I’m terrified I’m about to kill my parents and leave my son fatherless. The line between survival and death is razor-thin, and I am balanced on its edge right now.
Stalagmite-shaped rime ice casts the leading edges of my wings, painting them ghost white, while growing horizontally forward into the onrushing air. Slowly, steadily, as if telling mere fibs instead of Pinocchio’s lies, they elongate. The freezing air is saturated with liquid droplets cooled well below freezing in a precarious state known as supercooled. These drops immediately transmute into a tenacious layer of ice upon impact with a wing or any object that happens into their path.
I’m approaching the edge of a black hole from which there’s no escape in aviation physics. Stated as axiom it says simply: “Never run out of airspeed, altitude, and ideas all at the same time.” This trifecta is one nobody wants, paying only in extinction.
By waging a chance into this storm, whose hazards were forecast in much narrower bands, I’m now confronted with an airplane that’s dying for my risk-taking.
The first sign of trouble came a few minutes ago when a red warning flag popped into view in one of my instruments. It tells me my compass has failed. There are backups, but they’re poor substitutes. The information I’m supposed to glean from this defunct instrument doesn’t just disappear. An index at the top of the gauge still hovers above a number on a floating compass card, and my job is to keep that number under that pointer. The disk crawls imperceptibly below the index, and I can’t fight off my ingrained habit of steering to keep them aligned. Inside a cloud, there’s nothing but gray scaling between angelic white and cave black. Up, down, and sideways are meaningless concepts except for what can be read on instruments in the cockpit. I can’t detect I’m turning. It's too slow, like trying to watch a minute hand move across a clock face. When I can pry enough consciousness free to crosscheck with my B team cues, I see I’ve drifted way off course and, flustered, make a big turn back to fix it.
I do not yet suspect the demon that’s killing us. I think I’ve simply lost a single electrically powered instrument.
An endless tapestry of wet, gray goulash palls and blinds us. My autopilot will ease my burden tremendously right now, so I push a button to engage it. It won’t engage. I remember I’ve lost the compass that’s hooked to the autopilot. The same voltage that motivated that warning flag putters a few more inches in the matrix of wires behind the instrument panel and tells my autopilot not to engage. Critical information is missing.
An aircraft compass is also called a DG, short for Directional Gyro. I have two. The spinning gyroscope in the main one is driven by an electric motor. It’s directly in my field of view. There’s another in the copilot’s instrument cluster whose gyro is spun by air that whistles past a tiny paddlewheel in its instrument case. That air comes from a pump that’s driven by some gearing on the right engine. Right engine quits, copilot’s DG quits.
The electricity for my DG can come from any of three sources—alternators installed on each of the two engines and the battery. Naturally, engineers chose the DG with the most backup to connect to the autopilot. In accordance with Murphy’s Law, my DG—the one with all the backups—failed, sticking me with hand flying the airplane.
I check my circuit breaker panel. No breakers are popped. Well, I guess it just failed. This isn’t beyond my flying skills, but it’s troublesome, and I have an inner voice whose volume is growing too loud to ignore.
It’s rare in aviation that any single failure becomes catastrophic; there’s too much redundancy built into systems and operating procedures to thwart us with a single, easy strike. Most pilots use baseball’s vernacular to track the gravity of a situation. It’s rare an airplane is lost with less than three strikes, but we learn early to sit up straight and watch out even when just a single one befalls us. I’m pushing well into three-strike territory with ice building on my wings, a gyro failure, and being forced to hand fly the airplane.
Now another red-warning-flag alert stating “OFF” appears in my Course Deviation Indicator. The loss of this instrument eliminates radio-directed steering commands, so I can no longer navigate precisely. Ground-based navigation aids, known as VORs, are no longer readable by my radio equipment. Maybe we’re just out of range. I remember Air Traffic Control telling us to expect a frequency change in twenty minutes. That was about twelve minutes ago. Getting that kind of advanced notice on an upcoming frequency change is a good indication our position is teetering on the limits of the line-of-sight positioning necessary for VOR navigation or voice communication. I believe we’ll be back in range momentarily.
I look out the side window and clearly see the ice forming on our wings is getting worse. This airplane is not certified to fly in icing conditions. If it were, it would have rubber “boots” affixed to the leading edges of the wings that I could inflate with a switch in the cockpit, breaking up the ice to wash away in the slipstream. My propellers would either have electric heaters or alcohol spray directed on their leading edges to whisk away the ice, and my windscreen—at least a small portion of it right in front of my eyes—would be heated. I have none of these features and never intended to get into icing conditions. There are a lot of dead pilots that could’ve made that same claim.
I notice it’s 12:41, close to the time I wanted to attempt contact with ATC on the new frequency. I click the mic button. No tell-tale clicks or static—nothing. Silence. Suddenly I know there’s nothing random about the warning flags I’m seeing. I shoot a glance at a small auxiliary panel just above my left knee, terrified to verify my hunch, but it can’t be avoided. Both ammeters, gauges that show the condition of my alternators, display tiny, sewing-needle sized pointers that seem the size of redwood trees right now, pegged on zero. I’ve lost both alternators. My mouth dries up, and I reach with a trembling hand for my water bottle. I can barely swallow through my fear-clenched throat.
We’re in grave danger. My inner voice has lost count of strikes. Probably enough to kill two airplanes. My father sits in the copilot’s seat casting glances at me that I sense peripherally. He knows we’re in trouble. He has no idea the details pouring through my consciousness, but there is palpable fear in this cockpit, and he knows it. My mother, seated directly behind me, is less aware of our plight, and I don’t intend to broadcast our state just yet. For one thing, I’m too busy, and for another, I see no purpose in adding another person’s anxiety to the stream of tension gripping me. My job is to escape this confluence of horrors that I’ve flown us into.
I don’t know how long ago my alternators failed, but I know the reservoir of electrical energy in my battery is draining away. With no river of current flowing to recharge it, there’s a finite amount of power it has to offer. It can’t last much longer as evidenced by my electrical components dying one by one.
While this airplane is not designed or certified to fly into icing conditions, engineers did incorporate a smattering of ice protection into some critical components to allow a pilot enough time to escape inadvertent icing. Pitot tubes facilitate the magic to calculate my speed. I have two, both electrically heated. The fuel tanks must vent as fuel is consumed. Otherwise, a vacuum will develop in the tanks and starve the flow of fuel to my engines. These vents are also electrically heated. If my battery becomes fully exhausted, these components will ice over. Then I won’t know how fast I’m flying.
Vacuums in the fuel tanks will suck the life out of my engines, and I’ll lose my air powered gyroscopes. This will positively be the end of us. When in a cloud, if there are no gyroscopic instruments to reference, ninety seconds is about the most one can expect before the airplane slips and slides into an uncontrollable death spiral. Our certain plunge into the freezing Gulf of Alaska below will have us swallowed and obliterated in less than two minutes.
I have to get out of this ice. Often, just a couple of degrees colder will cause supercooled water to become solid. I can stand solid ice particles, except their big brother—hail—all day as they bounce harmlessly off the hull. Hail, on the other hand, redesigns the sleek shape of an airplane, tending to ruin its aerodynamic properties. I avoid hail at all costs.
The forecast called for icing between 6,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level. We’re cruising at 14,000, but we can only stay this high for thirty minutes without supplemental oxygen. It looks like I’ll have to fudge the rules a little to get over the ice, but I’m confident my physical conditioning will allow it with little risk. I elect to climb. I enrich the fuel mixture to each engine with red knobby-handled levers pushed forward, then advance the fluted black handles of the propeller controls all the way forward to maximum RPM, and finally, push the smooth black throttle handles to the firewall, milking out every ounce of power available from my engines.
Smoothly, imperceptibly, I pull back pressure on the yoke to raise the nose into a shallow climb. In icing conditions, the steeper my wing’s angle relative to the impacting airflow, the farther back the ice will form under them compounding the aerodynamic degradation already tearing at my wing’s clean design. At 15,000 feet the ice is getting worse. Something about the darkest part being just before the dawn encourages me to try higher. I have to choose which poison I think less deadly. Altitude wins. I have hundreds of flights in gliders up to 18,000 feet never feeling the effects of hypoxia, and I don’t believe we’ll need to be so high for long. A process known as ablation will melt the ice from my wings if I can just get out of the ice.
Now I notice it’s freezing in the cabin. “Oh crap,” I say aloud. “We’ve lost our heater.” It runs on the same gas that powers our engines, but it needs electricity to control it. Safety features shut it down as soon as electrical current falls below limits. Our breaths now come in streams of fog, adding an eerie visual effect to our confines. It’s ten degrees below zero outside, and we don’t have much insulation to protect us without the heat offered by our now-dead furnace.
My parents bundle up in whatever coats and coverings they can dig from their carry-on bags. I’m so engaged in the unfolding nightmare, I’m barely aware of my own physical discomfort.
As we approach 16,000 feet, my gamble for frozen precipitation isn’t paying off. I can no longer discern anything but darkest hues of gray through the ice encrusted windshield. Stalagmite-shaped wedges on my wings are now growing like the snoots of pants-on-fire lying wooden puppets, and we’re down to 110 miles per hour with all our 580-horsepower straining to limits. We’re no longer climbing.
A clean Shrike Commander stalls at 68 miles per hour. With this heavy layer of ice enveloping us, I have no idea what speed is adequate to generate enough lift to counter gravity. Not only is our lift degraded by huge margins by the deformation imparted by the ice, but we also weigh a good deal more than we would without it. I wonder if I can expect the tell-tale signs of shaking and buffeting before a stall fully develops, or will we fall through the stormy sky all of a sudden, like Galileo’s lead balls from the leaning tower of Pisa.
My mother leans forward and asks if we’re having some kind of emergency. I pull a whopper of a lie from my rattled mind and say, “Well, yes, but just a minor one. Hang on and I’ll have it all fixed in a minute.”
The truth is, I’m feeling so much fear my hands are shaking, not from the cold. I’m facing too many unknowns, and impending panic nudges against the threshold of my wit, threatening certain catastrophe. My situational awareness is narrowing to pencil beams, making the simplest thought exercise eclipse any other mental task no matter how menial. All at once, I realize we have only a single viable option left. I have to pull the plug. There seems no escape out the top of this icy demon, and my airplane is down to a tiny fraction of its performance capabilities. I suspect we’ll stall any second, and I’m not sure I can recover from a stall in an airplane so crippled by ice. I know my transponder stopped sending ATC any radar signals long ago, so they don’t know where I am. It would be an awfully big stretch of probability for another airplane to be out here flailing around, miles off the coast of Alaska, in this big icy storm, so I feel confident we run little risk of hitting someone below us in an emergency descent. I turn the airplane thirty degrees left, well out to sea, wanting to ensure there’s nothing but ocean below us once we break out the bottom of this cloud whose base altitude is unknown.
I reach for the throttles and ease them back to idle. Slowly, slowly, slowly, to protect our engines from thermal shock induced by sustained full power that has all twelve cylinder heads of our two engines glowing red. I must baby them, or they’ll be overwhelmed by the freezing air outside. Too radical a reduction of combustion within them could easily crack steel and aluminum and turn our mighty engines into inert blocks of heavy metal. I lower the nose rapidly enough to accelerate quickly and even extend the landing gear into the slipstream as soon as my speed reaches 150 mph. I continue lowering the nose until we’re indicating 180 mph, which is the maximum speed we can safely fly with the landing gear extended. At this speed, hurricane strength air blasts against the bony structure of my landing gear. It sounds like one more mile per hour will rip the wheeled protrusions right off the airplane. The wings offer little lift as they deform more and more into aggressive impediments to the wind. The cruel wail of our defiant, misshapen ship shrieks at my ears, frazzling what little faculty I have left.
We’re now descending at 4,000 feet per minute. This plunge will be over in less than four minutes, and we’ll either see the ocean before we smack into it, or we won’t. The die is cast and now we wait, and hope, and pray to whatever gods soldiers find in their battle-weary foxholes.
Dear God, how did I get here?
-End of Chapter 1-
Copyright © 2022 Andy Walker . AltaAlpine Publishing . All Rights Reserved.