I Learned About Flying From That: Learning on the Job

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It was cold. That isn’t always a bad thing. Engines have more power; wings produce greater lift (more or less). But there was also moisture. Quite a bit of it in fact. And that is just no fun when it’s below freezing. Throw in the fact that I was at the end of a long five-day trip, rapidly approaching 15 hours since the last time my head had hit a pillow, and that my ATP certificate was still foldable (as in temporary paper), and you have a nice start to a National Transportation Safety Board report.

I had just north of 1,600 hours total time, and I was bravely in command of the mighty Beech 1900. My first airline command. The four stripes on my epaulets were starched new. Everyone learns somewhere. It’s probably better that the 18 passengers behind us had no idea that I was doing so on their dime, especially in the middle of a winter storm that extended across the Rocky Mountain range.

The round trip started with a 19-minute flight from Denver to Cheyenne, where our taxi to the runway took twice as long as the flight would due to the deicing procedures that were in effect. The takeoff and cruise were noneventful. We picked up the weather at Cheyenne and found ourselves with a stiff quartering tailwind that was threatening to ruin our plans for Runway 27 (the only runway with an ILS). Braking action had earlier been reported as poor. This would not do, for our tailwind limit goes to zero as the braking action goes to poor.

Our only other option was to attempt a circle to land on Runway 9. There were scattered ceilings at 400 feet, with an overcast layer at 700. We had a mile and a half of visibility in falling snow, just enough to meet the circling requirements.

We also had a minimum equipment list for our inoperative flaps. Now, flying anything much bigger (or much faster) than a BE-1900 without flaps is an immediate cause for concern; depending on the ­runway it might be prudent to declare an emergency. But on the 1900 a flaps-up approach and landing only required a handful of extra knots and a slightly higher angle of attack.

Still, I had no intention of attempting a circle to land at night, while in the snow, flaps up, punching through scattered layers. Blasting around the pattern at 140 kias and 500 feet on a dark night is scary enough; doing it in limited visibility with ice hanging off the airframe is downright suicidal.

So I made the smartest comment of the night to my FO, telling him in essence that the director of operations could suck it; we were heading back to Denver if the braking action was still poor. You should be careful what you say on a stormy night into a microphone that is wired directly into a voice recorder.

My hostility toward the circle to land was a moot point, as the runway had recently been plowed and was reporting just this side of good. We plugged in the frequencies for the ILS, ran the checklists and set our V-speeds.

We typically added 15 knots or so to our approach speed in icing conditions, but due to the fact that we were max weight, zero flaps, and that we were not allowed to fly Cat D approach speeds, we were limited by rule to 140 knots, which was a mere 2 knots over our nonicing speed. I would intentionally violate this limitation tonight.

We were quickly picking up ice. It was dark out, the clouds were thick, and I couldn’t see enough of the wing to make out how much was building up. The book said to wait until an inch was on it before activating the pneumatic boots. It also said that if you could not determine whether it was an inch or not, to do it once airspeed had deteriorated 10 knots in level flight with a constant power setting. Try figuring that one out in the middle of the night while descending and leveling off and descending again as commanded by ATC.

Still, it felt to me like the plane was getting sluggish. I made two correct choices, but only one of them worked out as planned. First, I pushed the power forward and informed my flying comrade that we would be flying 15 knots faster than we were supposed to. Then I engaged the deicing boots.

The plane flew just fine 15 knots over our max approach speed. I was uncomfortable with such a blatant violation of policy, but my sense of self-survival was outweighing my moral qualms for the moment. The approach was standard, except that at 1,000 feet agl our view began to be obstructed by ice. We had heated windscreens for the occasion, but there was still a nice sliver running right across my line of sight.

I am sure that the passengers were spooked by the crashing sounds as the prop heat cycled, flinging projectiles of ice against the fuselage. But I didn’t have time to tell them not to worry; I was too busy flying the approach, looking over my shoulder at the wing that was incorrigibly opaque with rime, and flipping the wing deice switch like our lives depended on it. We saw the runway descending through 500 feet. I peered around the ice buildup on the windscreen and pulled the power back so as to cross the threshold at VREF (a procedure quite adamantly demanded in our company manuals), and we slowed down to 1.3 VS.

Now, I knew that ice accumulation could increase drag. I also knew that it could decrease the angle of attack at which a wing stalls. But I also knew there was stiff wording against carrying excess speed into the flare. Perfectly good aircraft have been driven off the far end of the runway as a result of a dozen extra knots. So I did what the book said to do. I slowed. I crossed the threshold at 50 feet and VREF with the throttles at idle. It was perfectly and precisely performed to standards.

And it was a horrible mistake. At around 35 feet the bottom dropped out. There was no airframe buffet. There was no stall warning horn. Someone simply cut the magical aerodynamic cable that was keeping us aloft. We fell.

The next second was flush with activity. I immediately increased our angle of attack in an attempt to arrest the rapidly increasing descent rate. No joy. I had a momentary vision of the gear being driven through the engine cowling by the impact when we hit the ground. I dumped a shot of power into it just before we arrived in Cheyenne.

We hit hard, bounced a couple feet, and settled in. It wasn’t pretty, but everything was still intact. I taxied us in, let out a couple choice words, and we parked it. The passengers exited (probably wondering what the heck had just happened) and we secured the plane. Maintenance was picking it up to do routine checks on it, and I told them our tale. They assured me they would look it over.

When I stepped outside, I noticed a good deal of ice remaining on the leading edge of the wing. I walked over to it and saw that the ice was in the approximate shape of an inflated deice boot. Better than an inch of ice remained along its length. My frantic attempt on short final to jettison the rest of the ice was inhibited by the fact that the rubber boot was merely inflating inside a boot-shaped ice shell. It is what the manufacturers call bridging, right before they tell you that it almost never happens. Almost ...

We would find out the next day that we had managed to scrape the tail on landing. More precisely, we had trimmed a few inches off both of the opposing ventral fins. The director of operations was actually impressed with how evenly I had sheared them off, left to right. At that angle of attack, it is quite difficult to keep the wings level; typically the ensuing stall will be asymmetric and muck up roll authority.

The FAA never made mention of my decision to fly fast. The fact that I explained it to my FO on the cockpit voice recorder helped, I think, as it let them know that while I was exceeding a limitation, at least I was doing it for safety reasons. The director of operations graciously never made an issue with the CVR comment suggesting that he could shove it if he wanted me to fly that circle to land (which probably would have killed us, in any event). And I learned a tough lesson. Be intent on following the rules right up to the point that you begin to get the sense that following them could jeopardize safety. The rules are typically the best asset we have to safe flying, but every once in a while safety can demand that they be cautiously disregarded. There is, somewhere, even a rule about that.

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T.S. DunnWriter

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