Thursday, September 28, 2006
I have executed a go-around 3 times in my career.
The first was fall 1998 and I was flying my most favorite airplane of all time, a B-58 Baron by the name of C-GPAA, or "P double A" for short. I was doing a night cargo run with another pilot, Daryl, who was the CFI at Western Air Services, the flight school/charter outfit we worked for in Goderich. We were heading to Hamilton from Goderich, and cruising along in cloud, getting lots of icing. This particular Baron had full de-ice, and I hadn't skeered myself too badly in this airplane so all was well. Part of the deicing package installed in the airplane was an alcohol windshield, which worked thusly: I flip a switch, and isopropyl alcohol is pumped from a reservior in the nose through a plastic tube into the airplane equivalent of a windshield washer, which would spray a fine mist of alcohol onto the windshield and help to melt any ice that might accumulate. The reservoir tank is small and we could only operate the system for maybe 15 minutes before we had to fill it up, so we figured we'd use it during the last few minutes of the approach, just before we landed.
Anyway, this particular night was the first night we had lots of ice, and the wing boots were working hard to shed it while we made our way through the darkness to Hamilton. We could hear the "ting! ting!" sound as ice was shed from the propellors and the centrifugal force flung chunks of it against the side of the airplane. I looked out the windshield and saw that it was coated pretty good, so I knew we'd get to try out the alcohol windshield.
We were still in the clouds, and the weather report indicated that we wouldn't be beneath the clouds until a few hundred feet above the ground. No big deal, as the Hamilton airport has lots of advanced navigation aids, which would enable us to get within 200 feet of the runway before having to look outside. As we were vectored into position for a 5 mile ILS approach for the airport, I flicked on the alcohol switch, and watched as liquid sprayed onto the windshield, loosening the ice clinging to the window so I could see outside and manoeuver the plane for landing .
Except the ice on the windshield didn't loosen. In fact, the liquid seemed to coat over the entire windshield and armor-plate it with more ice.
I was somewhat confused by this, but elected to continue for the time being. We cranked up our cabin heat and set it to the windshield in the hopes that it would help thaw the ice coating, but it didn't do much at all. Daryl completed the before-landing checks and we made sure our flaps and landing gear were set for our anticipated arrival into Hamilton.
The airport was a lot closer now, and we were only a few hundred feet above the ground on short final. We broke out of the clouds, and by looking out the side windows I could see farmhouses and roads and all the other things around the Hamilton airport, with the exception of the runway, which was right in front of us but obscured by this damned ice-covered windshield.
Okay, I figured, I have flown in the bush before and I'll just do what a bush pilot would do. I stomped on the right rudder, yawing the plane to the right so I could see the runway out of the left side window, which wasn't covered in ice at all.
The runway grew closer, and it was time to pull the throttles back, lift the nose a little and touch down. Except I was yawed maybe 30 degrees to the right, and if I touched down like that, I stood a decent chance of going off the side of the runway. I again glanced out the windshield but it was completely useless. Out the left side window, I could see a faint strip of lights that I assumed were the runway edge lights. We were maybe 10 feet above the ground, so I decided to let go of the rudder and center the airplane, and as I did so, we drifted to the left and the runway edge lights disappeared beneath me.
Now in an average flying career I'm sure eventually there will come a few situations in which you realize you've lost your safety margin, and it's time to stop whatever it is you are doing and concentrate on getting back to a happy place. For me, this was one of those times. I squealed "go around" , pushed the power levers forward and pulled the nose up. Daryl cleaned up the airplane, retracting the landing gear and the flaps once we started climbing, and we headed back up into the clouds and icing.
Air traffic control asked us what we wanted to do next, and we elected to head for home, as it was clear over Goderich and we were hoping that some of the ice might have burned off by then.
I mentioned that we had cranked the cabin heat, right? Our cabin heater was a janitrol, which is the bane of most piston airplanes. As a side note, bleed air from a jet engine works better :) Janitrol heaters are essentially combustion heaters, taking a bit of avgas and burning it, then using the hot air to warm up the interior. They are also cranky, lazy and bad-tempered, to personify them a little. Anyway, our cabin heater didn't like the fact that we were demanding a lot out of it, and as soon as we decided to go home, the little yellow light in the instrument panel came on, indicating that we blew the cabin heat circuit breaker. Which was located in the nose of the airplane to prevent in-flight resets.
This left us without any heat whatsoever for the return flight, and I will happily tell anyone who listens that sitting in a B-58 Baron (or any airplane) for more than a few minutes with no heat in winter is not fun at all. I worried about my various appendages, hoping that some would still be semi-functional after this experience. In fact, after this flight, Daryl and I agreed that we would never fly again without long underwear, gloves and heavy winter jackets, even in summer. We remarked dryly about how our breath was causing additional ice to form, but on the inside of the windshield this time.
Fortunately, the gods smile upon fools, drunks, and frozen, underpaid pilots. As we were discussing how badly the return flight was going to suck (lots) and what our options were for removing the ice from our windshield (none), we caught a break. Most of the clouds that had enveloped us during the flight to Hamilton had moved off, leaving clear skies for the return leg. During the half-hour that it took to fly home, enough ice sublimated from the windshield that I could see a tiny patch out of the bottom front left side of the windshield. I flew the approach and landing into Goderich looking like an elderly driver who pokes their head between the steering wheel and the bottom of the windshield, but it was enough to see the runway and land safely back in Goderich.
We had a few beers at the local pub afterwards.
I was very curious as to what had happened, so the next morning I called our mechanic and asked his opinion.
"Oh, I guess I should change that alcohol, it's the same stuff that was in the reservoir from last year and maybe the year before that. It's probably absorbed a lot of moisture since then".
And that was it. Sitting for a year in humid conditions had resulted in the alcohol becoming contaminated with enough water that when I sprayed it onto the windshield, not only did it not remove the existing ice from the windshield, I was essentially spraying water on existing ice, resulting in the windshield being coated much more thickly than if I hadn't used the alcohol.
I could blame the mechanic, but that would be wrong and a total cop-out. As we all know, it's the Captain's responsibility to make sure that the plane is fit for the flight conditions, and I had not done so. I had never flown an aircraft with an alcohol windshield and it never occured to me. Needless to say, during the rest of my tenure with Western Air and PAA, I made sure we had fresh isopropyl each Fall and Winter.
I have spoken in my previous posts about links in the accident chain. I could have made a nice long one with the links in this situation, but I was really lucky and didn't end up hanging myself with it.