My wife and I have been to Hong Kong several times, because our son and his family live and work there. From Indianapolis, we usually fly to Newark, then direct Hong Kong over the Pole. The trip from Newark is usually about 18 hours aloft, at least that’s how it feels. The return trip is a bit easier as the flight takes a more southern route, and I gather prevailing westerlies shorten that leg to around 15 hours.
Our worst return trip from Hong Kong was 41 hours, door-to-door. The trip began with a mad, two-taxi dash to the airport, delayed departure, a bumpy ride, and late-day arrival at Newark in an ice storm. We had a long layover there, and wandered the airport for some time, window-shopping and getting a meal. When I finally decided to check the departure board, I was stunned to see that our flight back to Indy, and most others, were cancelled: icing had shut down the field shortly after we had landed.
In a panic, we hurried to the airline’s service counter, finding very long lines of unhappy-looking people, which we joined. As people were served and walked away from the counter, they mostly looked even unhappier. Finally, our turn came, and I must admit my jetlag, fatigue, and intense get-home-itis had given me a bad attitude. I was ready to be a hostile customer. But, hallelujah, when I handed our papers to the airline rep, he said, “Oh my, you’re in from Hong Kong! Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of you.” Jeez, I almost cried.
But taking care of us wasn’t easy. We got meal chits and a room at a motel… but we couldn’t get our bags, had to walk a long distance to a train stop, ride the train to a bus stop where a mob of tired people waited in freezing rain, then make the third bus trip to the hotel. Dinner was a burger at 0130, sleep in our clothes was three hours, then at 0400, we reversed the drill back to the terminal.
At dawn, we saw a beautiful sunny day with ice decorating everything. Fatigue gave way to the pleasure of being on the last leg home. Our ride was a regional jet, and my wife yielded the window seat for my viewing pleasure. The plane was chilly inside, having sat out all night. Looking out the window, I saw water on the wing. Water, okay. I guess the sun has already melted the ice. But unease crept in. As we began the pushback, I saw that the “water” didn’t move. It didn’t move during a fast taxi, either. Just as I reached to push the call button and alert the crew that the wings were iced, the First Officer announced, “We’re number one for takeoff,” turned immediately onto the runway, and away we went. The clear, ripply ice on the wings was the only thing I could see; I vividly remember thinking, “Well, it’s a good day to die, sun shining, storm passed.” Fortunately, I only thought that, and didn’t say it to my wife.
To my relief, at about 2000 feet AGL, all the ice suddenly shucked off, and I could relax my death-grip on the armrests. I told my wife then what had happened. After stewing for a while, I decided that the crew needed to know what I saw. I called the flight attendant, and told her that after the landing in Indy, I would like to speak with the captain about a flight safety issue. Shortly, the attendant returned to say that if we would stay seated until everyone else had left the plane in Indy, she would escort me to the cockpit. And so it happened.
My first look into the cockpit gave me a start. The captain was a lovely young— very young— Chinese-American lady, and the male First Officer looked to be about 16. I introduced myself as an instrument-rated private pilot and over-experienced airline traveler. I said, “You need to know that we took off with iced wings.” The copilot turned snow-white, and I thought he might faint. “No, no, no!” he said. “I checked the wings during preflight, and I found no ice.” I asked, “How did you check the wings?” He responded that he’d run his hands along the entire leading edges of both wings. I said, “But the ice was all over the top of the wings; there is no way you could have felt it from the ground.”
I was then almost certain he was going to faint. The pilots were both stuttering with obvious concern, so I said, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to write you up. I thought you needed to know what happened so it won’t happen again.” I suggested that perhaps inspection of the wings from inside the cabin might have alerted them of the issue. They thanked me profusely, and my wife and I headed for home and desperately-needed sleep.
I think of those two handsome young pilots now and then, and wonder if they remember that day as vividly as I do. I wonder what lesson or lessons they took from the experience. Certainly, I hope that when taking charge of an airplane that sat out overnight in an ice storm, they understand the need for extra-thorough inspections. I also wonder if I did anyone a disservice by keeping that icy event just with the pilot, copilot, and me. Had I been in the cockpit, at the receiving end of the news, I would have been very grateful for how it was handled.
What do you think? Did I do the right thing?