My cousin Ed, an avid private pilot, and his wife were living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s while I was living in the Sacramento Valley. When my great-grandfather died in early 1973, it was decided that Ed, his wife, my sister and I would fly together in a Cessna 182 from San Jose to Mojave to attend the funeral.
The flight to Mojave was routine. After the funeral, we gathered with our extended family and had a bite to eat. By the time we were done visiting, it was nearing sunset and we needed to fly home. Mojave had no airport control tower so my cousin filed his flight plan over the telephone. He also got the weather forecast for the route back to San Jose, which was said to be good. No icing on small planes had been reported, so we took off.
Icing is hazardous for small planes because it changes the shape of the wings, disrupting the plane’s lift. The wings are designed to produce low pressure on top and high pressure below. Plus, the added weight of ice on the fuselage puts an extra burden on the engine to keep the plane in the air.
Shortly after nightfall, at 9,000 feet over California’s Coast Range mountains, the weather made a drastic change for the worse. We ran into clouds, rain and severe icing. The windshield froze over, visibility dropped to zero, and my cousin had to fly on instruments only. As this was nearly 50 years ago, the plane did not have autopilot, GPS, storm scope, radar altitude, headlights or any other modern avionic equipment used today. Also, the airplane did not have de-icing boots on the wings. Fortunately, it did have a heated propeller.
In the back seats, my sister and I had no idea just how dire our situation had become. My cousin’s wife used a small flashlight to try and check how fast the ice was building up on the wing struts, but it was pitch black in the clouds. She could only see 2 or 3 feet out the window.
Fortunately, my cousin had a commercial pilot’s license and had flown in bad weather often enough to be current on his instruments-only rating. He later told us he was confident about flying at night in the clouds over the mountains, but the ice was something beyond his control.
We flew on through the storm, but the plane’s airspeed was slowing and we were unintentionally descending. As we approached the San Francisco Bay area over the Coast Range, Ed was instructed by radio to contact the Oakland Center Air Traffic Control. He notified them of our situation: “Oakland, we have a problem!”
Oakland cleared us to ascend to a higher altitude to get above the clouds, but by then ice had collected so heavily on the plane that we only got to 10,000 feet. We did not stay up there long and began to lose airspeed and altitude. Now the problem of staying aloft was twofold. We were approaching stall speed and losing altitude as we approached the top of the mountain range.
Somehow Ed found a narrow band of altitude that didn’t add more ice to the plane and force us down. In retrospect, Ed surmised that the plane’s heated propeller prevented it from icing over — and that may have been just enough weight relief to keep us up in the air.
At long last, Oakland Center began stepping us down for our approach into San Jose. At 5,000 feet, we broke out of the clouds into heavy rainfall. The ice that had built up on the plane began to break off, making tremendous cracking and splintering noises as chunks banged against the fuselage. For a moment, we all thought the plane was disintegrating and that we were goners!
But once the ice blew off we were home free. Well, not quite. As we approached our landing, the San Jose tower told us to exit the runway as soon as possible after touching down because there was a 747 directly behind us that needed the same runway. I whipped my head around and sure enough, there it was, bearing down upon us with its lights blazing.
Despite this last bit of drama, we landed without incident, put the plane in its hangar, and went home as if it had been just another routine flight.
I found out later that cousin Ed was sweating bullets the entire time, fearing not only for his own life but for the lives of his three passengers, not to mention his dread at leaving two small children orphans. There was no room for error. His keen piloting skills and composure in the face of perilous conditions kept us in the air despite all the ice on the plane. My sister and I were astounded to learn of the grave danger we had faced when we were safely on the ground and Ed gave us all the grim details.
We are all senior citizens now, grateful for the long lives we’ve had that easily could have been cut short on that dark and stormy night, 50 years ago in February 1973.
My cousin later remarked, “This stuff does happen sometimes in flight.”
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