I don’t often make flights that stick with me for the rest of my life. Thankfully. This one has some of the details missing from the early 1990s, but I force myself to remember the lesson even if I’d like to forget or rationalize it away.
I scratched my way up from working in a sawmill in Hill City, South Dakota (my last non-aviation job), to being a charter pilot and A&P in Rapid City. Ratings on credit with the boss, extra hours in the shop and finally flight instruction got me to the point where I was in the queen of the fleet, a Cessna 402B. Both those things are actually relevant because I was eager to not anger a penny-pinching ex-military boss, and the 402 that I was so proud to fly was a pig when loaded up at (maybe a bit beyond) gross weight.
I had flown to Huron, South Dakota, early that morning from Rapid City with a full plane. An early morning IFR departure from our Mountain-time airport to meet a Central-time passenger schedule was followed by a gray, dreary day of waiting in an old FBO.
Tension increased as departure time drew near and a light freezing drizzle started.
I wasn’t unaware of the hazard, but reasoned that I could keep polishing it off to make the takeoff safely. There was no way I could picture the boss not chewing me out if I got an expensive de-ice.
Another company airplane passed far overhead in the murk and called Huron Unicom to chide me a bit, saying he had no problems with the weather. He was actually a fairly IFR-inexperienced older pilot who had his ego wrapped up in flying as a second career and was really just bragging that he was doing a trip on his own in IMC.
As my passengers arrived, I loaded them up and gave the wings one last scrape and felt I had done all I could, never considering canceling or deicing. The 402B had a pilot door accessible from the wing walk and I jumped in from there after latching the air stair.
A long taxi to runway 12 followed where I reasoned that the slight roughness caused by the freezing drizzle couldn’t possibly have that much of an effect. The old on-the-field Flight Service Station issued a clearance and I was on my way into the overcast and mist.
I fed in full power to the mighty TSIO 520 Continentals, the same 300 hp engines installed in the much lighter and smaller Cessna Turbo 310 and the 340A. My self-briefing plan was to hold the plane on the slightly slick runway to what I considered to be an extremely safe-bet liftoff speed of about 120 knots.
Dividing my attention between setting power, keeping her straight and watching my speed, I noticed the windshield starting to mist over with ice but I kept charging.
Acceleration was normal and I had a fairly long runway so at 120 I gently rotated the nose – and continued to roll with the mains fully planted. I am amazed at how fast I was able to think with that giant shot of adrenaline, the only thing I am proud of that day.
I mentally calculated that there was no way to abort without running off the end and causing major damage or worse.
I lowered the nose back down and shoved both throttles on up. I actually thought it through that it would be less damaging to potentially over-boost the engines than to put them through a ditch (adrenaline again).
Now 140 knots or so. Try again. Rotate.
The plane slogged into the air but I could tell it wouldn’t climb out of ground effect.
Hold it there.
Attitude control was from out of the corner of my eye through the side window; straight ahead the view was gone. The adrenaline-fueled thought process asked, “what do I have left to make me climb?”
Landing gear up, nothing to lose.
The plane did what Twin Cessnas do in the old lift over drag demo for multi-engine students: lifting the gear gives about 200 fpm to the positive. I didn’t have a mental picture of what was ahead and I couldn’t see out my ice-coated windshield anyway. I don’t remember how high I was before I started to relax and very gently started a turn, and I don’t know if I gave enough of a tell to scare my right-seat passenger.
I do know that a couple of months later when my boss went with me on a charter to Flying Cloud, near Minneapolis, I refused to get on the plane after it collected freezing drizzle and he wouldn’t de-ice it. At that point the passengers refused to get on and my crusty ex-enlisted naval aviator boss backed down to his 20-something employee.
If you think that slight roughness on your wings from frost, freezing drizzle or pulling a warm plane out of the hangar into freezing cold and light snow can’t matter that much, it does. I made myself remember that story recently. For just a moment, I thought that the very light snow falling on the warm wings and tail of my hangared-for-the-night plane wouldn’t make that much difference when it refroze.
Then I told my passengers that we had about a 99.9 percent chance of taking off OK without de-icing as we got de-iced.
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 protected]