Winter weather and deadline pressures conspire to turn an interesting ferry trip into a potentially unhealthy outcome. By Anon
A friend of mine had bought a Cessna 172 in the Netherlands and, since he didn’t yet have a PPL himself, asked me to ferry it to Malta with him.
It sounded like a great little trip; a few days flying over some interesting scenery and the chance to experience flying on the continent, when I had only completed a couple of cross-channel trips before.
The only minor snag was that the trip would be at the end of December, with only a few days to get it done before Christmas.
I started the planning for the trip. Realising I was out of my depth, I contacted some more experienced pilots from my flying club for their invaluable advice on airspace, routeing, friendly airports and hotels. It looked like a fairly leisurely pace in daylight hours should take around four days.
The paperwork was all signed off on the aeroplane, and I checked it out ready for the trip. Though it was generally in a pretty good state, it had only been used for local flights for a long time. The comm/nav kit was pretty basic and dated, to say the least.
Things didn’t start well; freezing fog caused a 24 hour delay. After that we set off, made good progress through the Netherlands and Belgium, and stopped at a small French airport overnight. The next day was going to be tricky.
I’d calculated I could make it to Corsica with just one stop, but the weather wasn’t looking good and, although not right over the Alps, the track would still be over some very high ground to the south of France.
After extensive de-icing, I set off south and all went well for the first couple of hours. Then the cloudbase started to lower, at the same time as the land elevation was rising. Inevitably, it got to the point it was no longer tenable in VFR.
I’d only submitted a VFR flight plan, and hadn’t done any serious planning for the rest of the route under IFR, so I decided to divert to a small airfield.
To say we were unexpected was an understatement. Despite a Tower and an extensive concrete runway, no one answered the radio, and there seemed to be no movements on the airfield at all. Convinced I was at the correct location, I made blind calls and landed.
It appeared that the entire airfield staff, flying club and locals were mid-Christmas lunch in the bar!
Eventually, fuel was arranged, and after another weather check we decided to stay there for the night. I also spoke with a flying instructor from the school, who warned me of more poor weather the next day, and that ATC at the airfield was operational only for limited hours in the morning – and only in French!
I decided to make an IFR plan for the next day, to try and get out of there without wasting another day on the ground. I also hit Google translate hard over dinner to refresh my schoolboy French to IFR-departure standard.
Looking out of the window next day it was, as promised, dire weather. Pouring with rain, about 10°C and dark – it looked less than inviting. Nonetheless, I got myself and the aircraft prepared, hoping the weather would improve, even a little, and submitted my IFR flight plan with the Tower, who made it quite clear they would be ‘calling it a day’ soon – so could I hurry up and get going.
Utilising my best grip of French, with a scrawled translation-sheet on my kneeboard, I flew the departure and was delighted to be handed over to an English-speaking radar controller. Full of fuel, climb was slow, but we were at least heading the right way.
I settled down to fly the needles and set up the basic radio nav kit. I was climbing gradually up to FL60, as planned, and all seemed to be going well. Then the controller told me “Climb to FL90”. Hang on, 9,000ft, that was going to take forever, and FL60 would be comfortably above minimum safety altitude.
The controller was insistent: for military exercises and to receive a radar service, I would have to climb to FL90. So, up I went.
I’d just started to relax into the climb, and ran through my FREDA checks etc, when I noticed something funny about the controls. They felt a bit heavy and ‘crunchy’, with a slightly different engine noise than I was used to.
I looked up briefly and, to my shock, ice was rapidly forming on the struts, and the windscreen was almost opaque with icing. I’d been so busy working with ATC and concentrating on the flying, I hadn’t checked for ice – and my friend had no IFR experience, so hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.
How was this happening? Of course, I was now required to fly much higher than planned, and the temperature was indicating just below freezing. This was not good.
Through FL80 with ice rapidly building up, mountains with few diversion airfields below, and all in an aeroplane far more accustomed to short VFR trial flights. I could turn back but by now I was some way from the departure airfield, and there would be no ATC help from there. It was either continue as planned, or declare an emergency and descend.
With proper icicles now extending from the struts, I’d reached the point where I thought I’d have to call an emergency. Just as I was about to do so, the 172 broke out into glorious sunshine just below FL90. I’d never been so happy to see the sun before!
As quickly as it had formed, the ice melted away in the bright sunshine. We even had the opportunity to take some pictures of the Alps, poking above the cloud to the east. Eventually, we made it to St Tropez, where things started to get a lot warmer, and all the way down to Malta over the next few days.
Looking back, I was clearly under the influence of ‘get-there-itis’, and was distracted by all the other unusual pressures from what was the main risk – the icing.
Even though I thought I had done all the planning, it really does take as much time as you’ve got, and sometimes that still isn’t enough.
If you have the slightest suspicion of icing in non-equipped aircraft, get out of those conditions ASAP, or better still, don’t enter in the first place!