I never considered canceling

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.

Cessna 402B
The 402B was the queen of the fleet, but hardly an amazing performer when heavily-loaded.

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.

Deicing airplane
Deicing is often expensive. It’s often worth it, too.

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: editor@airfactsjournal.com

12 Comments

  • I do not know who provided the photo for the “I never considered cancelling” article, but the aircraft appears to be a 414 not a 402B. The 402 models had square windows and was unpressurized. And, along with square type windows, it had more of the, too.

  • One lovely winter morning I discovered the C-172 I had booked for the day was covered in frost. After about an hour of scraping off the frost between the rivet lines, I was ready to fly.

    Leaving ground effect the airplane took me on low level tour of the ravine at the end of the runway until it had another 20 kt.

    After that I kept a couple jugs of – 30C windshield washer in the car. The stuff won’t do in freezing precip, but I don’t fly in that stuff.

  • Nope, 402B. The very plane that I flew in the article only with a lot more miles on her.
    The boss, now long gone, liked it because it looked like it was pressurized.
    We also had two 401s with round windows.

  • I also discovered that the 400 series (a 411 in particular) don’t climb so good with powdery Jackson Hole, WY snow on the fuselage only, wings clean (do you know how hard it is to reach to top of the fuselage on a 411?).

  • Good thing you were in the relatively flat lands of South Dakota where there exist a whole bunch of Diverse Departure procedures. If a successful departure and on-route trek had depended on following an ODP I don’t suppose you would have been around to write this account. Glad you made it okay. Most of us who fly for a living having come up through the “hard-knocks” curriculum understand how you can get yourself into these sticky wickets.

  • I’m a low time IFR pilot, and have read so many things like this that I grounded myself for a couple of days as I waited for better weather, even with pressing work stuff happening a couple of hours flying time south.

    I was at a Little River airport in Mendocino (northern coastal California) last year over New Years, and the biggest storm of the rain storm of the season was happening. Also, the fuel pump at the airport was busted, so I couldn’t refuel without a short hop to Ukiah ( I had maybe 1 hour of fuel in the tanks).

    Constant rain, 1000′ ceiling, sigmet for icing, “bumpy terrain”, ground temp of 40F, and a mission that meant significant time in “hanging out” in the clouds… made the “no go” decision pretty easy.

    And on the third day, it was blue and beautiful!

  • My reaction to this tale? – Ye Gods!…and congratulations for successfully bootstrapping yourself from ‘rural American roots’ into ‘living the American Dream’…and for surviving this particular idiocy. Reading this misadventure reminded me of the truism: Sometimes it’s better to be lucky rather than good! Being able to make a living as a pilot in the wonderful area in which you spent your youth ain’t bad either!

    • One of the points I was hoping to communicate is that there is probably a point where a pilot would say, “heck with that, let’s go”. I’m probably talking about less than a gallon of water, frozen into a rough film on the upper wing surface. 8-10 pounds of water?
      If anyone was wondering if that’s actually as big a deal as the rules say, yeah, it can be.
      Probably more so when it trips up the boundary layer on an under powered plane but I don’t care to be a test pilot anymore.

  • Good head work at FCM and lesson learned at RAP. I had the pleasure of being mentored by a couple of former NAPs. They were real pros with a lot of wisdom and yes they were crusty.

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