Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: email@example.com
As a freshly minted instrument pilot back in 1983, I was keen to make the trip from Watsonville, California, up to Beaverton, Oregon, in my Piper Lance II. Portland was forecast to be IFR, with fairly high ceilings (1,200 ft.) for our arrival.
I took my sales manager along for my company and soon we were motoring up the central valley of California, just north of Sacramento. The conditions were “severe clear” and with the autopilot engaged, there was little to do save try to stay busy. Then I noticed a narrow, dark column of black smoke rising from the valley floor, directly in our flight path a few miles ahead. Being both young and ignorant, I thought to myself, “I’m instrument rated; we’ll pop out of the back of that thing in an instant and it will be fun.” So I aimed for the smoke column.
We penetrated the dark mass and suddenly we were IFR and ascending at a sickening rate. My passenger’s soft drink hit the ceiling and then showered its sickly sweet contents over the entire cabin. The temperature in the cabin became intolerable… surprise… we couldn’t breathe. We started laughing, but couldn’t inhale. Just about the time that I was trying to decide between continuing ahead or doing a 180, we burst out of the back of the column and the cabin cleared immediately.
Our trip continued uneventfully until we reached the Portland area, where it was IFR and icing was not forecast. I remember being on the gauges at 10,000 ft. and watching the airspeed slowly start to decay. Call it fixation, but I hesitated to wander too far from the primary instruments for fear of losing control in IMC. As the airspeed decayed further, I lowered the nose, trying to keep the plane flying.
ATC suddenly became concerned and said, “Lance 2096G, I cleared you to 10,000 ft., say intentions.”
I said that I was in a downdraft and doing what I could to get back to the assigned altitude. But the indications on the instruments (and the increasing sound of air rushing by the fuselage) didn’t make sense.
Suddenly it dawned on me: turn on the pitot heat. Almost within seconds of flicking the switch, the airspeed flipped from an indicated 45 knots to redline. I was in a pronounced dive and my task was to level out without pulling the wings off. In time, I got the plane under control and was glad that my passenger was oblivious to the actual events.
So what did I learn? Regarding the smoke column: don’t. You don’t know how long you’ll be in there. It’s illegal and you can’t breathe. Need I say more?
And I learned from the icing experience that no matter what the forecast says, if you’re IFR and in the clouds, turn on your pitot heat. It’s good insurance.
The key to instrument flying is to live and learn. But the real key is to live long enough to do that.