We had departed Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in the early afternoon and flown to Scotland on the first leg of our trip from Europe to Tucson, Arizona. Belgian Formula One driver Thierry Boutsen had decided to trade in his Piper Cheyenne IIXL for a Learjet, and I had gotten the nod to ferry Boutsen’s big Piper turboprop across the Atlantic to Lear’s sales and training facility in Tucson.
I had Boutsen’s corporate pilot in back, along with his girlfriend and another pilot who had never flown the ocean and thought it might be fun.
It was mid-March, well into icing season, so I cautioned everyone not to be overly concerned about airframe icing. The airplane was in great condition, well-equipped for icing, with Goodrich pneumatic deice boots on the wings and tail surfaces and electrically heated boots on each prop blade. Both of the other pilots aboard had limited experience in icing, but they had avoided it whenever possible—a good policy in Europe and Scandinavia, where the weather and mountainous terrain seem to breed ice practically all year ’round.
Still, my passengers were concerned about icing on the trip to the U.S. Accordingly, we were vectored across the North Sea to Stornoway, U.K., before being turned north toward Reykjavik, Iceland—our first overnight stop. Owner Boutsen had suggested that I, “take everyone for an interesting trip, and don’t worry too much about the cost.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t quite that simple. The ice was waiting for me just north of Scotland, and the Cheyenne began to accumulate ice as we cleared the coast above Stornoway and headed out on across the 600-nm, overwater leg to Reykjavik.
I used a fairly flat, high-speed climb to minimize the angle of attack. As every pilot worthy of their instrument rating knows, the danger of inflight icing is that it reshapes an aircraft’s airfoils and makes any lifting surface less efficient. If you use a high-angle-of-attack climb through icing conditions, you may accumulate ice on the wings’ bottom surface, and since you have no way of seeing it, you may never know it had brought you down until you reach your emergency landing site.
Icing may cause problems at temperatures ranging from about -20° to 2° Celsius, the latter a function of possible instrument error. (Some aircraft OAT gauges aren’t very accurate.) Temperatures colder than -20° C usually won’t contain sufficient moisture to cause inflight icing. This suggests that flying higher where the upper atmosphere is naturally colder could be safer.
On the Atlantic route, the bad news about flying high eastbound is that the wind can become ferocious. A combination of strong headwinds and inflight icing on an eastbound crossing can conspire to make the trip memorable in the worst possible way.
I often wonder if another occasional meteorological problem around Iceland is low atmospheric pressure. The warm gulfstream often runs along the western coast of the country, even in winter. I’ve seen barometric pressure as low as 28.90 several times, and if you had your altimeter set for 29.92, the standard setting (high to low—look out below), you’d be as much as 1,000 feet lower than indicated height. Admittedly, there’s not much to hit south and west of Iceland except cold, wet saltwater, but a 1,000-foot error during one of Reykjavik’s dark winter days (19 hours without daylight in mid-December) could present big problems.
Fortunately, the ice wasn’t severe on our approach to Reykjavik. The weather cleared completely the following day, and my three passengers jumped at the chance to take a short flyover of two glacial volcanoes that were smoking on the east side of the island.
Two days later, we launched out of Reykjavik for Kulusuk, Greenland. The normal milk run route across the North Atlantic is 700 nm to Narsarsuaq, near the southern tip of Greenland, and on across the Labrador Sea to Goose Bay, but that wasn’t advisable because of severe icing conditions in southern Greenland.
Kulusuk is one of the most beautiful airports on the icecap continent, but it has a gravel runway. For that reason, it’s best not to use reverse thrust for braking after landing to avoid possible foreign object debris damage.
There’s a small bay slightly inland from the airport, and we took an extra day to enjoy the multi-faceted icebergs and the beauty of Kulusuk.
Our route was now pretty much locked in by bad weather in southern Greenland, essentially unflyable in freezing rain and snow. Accordingly, we departed Kulusuk the following day, climbed to 12,000 feet to clear the icecap, and tracked across the accumulated snow toward Sondrestromfjord on the opposite coast of Greenland.
Some people aren’t aware that most of Greenland isn’t land at all. It’s actually a giant bowl rimmed by mountains that have filled with snow and ice over the millennia. Near the southern tip, the ice slopes down to meet the sea, but as you travel north, the icecap slopes uphill and finally reaches over 12,000 feet in the far north, where winter snow and precipitation are most severe. The top of Greenland is well above the Arctic Circle and only a little over 1,000 nm miles from the North Pole.
In the dangerous days of the Cold War, the U.S. established three radar stations on the high icecap, codenamed Sea Bass, Sob Story and Big Gun. Collectively, they were called the DEW Line (for distant early warning). All three looked north at airspace the U.S. military assumed the Russians might use to launch a nuclear attack over the pole.
The spherical American radar installations were decommissioned and abandoned in the 1980s (or so we were told) but were left in place as emergency shelters or VFR navigation aids. We flew directly across one of the stations on our way to Sondrestrom, and my European passengers were excited to get a look at it. Today, Air National Guard crews still occasionally use the snowpack adjacent to the domes as landing practice for ski-equipped C-130s.
If you fly a deice-equipped airplane and stumble into significant ice, be aware that escape may be contingent upon how you deploy your anti-ice equipment. For years, most pilots were advised to wait until there was a significant buildup before activating the boots to avoid “ice bridging.” This occurs on pneumatic boots when ice is allowed to build to the back of the inflatable boots and then breaks away when the boot is inflated, but only to the aft edge of the rubber. The result may be a small wall of ice that can make the icing problem worse rather than better.
For that reason, the FAA now recommends that you activate any deice equipment as soon as you recognize ice beginning to build on the airplane.
Sondrestromfjord on Greenland’s northwest coast is located at the end of a long, fairly narrow inlet off the Labrador Sea, and it’s a common alternate to Narsarsuaq.
We refueled in Sondrestrom and pressed on across the Labrador Sea to Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, before the incoming snowstorm could coat the Cheyenne with snow. Airframe icing can be a significant problem on the ground as well as in flight.
Years ago, when I was a baby bird rather than an old pelican and I was taking my first winter trip across the Atlantic through Greenland and Iceland, I was flying with a seasoned pro in a second airplane. We were ferrying two Piper Archers from Vero Beach to Germany and stopped for our second overnight in Reykjavik.
The next morning, I went down to check the airplanes and discovered there was a frustrating layer of ice beneath the snow cover from the previous night’s precip. I asked a man at the airport about the cost of a full deice, and he told me it would be $300. Since we were being paid on fixed-price contracts (whatever was left after paying all expenses was our profit), I knew there had to be a less-expensive method of deicing.
When the other pilot showed up, I asked him about deice, and he said, “Just brush off the topcoat of snow and use a credit card to scrape off the ice below.”
I had an AmEx card that worked just fine. No, there was no damage to the paint. I’ve used this trick perhaps two dozen times, and it works well, but you may need to carry a few extra credit cards in case you break one.
He pulled a Mastercard from his wallet and demonstrated how easily it could remove ice.
(A word of caution. This trick may not work too well in certain combinations of temperature and humidity, so you may have to pay the standard $200-$300 deice fee. Also, this tactic won’t help you deice pitot tubes, static ports and other external aircraft sensors.)
Another way to reduce costs if your airplane ices up overnight is to ask to use a heated hangar for one or two hours before you’re ready to depart. I once asked for an overnight heated hangar in Iqaluit, on a -30° Fahrenheit morning in January, and was quoted $200/hour. I said, “Great, let’s put it in for one hour at 6 a.m.,” and the airplane deiced very nicely in that hour.
Another time, I flew into joint-use military/civilian airbase Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada, at -44° F in the first-production Piper Mirage, this one headed for Kassel, Germany, and all the heated hangars were taken. I told the controller, “Okay, put me on file back to Bangor, Maine. I’m not about to let this airplane sit overnight in this temperature.”
The controller told me to stand by while he made a call to the RCAF office. They immediately volunteered, “Okay, tell him to come over to the RCAF side. We’ll take good care of him.” They parked me in a C-130, taxi-through hangar.
The world’s first production Mirage looked like a toy sitting in the middle of that huge C-130 hangar. The RCAF sergeant in charge set the thermostat at 60° F for the night and even gave me a ride to the hotel. No charge. Love those Canadians.
After departing Iqaluit, Nunavut, the following day, our trip through Goose Bay, Bangor and on to Tucson on Boutsen’s Piper was ice free and uneventful. In both directions, the trip was memorable. I’ve flown in ice many times, and it’s always uncomfortable but manageable. Airframe icing, whether it’s clear or rime ice, is always a cause for concern, no matter the size of your airplane.
If you don’t believe icing can bring down even some of the largest, most sophisticated airplanes above the planet, look up the story of Air France 447, an Airbus 330 that crashed into the South Atlantic off the northeast coast of Brazil in 2009. Several years later, the final probable cause was determined as pilot error precipitated by frozen AOA sensors.