GUEST EDITORIAL By MIKE CARROLL
There I was on an instrument flight plan in our Mooney at 14,000 feet on a relatively clear afternoon. I was on my way to northern Wisconsin when I penetrated a medium-sized cumulus cloud. I picked up a little frost, but it was no big deal. In a couple of minutes I was back in clear air and it burned right off.
About 30 miles down the road another cloud appeared on the path. This one looked larger, darker and meaner, but I remember thinking that it couldn’t be that bad because there were hardly any clouds in the sky. Besides, the last one was a piece of cake and ATC hadn’t mentioned anything hazardous along the route. I’d have to request a course correction and maybe add three or four minutes to the rest of the flight. How inconvenient. But to be on the safe side, I turned on the prop and pitot tube heat just before entering the abyss.
That’s when it started to get scary.
Embedded in this deceiving mass of moisture was a nasty mix of freezing rain and snow. The words severe and convection also come to mind. Within a couple of minutes the airplane was covered with every type of ice known to mankind and it was accumulating quickly! About an inch had formed — including on the windshield — and it seemed to be accumulating everywhere. Holy Schnikes! How did I get into this mess?
I immediately called Center, announced my situation and requested a lower altitude and course deviation. I knew there was warmer air down below and the cloud didn’t look that big. He approved the course change and cleared me to 8,000 feet.
That’s when the real fun started — the engine died!
You’ve got to be kidding me. Now I had no power, I was covered in ice and couldn’t see a damn thing forward while turbulently gliding toward hard things on the ground. In a feeble voice I called the controller back and casually mentioned that I had an engine problem and seemed to have lost power. Immediately he came back in that official FAA tone: “Mooney 089 what are your intentions?”
Oh great, I always hated that question. I was almost hoping he would tell me what to do! Now the FAA and every airplane in the sector was listening for my well-thought-out plan of action. Without actually declaring an emergency, the best I could come up with was: “I’m trying to get the engine started and I’ve started my descent.”
Moments later the word aviate came to mind. Ground school instructors were always talking about “aviate, navigate and communicate” — in other words, when you get in a tight situation up there, your first priority should be to fly the airplane.
I got the plane under control but I was still going down and frontal visibility was zero because the entire airframe was encased in hard water. A “controlled crash” looked like a real possibility. In a couple of minutes — which seemed like an hour — I finally broke out of the cloud from hell and was back in VMC.
I quickly went through the emergency checklist: Switch fuel tanks from right to left — check. Mixture full rich — check. Emergency booster pump on — check. Feather the prop (you can do that in a Mooney Rocket conversion) — check, set up a glidespeed allowing for the ice…and don’t forget the defroster. Then I pressed that special button on the GPS to locate the nearest airport. It was 320° and seven miles over there — OK, that’s doable. Now a slow descending turn to the left, say a Hail Mary and start looking for some clues as to why a relatively new engine was not running.
The left fuel gauge on the instrument panel indicated 27 gallons. The one on the right read 22. The outside fuel gauge on the left wing read 27 gallons and the right one read 0. Wait a minute…0 on the right? By the time my panic-stricken brain started to process this minor, but kind of important, bit of information, the engine coughed, sputtered and miraculously fired back to life! Oh thank you Mother Mary, I promise to be a better person. Then I called ATC and told him I was back in action.
So what happened? The rest of the story is kind of academic and maybe even a little boring. Eventually the ice burned off and I continued to Antigo, Wis., (AIG) where I topped-off the tanks and took a hard look at the right fuel gauge on the instrument panel. The arrow was still in the same position fixed on 22 gallons. Like a dummy, I trusted the inside gauge and ran the tank dry just when things looked real dicey.
I know that all you Jedi pilots out there will point out that I should have done this or I should have double-checked that — and remind me how I should never trust fuel gauges and should always stay away from icy springtime build-ups. And, you’d be right.
I should have done all those things and maybe a few more. But like all of us who happen to be human, I too have made a couple of stupid mistakes up there in the wild blue. I can only view this experience as another valuable flight lesson learned the hard way.
Hopefully my story will bring additional light on how a series of small errors can lead to one giant screw-up.
Mike Carroll is the owner and designer of EagleRings.com. An instrument-rated commercial pilot with more than 3,500 hours, he flies a Mooney Turbo Rocket conversion.