, so I couldn’t remember acourse reversal number to work with.

Center radioed they had put a airliner in a hold overhead as they would looseradio contact with me as I descended. I changed frequencies as requestedand they asked for periodic updates on my situation. A call from the airlinepilot came next saying he was overhead and would stay with me. Right afterthat Center reported they could no longer receive me clearly and for me torelay through the airliner.

For a short period of time, I felt lost. Confusion and panic were startingto set in and I started to think we wouldn’t make it. I was worried throughoutthe whole ordeal that maybe the vibration wasn’t prop ice after all…maybesomething 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. Actuallyit was many voices, the voices of all the instructors and other pilots I’dflown 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 toPR. I said I was disoriented and had made several turns off-course sincethings went bad. Center said that I was below their radar coverage and theycouldn’t give me vectors, but they advised that if I was still on my previousoutbound course, a heading of 300 would get me back.

I’m not sure if it was the turbulence or the situation — or maybe it wasme — but it seemed harder and harder to control the airplane. I struggledtrying 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 neverflown this badly, I thought. I better start flying better or we’re not goingto make it.

My wife bumped my shoulder to get my attention and asked very seriously “arewe going to be all right?” I didn’t know. I told her that I thought so butto 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 legswere 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 sevenpapa has two very scared souls on board,” I responded. What else could Isay? 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 peopleget 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 andfaster than ever before. I had to get it right this time or we were goingto die. I wasn’t about to kill my wife and myself and leave our childrenorphaned. 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 pullup. Vertical speed was over 1,000 FPM down. I figured a spin had startedas the DG began to spin quickly to right. I pulled the power, dropped thenose, 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, andthen pulled back after leveling the wings and added power again. We got goingpretty fast but slowed down quickly also. The attitude Indicator came slowlyback 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 trainingwas not necessary. Right!

A glance back to the DG reminded me that I had again forgotten the headingto fly. I took a deep breath and decided to reprogram the VFR GPS I had withus. It was originally set for Blaine and under normal circumstances wouldhave been my primary reference for a return heading but I wasn’t thinkingas 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 thatlong ago? Dummy…

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

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

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

Scared, sweating, and angry with myself for putting my wife helplessly intothis situation, I sat there balancing the pitch with the “feel” of the airplanehoping I could milk out the altitude we would need to get us back to therunway.

At first I thought that all I could do was stay on course and wait. ThenI remembered one more thing my CFII once told me: if you run out of thingsto do, you’re forgetting to do something! So I kept scanning, double-checkingeverything, pre-landing checklist. I started working on options, thinkingabout 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 wewaited to break out of the clouds, I thought about how stupid it was forus 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 ofour lives. I’ve made hundreds of jumps, and I was starting to have doubtswe 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 insuranceis 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 reachedthe bottom of the cloud deck. We broke out of the clouds at 1,100 feet AGLbut were still unable to maintain altitude. Airspeed now read zero. Not thatit mattered; I wasn’t going to believe the ASI no matter what it said atthis point.

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

When we went below 600 feet Gail and I looked desperately for a place toset down, I had told her we might want to take our chances on a road or fieldas 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 andswamp. Our decent rate was down to about 200 FPM or less now, and seemedto be getting better. Unfortunately the visibility was only just over a mileso our ability to see possible landing sites was limited. I knew I had tokeep on the GPS course to the runway. I couldn’t turn away just because Ithought 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 withouta VOR signal, 8 miles GPS from the airport, and Center wants to play it bythe 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 airporteven more delightful, I thought to myself.

Things started getting better. Three miles out I was able to climb some asthe ice was coming off a little at a time. A three-inch hole had startedto defrost near the bottom center of the windshield. I got up to about 500feet AGL but decided to increase airspeed rather than altitude for the remainingfew miles. We had been riding at just over minimum controllable airspeedfor 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 hadpower at 100%.

When only a couple of feet above the runway I pulled power back just a littleand pulled back on the yoke enough to maintain flight. Wrong, the plane stalledand hit the runway like a ton of bricks. I had taken the precaution of askingmy 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 milkstool at that speed, but I was wrong about that, too.

I braked hard. I couldn’t see much out the little hole defrosted on thewindshield so I wanted to stop real bad. Then…we were stopped. On the centerof the runway. In one piece!

Large sheets of ice were falling off the bottom of the wings and crashinginto pieces that scattered down the runway. I turned around to see fire trucksand police cars waiting with all their lights on sitting on the ramp. I hadnot 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 knowif they were trying tintentionally o be calming or assuring, but they were.The Center controller had been cool and professional, sympathetic to my situationand impressively quick in putting the airliner overhead to keep me incommunication. I thanked him also. When the airliner relayed we were downand 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 theairplane, was brave enough to get back in and fly back with me when I reallyneeded someone to fly with.

“Unforecasted freezing rain” said the FAA inspector investigating the incidentabout a month later. I’m okay with that, there was no way I could tell itwas 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. Inany 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.