What will the ice look like?

This is a true story. It took place on Friday, November 25, 1988.  I was lucky.  This story was published in Flying's "I learned about that." and the Air Force safety magazine.  I hope you learn something from it too.  I did.
  -  Gary L Vogt

The original plan was to leave after work the day before Thanksgiving and, following a lazy five and a half hour flight, be in SLC by 11:00p local. But, Mother Nature had plans of her own and Wednesday's afternoon sky did not look too inviting. I left work early and headed to Fox Field (WJF) to check the weather at the Flight Service Station (that was back when there was such a thing). I didn't know if we could beat the weather to Salt Lake City (SLC). The winner, of course, would spend Thanksgiving with friends and family.

I had spent each evening since Sunday with Lancaster Radio watching for storms which might change our Thanksgiving plans. By Tuesday it looked like two storms, back to back, were to hit Salt Lake City by Wednesday. Wednesday's weather briefing indicated that by 3:00p the front had reached Elko, Nevada, moving East toward SLC at 26 knots. Quick back-of-the-envelope calculations told me I had roughly six hours until the front reached SLC. The winds above 10,000 feet were reported out of the South-West at more than 50 knots and possibly higher between Cedar City and SLC. I called verified local conditions at Las Vegas, Cedar City, Salt Lake, and Elko before leaving. Each station predicted clear for 6 to 12 hours.

That was all of the encouragement I needed. We'd stop in Cedar City for gas and be in SLC by 11:00p as planned. I raced home, grabbed the wife and kid, packed the bare minimums for three days, and we were airborne by 4:00p. At the last minute we decided to race the seasons first snow storm to Salt Lake City.

Climbing to 11,500 feet (hoping to take advantage of those tail winds), we settled back, and tried to get comfortable for the first three and a half hour leg of our flight. The 85 knots indicated airspeed didn't reveal the speed which we seemed to be going. "Must be a good tail wind.", I said to myself. Oh, for the want of a GPS; maybe for Christmas. Las Vegas came in just under an hour. St George went by less than an hour later. As we turned North toward Cedar City I estimated my ground speed to be 180 knots. At this rate we wouldn't have to stop in Cedar City for gas; maybe we'd stop in Provo.

With cloud tops rising to 14,000 feet we climbed on the cold dense night air to fifteen-three (15,300 above sea-level). Above the clouds the night was beautiful. On the western horizon we could see lightning as it lighted the clouds below. Between St. George and Milford I estimated over 200 knots ground speed. Over Milford we began descending to thirteen-five as the cloud tops ahead of us got higher and the usable ceiling got lower. As we descended we picked up more airspeed. At 160 knots indicated I brought the nose up to slow us down. Delta, Utah, literally zipped by us as the ceiling kept getting lower. Coming into Provo, we were met with rain and a head wind; the cold front had been moving faster than reported. I couldn't believe the time we'd been making. We still had an hour and a half of fuel and Salt Lake was only 30 minutes away.

The ceiling continued to lower and we descended with it: eleven thousand feet, ten, nine, eight, and finally leveling out at 7,500 feet. The last 50 miles into SLC was moderate to heavy rain with a head wind. The strobes high-lighted the rain, making for a dramatic indication of its intensity. Touch down and roll out in SLC was at 8:30p local, just three and a half hours from take off. We had beaten the seasons first storm which arrived at 10:30p bringing ten inches of snow. Average ground speed to SLC: 172 knots-197 miles/hour!

Waking up to clear skies and snow covered mountains was exciting for my Southern California bred family. And, being able to spend a somewhat spontaneous Thanksgiving with friends and family was great and relaxing. The final preparations for the flight to SLC had been so hectic that I didn't concern myself with the details of the return trip on Friday morning until late evening. My brother and I logged onto Compuserve and we printed out all available weather maps, winds aloft, predicted highs and lows, and the location of the next winter storm expected late Friday. No problem. We would be in Lancaster by the time it arrived in SLC. Armed with this information my wife, daughter, and I, called it a day.

Friday morning brought clear skies and 23 degrees. Todays flight would be in cold air. By 9:00a we were packed, wished a safe flight home, and on our way to the airport. With the exception of a few beads of ice the plane was clean. I was pleased to have had the foresight to clean the snow from the plane the day (Thanksgiving) before while it was still warm. Take off at 10:00a meant that we'd be home around 2:30p.

An hour after take off we encountered clouds at 8,500 feet. Radar reports from Salt Lake Center indicated the clouds would extend to Cedar City at twelve thousand feet. We climbed above the clouds to 12,500 feet. In the distance we could see much higher cloud tops and began to climb to fourteen-five to stay above them. The outside air temperature had increased to 40 degrees and at 14,500 feet we were already well above the ceiling of my Cheetah. The cloud tops were higher than reported and with Cedar City radio reporting a ceiling of three thousand feet.  I decided to descend through the clouds back into clear air. This would be good experience; a worthwhile addition to my 10 hours simulated and two hours of actual instrument flight.

We began an uneventful descent to 8,500 feet enroute between Cedar City and the Mormon Mesa VORTAC and broke free of the clouds into marginal VFR at 9,000 feet. By 8,500 feet we could see the Enterprise, Utah valley. I congratulated myself on the flawless decent; we were on course and exactly where I'd planned to be. At this point the only problem seemed to be whether we could stay clear of the clouds and the mountains though the canyons to Mormon Mesa. Fifteen minutes down the canyon, the ceiling began to lower rapidly.  The terrain and 7,600 foot mountain peaks were obscurred by clouds. That was when I noticed ice forming on the windshield.

I told my wife to watch the leading edge for ice and let me know as soon as she as she saw any. If I could only see the ground I'd turn around. Had I waited too long? I couldn't see any ice on my side but I knew that didn't mean anything either. "What will the ice look like?", she asked. "It's hard to tell against the white wing. Wait... I think I see something on the rubber seal near the body." I looked down on my side. Ice! The visibility was mostly zero by now. Ice on the windshield was so heavy we couldn't see forward. 

My wife says quietly, "I can see the ground on this side." I waited until I could see the ground on my side well enough to execute a 180 and get us out of this soup. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long and by this time we were getting quite anxious to get out of the mountains.

The highest point on the route we took to get into this mess was 7,600 feet The floor of the canyon we had been flying through was at 6,000 feet. "I must stay on course and maintain something above 7,000 feet.", I say out loud. As ice continues to form on the airplane, altitude is more difficult and more precious. Soon, I'm at 6,500 feet and the airspeed is down to 80 knots. I pull on the carburetor heat, switch on pitot heat, and turn on full cabin heat to keep the windshield as clean as possible. Now, if I can only maintain a northerly heading of 016 from the Mormon Mesa VORTAC.

FROM! I'd forgotten to reset the VOR when I did the 180! Suddenly I realized why the VOR kept indicating we were right of our course despite an almost constant left turn. The compass was showing an easterly course. Where was I really? We had flown almost a complete circle trying to center the VOR needle.

"Don't panic.", I said to myself, "Fly the airplane first. Bring it around to 016. Reset the VOR to 016. Fly straight and level. Don't think about being lost. At least not out loud." It began to make sense why we had been dodging mountains at the last minute that weren't supposed to be there. By now the visibility was being measured in yards. There is no way to describe the feeling that this was final.

Damn, there is a mountain on my side, gotta go right. "There's a mountain on this side." my wife says softly, not too successfully hiding the panic in her voice. I'm on course I said to myself. Aren't I? Suddenly there was mountain all around. Box Canyon! Neither of us could contain the panic. "How close are we?", my wife asks. I can't tell. The altimeter indicates 6,500 feet, the airspeed is 80 knots, and I'm thinking "Clean it stalls at 65!" We need to trade airspeed for altitude.

I pull back as hard as I can up into the clouds. Airspeed is at 60 knots, I push forward, hard buffeting, no stall warning...? Hell, it must be frozen. Looking out the window we see the mountain top go under us much too close for comfort. The altimeter indicates 7,200 feet and we start sinking fast. The airplane keeps buffeting. STALL. I need airspeed. Nose down into the clouds. NO. Yes! "I need airspeed.", I say out loud. Airspeed at any cost. Nose down into the clouds. As the airspeed increases to 70 knots I begin to pull back again to level off. Now, fly straight and level as long as possible. The altimeter is at 6,800 feet and holding.

"If we're going to crash let's do it and get it over.", I think to myself. No, wait, I want to pick where and when. First we need to let someone know where we are. Second, try to pancake in if possible. I shake that thought: first things first. I set the radio to 121.5 and yell, "Hello. Is there anyone out there?" I wait and hate waiting.

"This is Delta airlines flight...", I key the mike to respond. "Hello, this is Grumman 9988Uniform." With panic in my voice I give my approximate location, heading and indicate that I have ice; how much ice I can't tell. He contacts LA Center and turns me over to them. Quickly my wife resets the radio to Center frequency and I repeat our location, approximate heading, the lack visibility and that I have ice. I'm told that the minimum safe altitude is 9,000 feet. "I don't care.", I yell back, "I have ice and can NOT climb above 6,800 feet. All I want is to get down. Anywhere, just get me down." Then I think to myself, "Down, but only by landing on a paved airstrip."

Center gives me a transponder squawk. How can they see me in these canyons? Who cares at this point! Center then gives me a 340 heading. "Can that be right?" I look at the map and wonder just exactly where I am. With the calmness and precision of a surgeon, Center vectors me through the mountains. And just like magic, the clouds part and we are clear of clouds at 6,500 feet and looking down on Enterprise, Utah. Our panic isn't over but, we are finally VFR again. We just want to get down. There is no airport in Enterprise. For a period of time that seems like hours, the radio is silent and there is no response from LA Center. Finally, I yell into the mike, "IF someone doesn't tell me where to land, I'm landing on a road!"

Center comes back and asks if I have at least 30 minutes of fuel. Then, after determining the best route to fly at my ice laden ceiling of 6,500 feet, vectors us to Cedar City. The ceiling there is now 1,200 feet with a visibility of three miles in fog. We fly through a canyon and see cows in the snow covered fields below.  Then I see Cedar City.

On the ground at Cedar City after an absolutely perfect landing I inspect my Cheetah. Ice. Lots of Ice. The entire airplane is covered with a lots of ice, not just the leading edge where the ice is half an inch thick.  There is ice on every surface.  The spinner has ice.

Throughout this whole series of events my daughter had been very quiet and patient. At first just playing with her dolls, then getting sick when she recognized our panic and concern. On the ground she apologized for getting sick. I had been so concerned with getting us back safely that I hadn't even noticed. I gave her a big hug and told her I still loved her and not to worry. We'll clean it when we get home.

That night my wife and I talked about what could have happened and what we learned from our experience. We had kept our heads and flown the airplane first. We learned that you never, but never, proceed when there is the slightest indication of ice and next time I'll remember to reset the VOR when I make a U-turn. Neither of us will ever forget Nov 25, the day after Thanksgiving 1988. Nor can we ever adequately thank the Delta Airlines pilot and the Center controller for all of their help. We couldn't have done it without them.

The next day the weather station reported warm temperatures with thin broken clouds at 9,000 feet. Like getting back on a horse that throws you, we climbed aboard and continued our trip home. I recall someone saying that flying is just hours of boredom laced with moments of terror. I'll take boredom any day.