A cold front passed during the night, dragging Pensacola, Florida’s temperature down more than 40°, to the high 30s. I detest the cold. But the sky cleared significantly and the winds came down to manageable levels. Still stiff, but not howling as they had been.
Thankfully, I’d anticipated the change, packing a pair of long pants, a long sleeve shirt, a jacket, and even a real pair of grown-up socks. It was cold, but I was reasonably comfortable when protected from the wind. Being out on the ramp was a bit brisk, but while inside the FBO or tucked into the cockpit, I was fine.
The little Cessna 152 took on fuel. I did the walk-around inspection with great care. The sun peaked over the horizon revealing low, puffy clouds over Escambia Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
It was time to go home.
Two pumps of the primer knob and a twist of the key brought the engine online with a rumble. I let it run while I listened to the ATIS broadcast, then let it run a for a while longer before calling clearance delivery.
With such low ambient temperatures I knew I’d need to let the engine warm and thin the oil sitting pudding-like in the sump. I took my time. Ignition, exhaust gases, and friction warmed the engine and the oil within it. All was as it should be.
The tower controller at Pensacola International Airport released me to fly, turned me East over the bay, then switched me over to Tyndall Departure, initially misidentifying the frequency as Mobile Departure. No big deal. Everybody makes mistakes. I’m pretty sure I made one myself once.
It’s no secret that the world is a messy, sometimes ugly place. But that impression has more to do with the people populating the planet than the planet itself. When viewed from above, the beauty of nature melds seamlessly with man-made structures to form a living image that soothes the observer’s heart. Such was the sight below me as I inched my way along the Emerald Coast at 1,500′.
The air was smooth, but not calm. Headwinds fought back tenaciously. At times my groundspeed fell to less than 60 knots. It was going to be a long flight.
But, I was headed home, which is the most welcome destination of all. Going home is good. It’s warm and welcoming there. It’s where I keep all my stuff. Well, most of it, anyway.
After making my turn to the south, the winds aloft became a bit more friendly. My groundspeed snuck into triple digits. The sky in front of me stretched out very nearly to infinity. The only clouds in sight were well out over the Gulf and perhaps a smattering of stratus clouds a hundred miles or more to the South.
The thought of being home became more and more alluring. To sleep in my own bed. To share a meal with family members. I bumped up the throttle and continued on.
Because of the cold, I’d started out with the cabin vents closed tight. Now, travelling down the length of the Florida peninsula, they were wide open. Still, the cockpit warmed beyond the point of comfort. The humidity was noticeably higher, too.
Stripping off my jacket in the tight confines of the cockpit was a bit of a challenge, but I got the job done without knocking myself too far off course, or diving for the dirt. I pushed the throttle back up again, noticing the RPMs had fallen a bit.
Home was less than an hour away. I was more than four hours into the flight as Crystal River’s Tom Davis Field slipped behind me. It looked like the RPMs had diminished again, so I adjusted the throttle accordingly and settled in for the final push to Gilbert Field. Home.
The engine power sagged. I chalked it up to a bit of water in the fuel, or a momentarily fouled spark plug, or anything other than a real-life engine related issue. I was tired and increasingly distracted by the idea of getting home. Then the power fell off more noticeably. This wasn’t a glitch. It couldn’t be ignored.
I had a problem. Big or small, I didn’t know. But it’s always better to face reality than to pretend everything’s going to be all right. With 50 miles of Green Swamp lying between me and home, this was no time to be brave or stupid.
The carb heat came on, my right hand went to the throttle, my eyes stayed outside the cockpit, and my heart rate noticeably spiked. Training can prepare you to act appropriately for a given situation, but your emotional reaction is something else. Sticking to my training, my heart rate came back down quickly. I got calm.
Inverness Airport was fewer than five miles to the East. Its single runway called out to me and I heeded the call. Cancelling VFR Flight Following with Tampa, I descended into a high pattern, locked into as normal a downwind, base, and final as I could, and put the airplane on the ground where I could take the time to analyze the problem without the challenge of flying the airplane taking precedent.
For the first time in 30 years, I’d experienced carb ice. The signs were there, but I was too distracted by my destination to notice, until the airplane made the point so obvious it couldn’t be ignored.
There are moments of great beauty and wonder in the air. There are also moments of concern, with maybe a pinch of fear, lurking over the horizon. It’s perfectly okay to experience both. The former far more than the latter, of course.
In 30 years of flying, I’ve experienced a wide range of emotions and seen an astounding array of life affirming sights.
Cruising over the Emerald Coast is just one example of what’s enriching about being able to fly. Now, with this recent incident behind me, I’ll endeavor to keep my head a little more in the game.
Had I anticipated the carb ice when the signs were first making themselves clear, the flight might have been more satisfying. I’d have probably still stopped in at Inverness. I’m not crazy, after all. And planning a rest stop on a five hour cross-country is a good idea, anyway.