I Love Days Like This

It’s so rare to get true winter weather here in Southern California. But as Lesley always says, it never fails to rain on opening night, and last night was no exception. Boy did it pour!

I nearly broke into a Gene Kelly-esque dance all the way down Avenue of the Arts as I made my way to OCPAC for the opening night performance of Die Zauberflöte. Ave. of the Arts even has the right kind of street lights for it! But there’s something about the ultra-modern look of the theaters which kept me from indulging myself. (Note: I may also have been concerned about looking stupid, although that’s never stopped me before).

I’ve been making quite a few flights to northern California lately, and this weather has certainly made that part of my day job interesting. I’m not used to seeing low pressure systems around here, but California has been surrounded by them for the past week. Several cold fronts have blown through, bringing lower snow levels and higher concerns about in-flight icing. It’s the one thing that really worries me when flying, and it must be approached with extreme caution. This is especially true in fast composite ships with so-called “laminar flow” airfoils, as contaminating this kind of wing leads to an especially dramatic loss of performance.

The last two round trips have been in a TKS-equipped SR22. Despite low freezing levels and airmets for icing, IFR conditions, mountain obscuration, and turbulence, I was comfortable flying the route because I knew the tops were 10-12,000′. There were plenty of alternate airports nearby, and the deicing fluid was topped off to give me some time to get out of any ice which did build. As it turns out, there was only one bit of ice worth noting, right as I climbed out of the top of a cloud layer. The worst icing is often found at the tops of clouds, so that wasn’t a surprise. For the most part, between ATC and PIREPS I was able to stay out of the precip most of the time when I was above the freezing level.

The TKS system works much better when you prime it properly. The first time I ever tried using TKS, it seemed to be useless. It was a summer flight across the Dakotas a few years ago. No one had ever told me that it can take several minutes for the fluid to make its way to the outboard panels, and by that time the ice could have covered the panels so thoroughly that they’d be unable to protect the wing.

Now, my standard preflight procedure on the system is to top off the TKS tank (the only way you’ll know how much fluid is on board), turn on the pump to ensure it works, and wait for fluid to come out of each panel before turning it off. Then, when you enable the system in flight, you’ll get immediate protection. I’ve standardized on coating the wings and tail surfaces with deice fluid (“normal” setting) before entering precip when it’s below freezing, and using the “maximum” setting at the first sign of ice.

Of course, the airplane is not approved for known-icing, so the TKS is just one tool to buy you time to change altitudes, turn around, find VMC, get to warmer air, or something else which will stop the accumulation.

The worse thing about ice is that it’s unpredictable. We don’t really understand why it occurs in some places and not in others, even when the conditions seem to be ripe for it in both places. It might be light icing for one pilot and severe for another one who flies through the same piece of sky only minutes later.

Pilots hate the unknown more than anything else. We strive for complete control over the flight, and that means being able to predict with certainty every critical aspect of our aircraft’s performance. Ice robs us of that capability. Our climb rates, airspeeds, handling, and other characteristics change. The airplane takes on a new personality, and the only thing you know for sure is that it won’t be as friendly as the one you’re used to.

Whoever said ice belongs in your drink and not on your airplane was right.

On the ground, though, all this rain has been a welcome sight after years of drought here in the Southland. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I hear a Gene Kelly song calling my name…

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