Several years ago my uncle and I flew up to Boston to pick up our new company airplane and fly it back to Georgia after the installation of an ice-protection system. We had dropped the airplane off two weeks earlier — a milestone for me as a pilot and my uncle as a student pilot, as it was our first flight through the busy East Coast airspace.
Though both of us originally were Northerners, we had spent most of our flight time in the South, where the controllers manage to convey their instructions at a snail’s pace. But combine rapid fire communications with courteously delivered but seemingly endless amendments to our planned flight route, and you have a recipe for an exciting flight with little time left for sightseeing!
The first third of the return trip was uneventful. We flew over Long Island, over the top of JFK — at which point my uncle couldn’t stop saying, “Unbelievable, the jets are landing and taking off directly under us!” — paralleled Manhattan, and then turned slightly inland over New Jersey, per ATC’s latest amendment to our route.
Though it was a beautiful, clear day, we were caught in the moderate chop forecast in the day’s airmet from the surface to 10,000 feet. It was the kind of chop that forced me to sit low in my seat, with my seatbelt tightly fastened, so I could minimize the number of times my head and the top of the cockpit met with an unfriendly thump. In an effort to discover smoother air, we asked ATC for, and were eventually granted, a climb from 6,000 feet to 10,000 feet. Once we were established in the climb, I made an “it seemed like a good idea at the time” decision to test the new TKS system.
I looked out at my wings, admiring the shiny, new leading edge afforded by this technological innovation. Dubbed the “PIIPS” (Piper Inadvertent Icing Protection System), this equipment is designed to cover the airplane with glycol, an antifreeze solution, through a porous titanium plate along the leading edge of the wings and tail, and through a slinger on the propeller. Although I am told that the same system is certified as known-ice equipment in Europe, it is approved only for use during accidental encounters with icing conditions in the United States.
As we were leaving, the installers recommended that I cycle the system every two weeks or so to keep the lines clear and to verify that it functions properly. Wasting no time, I advised my uncle of my intentions, flipped the switch to “Norm” and scanned for evidence of glycol. The fluid came out as promised, slowly coating the airplane with a comfort-inspiring viscous solution that prevents ice from adhering to the airframe.
Two minutes later, our peaceful climb was interrupted by a “THWACK!” from somewhere in front of us. “What was that?” my uncle said, with obvious and reasonable concern on his face. “I’m not sure,” I replied in my best captain’s voice. He said: “Was it a bird strike? Did we throw a rod?” The engine purred along as before, but just when I was about to assure him that all was well, the alternator warning light and horn came on, dashing my hopes that there would be no further repercussions from the disturbing sound we heard.