Go or No Go: over the ice at night?

Today’s mission is to fly from Duluth, Minnesota (DLH), to your home in Columbus, Ohio (OSU). It’s nearly 5pm in Duluth, so this flight will be completely in the dark. That’s not a a deal-breaker, since you typically log about a third of your hours at night and are instrument proficient. Your airplane is a Cirrus SR22T, with a full Garmin G1000 glass cockpit, autopilot, and datalink weather. Your ETD is 2300Z and your flight should take a little less than three hours.

Read the weather briefing below and tell us if you would take off or cancel.

Overview

The weather in Duluth looks pretty good, but the Maps page in ForeFlight shows some snow in the Chicago area and a number of those pesky blue PIREPs.

The surface analysis shows the underlying cause of that precipitation: a weak low is sitting over southern Minnesota, with a warm front extending east over Michigan.

The prognostic charts show the snow moving off to the east overnight, with the worst over northeast Ohio. So it looks like you’ll be flying on the backside of this small system.

By tomorrow morning there are some leftover snow showers in Ohio but most of the precipitation is gone.

Radar and satellite

The radar image doesn’t show much other than those scattered snow showers in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

The satellite image shows clouds along most of your route, with the thickest clouds in Wisconsin.

The cloud top forecast indicates mid-level tops over much of your route, with the highest tops around 14,000 feet. With your turbo Cirrus, cruising at 15,000 or 17,000 feet is perfectly acceptable.

Icing

With no convective activity and no major issues with turbulence (all the AIRMETs are for bumps above 18,000 feet), the main concern today is in-flight icing—no surprise for a flight in January over the Midwest. To start, you look at the G-AIRMET for icing, which shows icing from the surface to 10,000 feet along most of your route (at a forecast time of 0000Z).


The forecast icing layer in ForeFlight makes it easy to compare potential icing at different altitudes. Not surprisingly, it mostly agrees with the AIRMET, showing moderate ice over Chicago at 10,000 feet. But your departure and destination look relatively ice-free.

At 12,000 feet, conditions seem to be improving, with most of the ice off to the east.

By 14,000 feet it seems like you’d be out of any icing.

PIREPs

The next step is to dig into those PIREPs you saw on your first look at the Maps page. The icing PIREP overview shows plenty of green symbols.

It’s important to go beyond the raw numbers though, as often a PIREP will include other details about cloud tops or OAT. First is a report in Wisconsin, showing light rime at 11,000 feet.

Another PIREP near Chicago shows light rime from 11,000 to 11,500 feet.

To the east of Chicago, it seems like the icing is worse, with multiple reports of moderate ice, including this one at 10,000.

Finally, over northern Indiana a King Air reported light ice from 10,100 down to 6,000 feet but also that tops were at 10,100 feet.

Text weather

Finally, you’ll want to check the METARs and TAFs. Duluth is reporting good VFR (but cold!) and it’s forecast to stay that way. You should have a VFR takeoff and climb.

Columbus is reporting good VFR conditions now, although the forecast calls for some snow showers to move in closer to your arrival time.

Decision time

It’s time to make the call: go or no go? On the one hand, weather at your departure and destination look pretty good, and you should be able to get above the ice. On the other hand, it will be dark and there is definitely some precipitation to consider about halfway along your route, plus all those icing PIREPs.

Add a comment below and tell us what you would do. Here’s one final twist: would TKS deice change your plan? Most SR22Ts have this system, some of them certified for flight into known icing. Does that matter for your decision making?

68 Comments

  • If it was daytime, I might consider this flight in an SR22T with no ice protection, as I can always see & avoid any significant clouds. The chances of having to descend through ice-filled clouds at my destination, plus the inability to see & avoid clouds, would keep me on the ground until the next day.

  • I don’t usually weigh in here, and I’m going to do it just so folks wiser than myself can tell me where my blind spots are.

    With TKS and FIKI certification, I’d make it a go, but not with my kids onboard (in case of an emergency egress situation after a chute deployment). I’d prefer a second engine for night IFR.

    From some flights in a DA42NG up in Sweden and the TKS on max, I’ve seen it shed a surprising amount of ice.

    So I’d plan to fly high in the Cirrus, with O2, and feel confident about making a quick descent at the destination with the ice protection on. That would also mean a thorough check of the TKS system on the ground (per the manual).

    Without ice protection, I’d hold off for better weather. I don’t want to mess with non FIKI airplanes in icing.

    These are great scenarios. Thank you!

    • What affects will the ice have on the emergency chute? Also will the amount of ice The air frame picks up as it’s descending through the ice, will this be too much weight for the chute to support?

  • First thing is to ensure that you have enough O2 to stay well above the ice. Worst case is ice you can’t get over. You want enough fuel to run back to departure. Absolute worst case is enough ice that you need the chute.

    Assuming you can stay well above the ice until it’s time to descend, you want enough gas to divert South if ice unexpectedly shows at destination.

    So how far South can you divert with full tanks?

  • My main concern is the approaching warm front from the west with tops as high as FL240. The oncoming radar returns amidst this advancing warm front threatens freezing rain. That said, I may make the flight if I felt fresh, was flying alone, had O2 sufficient to make the trip and a good alternate in the clear to the south.

  • My worry here is not only the ice in the clouds but the advancing warm front, tops forecast to flight level 240, bringing a chance of freezing rain along with just the regular ice. If I was alone, had plenty of O2, felt fresh and had a good diversion to the south, I would commence the flight and closely monitor conditions as I flew along.

  • I agree with ED, If it was daytime, I might consider this flight in an SR22T with no ice protection, as I can always see & avoid any significant clouds. The chances of having to descend through ice-filled clouds at my destination, plus the inability to see & avoid clouds, would keep me on the ground until the next day.

  • As a student pilot I’m not qualified to even think about this but I wouldn’t go because if you have an enroute equipment failure / emergency you’ll have to descend through the known icing to make an emergency landing. Trying to do this at night, in icing, deal with the emergency,… that’s too many problems.

    • I’ve been flying for 57 years, single/multi/mostly IFR, and couldn’t agree with you more. You are indeed qualified to think about it, and are demonstrating exactly the kind of judgement you’ll need in your aviation career in the future. Congratulations on pursuing your aviation interests, and best wishes!

  • The next day seems like a safer option,… especially since you will likely pick up some ice on the climb out and descent.

  • No-flying single engine at night over areas of low ifr is a no go for me. Spend the night, have a nice meal and sleep well-easy flight the next day

  • “As a student pilot I’m not qualified to even think about this but I wouldn’t go because if you have an enroute equipment failure / emergency you’ll have to descend through the known icing to make an emergency landing. Trying to do this at night, in icing, deal with the emergency,… that’s too many ( potential ) problems.”

    Same applies to other than students also. Given the temperatures on the ground along the route not much chance of shedding ice if a decent to an emergency landing was necessary.

    Wonder what the weather is for the next day? Something I always look at when considering these type of flights.

  • This is a real-life scenario. Night flight, single engine, AND rime icing is a “cancel the flight trifecta” since all will surely be encountered. When all of those items are considered, delaying the flight until the next day is a no-brainer for me.

  • Why tempt fate? If there are many “what ifs” – engine failure at night, descending through ice, etc, it may be better to wait until the conditions improve in the morning.

  • The airplane is certainly capable of the flight given full fuel and O2 for rerouting if necessary. If I had an experienced co-pilot to help watch the wings and aid in an emergency, I would go and stay high. Alone, I would wait for daylight to remove that variable from the equation and not allow “get-home-iris” to take over. With functioning FIKI equipment on board I would make the flight knowing I could activate the de-icing for an emergency decent and stay extremely vigilant on the wings for ice.

  • I’m getting more cautious the more hours I log. I plan every x-country flight with the full intention of waiting out potentially risky WX. I don’t fear night flying but I would consider the possibility of engine failure (since I’ve had one) and being forced to descend through the icing. I would not want to put myself in a situation where the parachute was my backup plan either. I’m waiting this one out.

  • As we all know, sometimes the weather forgets to read the forecast. The first question I ask myself with potential icing conditions is, if things don’t go as planned, what’s my out? Can I descend to above freezing temperatures? Can I confidently get over or under the cloud layer?

    In this scenario, the only possibility is being able to stay on top. In an aircraft without icing protection, I wouldn’t be willing to bet that I could stay in the clear for the entire flight.

    If the aircraft were certified for known ice or at least had some deicing capabilities, you have the “out” that it should buy you some time to land if it starts to get overwhelmed.
    (For what it’s worth, I’ve seen moderate rime form on the HEATED windshield of a Falcon in the upper teens.)

    The worst case in this scenario is that could happen in the area around the Wisconsin/Illinois border where there are some low IFR conditions depicted.

    Shooting an approach to minimums in an iced up airplane in the dark is more excitement than I’d care to have. Waiting until morning at least eliminates the added risk factor of night flight. Personally, I would follow the advice of my old flight instructor, Dave Bauman, and throw another log on the fire.

    • For sure weather forgets to listen to the forecast. Made this trip from St. Paul to Columbus about 15 years ago this time of year. In the daytime. No forecast for ice anywhere. At about 15,000 feet, started to get a goodly amount of ice. BE 36 with TKS FIKI and TN. I asked for higher and didn’t get out of it until 20,000 feet. It took 30 minutes in the sunshine with TKS running to get rid of all the ice it picked up. Valuable lesson.

  • If you wouldn’t make the trip with your family why would you consider it alone? How on earth does having a parachute factor into your decision making? Do not leave the ground if your plan B is to implement emergency procedures. I’m sure we could make this flight 99 times out of 100 but that’s not worth it to me, I would stay on the ground until daylight.

  • It would be a no go for me. Too many risk factors stacked: Night, Icing, IFR, Single Engine, End of day fatigue. Not many steps away from one link breaking in the chain of events to cause a major problem. Would wait until morning. If this flight were to be conducted in a pressurized twin/turboprop or jet with two crew members, then I would fall on the go side.

    • Agree. One helpful tool in the decision- making process is to imagine the facts associated with the flight were in an NTSB report. We have all read accident reports and wondered “what were they thinking?”. The facts associated with this flight are getting into that category.

  • If the route was changed to more westerly and due south and then due east avoiding the weather, it could be a go for me. The way it is set up in this scenario, its a no go.

    Way to much faith in weather reports, etc. An icing encounter at night is a very real possibility here with not to many ways out. No thank you.

    TKS has no bearing on this for me at all. To many things could go wrong with that as well. A single engine airplane in known icing conditions is bad juju.

  • Something my IFR instructor told me came to mind when I saw the first weather image. Anytime you cross a frontal boundary, you are asking for trouble. But, there is more. It’s at night, and there is possible icing. Yeah, I know, the Cirrus has deicing, but I would stay the night and check in the morning. If something did happen, you would be in the dark and unable to see. Why take the chance?

  • Nope. Several things I don’t like in this scenario—including that warm front. Planning to be 1-2K feet above “expected tops” (where any icing is often at its worst), no thanks.

    Important stuff to do at home tomorrow? Get a hotel, be up at 04.00 to check whether the forecast has borne out, and if yes shoot for a 05.00 launch. That timing may be a bit of a challenge, because you are putting your plane in the FBO’s hangar v. starting it cold-soaked, right? With that plan, you’re still on the ground at home before 09.00 and ready for the day.

  • No go for me—as others have noted, too many risk factors. The irony, of course, is that it’s likely only prudent pilots that would deign to read a scenario like this and weigh in…..it’s the folks who don’t bother educating themselves that we have to worry about

    • I like this idea of an early AM departure. While I don’t fee the evening flight is especially dangerous and would do it if need (with TKS), I’m just not a night person. I hated the all nighters back from the west coast years ago, no more.

      Now if I had something that was a so important that I HAD to be there, like my kid getting married, my planning was already flawed as I should have gone a few days earlier.

  • Why not change the route? Go south behind the weather then east once south of Chicago a little? It appears this would be out of the ice and mostly VFR.

  • No way I would make this flight even if I had FIKI. Only if it was life or death or a military operation that had to go. If you have ever seen how quickly ice can build and how the cloud tops can easily build well beyond forecast height, leaving you with no outs, you probably wouldn’t forget very quickly.

  • Fifty winters ago, with the ink on my instrument rating still wet, I took off from CLE with a friend in my Piper Arrow, for a daytime flight to Toronto. Forecast was severe clear. As soon as I got over Lake Erie at 7000, seemed to encounter thin clouds, and immediately started accumulating ice. Canceled Toronto and headed back to CGF in Cleveland. The auto gear extender probe froze (even though pitot heat was on), and the gear dropped. Safe landing at CGF with lots of ice.

    So…trusting midwest forecasts in winter is a real gamble, especially at night…

    TKS might make me re-think it, though…

  • Looking at the Sfc Analysis chart and then the Prog chart valid at 06Z, NWS is forecasting that the warm front will be overwhelmed by a cold airmass to the north which will change to a cold front pushing south. Four hours after intended arrival, assuming on-time departure, almost all of Ohio has a forecast for snow. One could roll the dice and launch hoping that cold front doesn’t push the icing into higher altitudes, hope that the snow doesn’t arrive in the area earlier than forecast, or any of a myriad of other possible adverse changes. That’s too much situational volatility for my comfort with few escape routes. I like stacking the odds in my favor; I’ll stay the night and use the time to communicate my change of plans to those who’d rather that I arrive later than never. Consideration to pop the chute as part of a go/no-go means one is ready to trash the airplane just to push plan A. I have read too many accident reports in which stubbornness and hubris was rewarded with a smack from Mother Nature. These kinds of decisions go beyond oneself and impact all with whom one is associated.

  • Proposed route is a no go. Forecasts are just a best guess and I have been caught in icing where it wasn’t supposed to be. It’s either route west and south around the system or better yet, wait until tomorrow when and if the weather moves east and it’s daylight.

  • This is a NO GO for me. #1: I try to learn from accidents. Colgan Air twin turboprop near Buffalo crashed at night in Feb 2009 because of ice buildup while on approach with the autopilot on plus poor airspeed monitoring by PIC. A Cirrus crashed in April 2018 because of ice buildup in Pennsylvania (see AOPA accident case studies). American Airlines twin turboprop crashed south of Chicago (Roselawn) in Oct 1994 while holding in icing conditions.

    In this scenario, can we guarantee that a hold in icing conditions would not be needed during the arrival at Columbus, OH?

    #2: I was surprised that some people would embark on this flight as a single pilot. I would definitely want to have a well-qualified co-pilot to help monitor for icing, monitor the airplane engines / instruments and discuss potential options enroute – if I was be crazy enough to actually launch.

    • Correct on AA crash, Colgan did not crash due to ice but rather an unfortunate set of circumstances that involved a Vref switch set for flying an approach into known icing and the crew’s response to a stall warning when the approach was not flown at the higher speed triggering that warning.

  • This used to happen all the time in clapped out old Cessna 310s & 402s. Lots of respect for corporate and airline pilots that worked their way up from freight dogs. Usually great skills (and a lot of luck)

  • These days I have reservations about flying at night at all in a single engine airplane. That said, if I were to go I would simply change course to the South until able to turn back on course avoiding the possibility of encountering icing at all.

  • Lots of perceptive answers here. Speaking from the vantage point of my 25 years research into icing accidents, the single-engine over-the-top-at-night scenario is pretty typical of icing accidents out west, when the pilot gets trapped by high MEAs, low design performance and rising cloud tops. Regardless of geography, there are numerous cases in which the pilot was completely unaware of ice accretion at night, until the performance degradation became apparent.

    So if you get into ice, how and where will you divert? And, as Brent and others have astutely observed, what happens if you have an equipment failure? This is a conversation I’ve had about overflying hurricanes in the Caribbean…sure, I’m 15,000 feet above the storm, but if I lose an engine, I’m going to be right in the top and, oh, by the way, does “nearest suitable airport” mean outside the hurricane or will an airport in center of the eye be acceptable? Let’s add some gas and go around.

    Most interesting in this dialog is the discussion on the use of the ballistic parachute. I think everybody gets the idea that the chute is not a planning tool. But the inclusion of it in the discussion makes me wonder how much it influences one’s construction of risk, even at a subconscious level. We are all prone to do this; we are tempted to define the worst-case scenario as “well, if I have to, I can pull the chute…”, whereas obviously we would think differently if we didn’t have a ballistic parachute. In fact, the worst-case scenario is the one just before you pull the chute…because the chute is there for the scenario you didn’t already think of.

    Sort of amusing when you consider that World War I air leadership was reluctant to equip pilots with parachutes, for fear they would simply bail out rather than engage in combat. But for those of us flying airplanes not equipped with a chute…what other similar risk-construction mistakes do we make? Starting with, for example, my airplane is equipped…but not certificated…for FIKI?

    • Perceptive comments as always, Steve. As we like to say on these scenarios, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. There’s usually a safe and an unsafe way to make the flight, depending on the pilot, time, route, altitude, etc. The key is not to make the go or no go choice needlessly binary – often a “go but go around” option works.

      Personally, I think I would make this trip in a TKS-equipped airplane, but with a relatively small deviation to the south. It sure looks like 50 or 75 miles further west gets you away from most of the bad ice, a turbo means 20,000 is an option if tops really rise, and TKS is perfectly good for a short descent through a light icing layer near the destination. And there’s a pretty good bailout option to the southwest.

      The parachute question on a scenario like this is fascinating. I’m a big believer in the benefits of CAPS (I wasn’t at first but numbers convinced me). And yet I think it’s a reason to buy a Cirrus – not a reason to make a particular trip. It’s an airplane asset, not a tool for making more flights. If it’s treated that way, you’re well down the path of risk compensation/Peltzman effect and you’ve lost the whole point.

  • I scarcely needed to read the forecasts…positively a no-go situation, and cross country a night in a S/E airplane is asking for trouble.

    • After 65 years of flying I finally agree. When I was using my single-engine planes in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s for travel, night-flying was the only way to make them useful.

      Now that I only use my plane for pure fun, I’ve given up night-flying…

      In 1984, my Saratoga SP’s engine quit just after take-off from Page Field in Fort Myers. I luckily put it down in a schoolyard. If it had been a night flight, there would have been five dead SOB’s.

  • Risk factor analysis – Icing Forecast and reported. Aircraft not approved for flight into known icing conditions – at this point we’re done, with a no go decision but to be complete –

    Additional Risks: Night Flight in IFR, Probability of picking up at least some ice is high. Operations at altitudes where oxygen is required. Ability to remain clear of clouds/icing at night very restricted. Snow storms may restrict ability to land at primary, requiring missed approach & further flight to alternate.

    Risk mitigation factors – Well equipped modern aircraft, Night and IFR proficiency is high (else why would we consider this?) No mitigation for icing encountered other than climbing above, or attempting to remain clear of clouds/precip.

    Outcome of flying a Cirrus at night in IFR with a load of ice – not good.

  • My mind was made up (No) just by reading the title. Maybe in a TBM but even still wouldn’t be hugely excited about the night / icing combo.

    Also worth noting the Icing pireps are all from transport category jets with hot wings. Moderate to a CRJ may be something very different to an SR22.

    No thanks.

  • I like the negative trifecta comment: night / single engine / ice. I’ve got considerable time in TwinStars with TKS, but I would not launch under this scenario.

  • I have had limited experience with icing but every time I did encounter it the tops were higher than forecast and reported, and always seemed to get higher as I went along. With a FIKI Seneca I did ok but did not like continuing the climb to the flight levels, even with oxygen.

  • These articles / scenarios are rarely this black and white. Ice = no go.

    Known icing, or potential for icing that goes bad kills GA pilots every year… including this month. Just reading through various newsletters, I’ve read about four or five crashes in the last 12 months where the GA pilots requested help getting out of the ice just before they died. Including one this month (Jan. 2021). It’s clear why there are a lot of questions about ice on the IR written exam.

  • No need at all to fly over the icy clouds — as several pointed out, just avoid the whole messy area by deviating to the west, then south and then east into Port Columbus, if indeed it’s necessary at all to go that evening. A better risk mitigation option is to go next morning! Another option to consider — sell the Cirrus and get a FIKI 58P Baron or equivalent for travel in this region for all seasons.

    That single point of failure whirring around up front will be okay, until it isn’t, and then things will “go bump in the night.” If you think otherwise, look over the accident report for N761YZ. And, no one should be comforted by the false promise of safety by the presence of a parachute. If that’s the reason for flying in these weather conditions, just cut up your pilot certificate and throw the pieces into the fireplace.

  • Ok, VFR departure…
    Climb to 14,000 and go clear sky over & across the “ice-filled” clouds
    Start descent when into Ohio (build-up is already east of you)
    Descend in VFR conditions to Columbus and land.
    Easy…make the trip.

    Other factors contributing to going:
    Oxygen above 12,500′
    Full tanks for unlikely divert
    FIKI operational (but shouldn’t need if forecasts are accurate)
    Parachute (only to make your pax happy)

  • I’ll be at the hotel…I look at the types of aircraft that the PIREPs are being generated, most of the ones highlighted for this scenario are turboprops or jets. Having flown turbine equipment for the past couple of decades, From my experience, their normal climb or descent profiles are usually in the 1000-2500fpm range and they are blessed with the equipment that can handle icing yet I see “moderate” in these PIREPS. Couple that with night IFR, single engine with no FIKI equals too many links in the error chain for me. I’m waiting unit the next day.

  • For me it’s a no go.

    It’s not the fact that it’s night. I’m sure oxygen is not a consideration and you’ve got plenty for the trip. The big showstopper for me is if I had an emergency I’d have to descend through the ice and conditions. This makes it something that I wouldn’t do. I’d rather just wait till the morning when everything passes through and fly early in the day.

  • Brent, we are ALL still learning, or should be. Don’t ever stop. Your post shows excellent judgment.

    Maybe I’ve had too many systems go wonky, or seen ice bad enough to challenge anti-ice in a turbine, but I’m not betting anyone’s life on a piston single TKS system. So unless there is a clear path VMC in enough light to ensure I don’t have to descend through known icing, I’m going to get some sleep and go VFR in the morning.

    The chute doesn’t figure at all for me. If one starts to include it in one’s risk assessment, how does one prevent simply ending every brief with “…or else we’ll just deploy the chute”? I know a guy who did basically end every risk assessment with that, but his last flight (night, mountain) ended CFIT — no time to pull the handle.

  • Hotels are offering great deals right now. I’m staying overnight and probably going the next day. I was within a minute of dying in a Mooney M20 in 1977 flying around ORD and quickly picked up almost three inches of mixed rime. Full throttle and speed barely 100 when ATC cleared us back down to 3000. We started to shed the ice quickly and landed at JOT as a precaution. Still had a chunk holding onto the inner horizontal stabilizer. That’s how we knew how much we had been carrying. Single engine is risky enough without adding the risk of night, IFR and icing below. No, thanks.

  • How about going low? Seems like the ice reports are up higher (6000′). Maybe stay down at 3000′ to 5000′. If it’s snowing, I wouldn’t think there would be ice. Is it possible that one should consider low altitudes even though they have a turbocharger? Seems like an option that a turbine driver might not have.

  • Well, first of all- Since Air Facts was started by Richard Collins father … I’d like to mention that Leighton’s son wrote a fantastic book :
    Flying The Weather Map…
    That book incorporates a study of the 500mB chart prior to any flight in order to really understand how a weather situation may be… A must study chart prior to any flight but especially for a flight outlined in this scenario…
    My decision- I can’t make one as 500mB information wasn’t provided !!!

  • Lots of good comments – mostly “no way”. It is a little ironic that there is an article about engine failure in this same issue…

    PS – why do pilots continue to fly (or especially hold) at an altitude where their aircraft is accumulating an unsafe load of ice? That is an emergency. Declare it and DO SOMETHING… before you can’t.

  • I fly an SR22 with FIKI. Most of all my flying has been in the Midwest. This would be a no-go, defiantly at night. Flying around lake Michigan was a good choice, however traversing ORD airspace could open you up to being vectored “out of the way” or held at an altitude that would be undesirable and burning up precious minutes of TKS fluid.

    TO THE CIRRUS PILOTS: Please don’t plan to pull the chute before you leave ground as part of your risk mitigation planning. If the flight is that far of the risk charts that you are planning to “pull CAPS”, please don’t continue on with planning this flight. There is no guarantee you will survive the event. The minute you pull the chute you are a passenger and have no control over what happens next. I agree having the CAPS option is a comforting feature, especially to my loved ones, but never a consideration for departing into a potentially bad situation.

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