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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Under The Weather

We've already talked a lot about weather.  Pittsburgh is fortunate to not be prone to some of the worst weather phenomena Mom Nature can produce.  Tornados are not nearly as common as they are in flatter country, starting in Texas and Oklahoma and stretching all the way up to our next door neighbor, Ohio.  They happen, but not with the frequency of the section of the country known as Tornado Alley.  Hurricanes do not occur in Western PA.  Big low pressure areas do occur and they can have deadly impact.  The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was an example of the devastation they can cause.

As you would expect, we did lots of flying to and over Johnstown.  It was on the route to Harrisburg and Philadelphia.  On one such trip, the lighting was just right to see the true nature of the terrain at Johnstown.  It is like a funnel, turned on its side and cut in half, with Johnstown at the part where it gets skinny.  It makes you wonder what they were thinking when they built a city there.  There was a bad flood there during this period, I think it was 1977, but nothing as serious as the 1889 flood, in which more than 2000 deaths occurred.

Typical weather here is hazy in summer with thunderstorms and cold and snowy in winter.  The haze was so bad, that it was a real challenge to teach primary students to fly the plane with reference to the horizon.  There was no horizon, just a kind of cone of downward visibility.  We didn't have any wimps flying at Butler.

In the summer, we had to be able to avoid thunderstorms, often without the benefit of weather radar.  We became very resourceful in doing so, often with the help of ATC.

In the winter, the problems were gusty winds, low ceilings and visibility and icing condition, just to name a few.  Icing occurs when flying in the clouds, where there are "super cooled water droplets".  The temperature is below freezing, but the water droplets have not completely frozen.  We came along with our airplane wings and smashed into these droplets and the disruption of their shape caused them to form on the leading edges as ice.

Icing causes drag and a change in the shape of your airfoils, thereby  eventually destroying the ability to create lift.  The wings will stall and the plane will fall.

Bigger, more expensive planes have systems to deal with icing.  For example, there are electric heating elements on the props and wind screens and inflatable pneumatic"boots" on the wings.  

Jets use wing and engine cowling leading edges that are heated, usually by "bleed air" from the turbine engine compressors.

We had some planes with boots and we had some without.  I can't explain it in any reasonable amount of space or time, but we learned how to determine when we could fly in icing conditions and when we could not.  For example, one method was to determine that the clouds tops were not above an altitude at which we could fly the plane and that the layer of icing conditions could be penetrated quickly.  If we did not build too much ice on the climb, we would break out on top and the accumulated ice would sublimate and just disappear over time, as if by magic.  We became very good at getting and understanding all the weather and pilot report information we could.

Of course, there was always the possibility of misjudging the situation or of something unexpected happening.  It was also possible to encounter conditions that exceeded even the capabilities of our best planes.

One such story is the time I was flying somewhere down east and the weather in our area was winter crappy, low ceilings, high tops and lots of ice in the clouds.  I had to get a clearance through the Flight Service Station to take off in IFR.  That meant ATC kept the airspace at Butler clear for me, until I called them airborne, or until the time ran out.  No one would be cleared for an approach into the airport.

I was the only occupant of the Navajo Chieftain, a very nicely equipped plane.  I called ATC and was given a heading to the southeast and a climb clearance, but it was not above the tops of the clouds.  Ice started forming on the plane at an alarming rate and I was using all the stuff to prevent it and remove it.  It continued building any way.  When the hot props are working, they sling off chunks of ice and you can hear it whacking the side of the fuselage.

Normally Pittsburgh Departure Control would quickly give us a heading or a clearance direct to some place to the east, a climb to our filed cruise altitude and a handoff to Cleveland Center, the enroute facility.  This time, I was getting heading changes to the south which was keeping me in Pittsburgh's airspace and kept at an altitude where ice was building on the plane.

You know me, big mouth.  I was bugging the controller for a higher altitude and could tell he was becoming annoyed.  I didn't care.  This was a period of time in which the controllers were becoming militant.  They were under the influence of a union leader who was threatening to strike and the hotbed of this movement was in Pittsburgh.  We frequently suspected that they took action to gum up the works, to put pressure on to achieve their goals.

After several exchanges, with me whining as much as I could, I finally explained that I was sitting down here building ice on the plane at an alarming rate and needed a clearance to climb.  He asked me if I wanted to declare an emergency.  I said I did not want to declare an emergency, I wanted to prevent one.

Some times, you just think of the right thing to say.  To this day, I don't know if he was just then able to get a hand off to the Center or if he finally stopped playing games, when he realized the reality of the situation.  He gave me a turn to the east, a climb to my cruise altitude and a hand off clearance.  Adios My Friend (A.M.F.).


  1. "I did not want to declare an emergency, I wanted to prevent one." Great line. There was a guy at PIT nicknamed Adios, because that's how he ended his frequency change transmissions. Before my time.

  2. We used to take students the the PIT tower, long before people started flying our planes full of our people into our buildings. We met Frankie, aka Adios, on one such visit. I recognized his voice when I heard him issue a clearance. That is why I included that in the post, as well as to cover up the true meaning of AMF. We always considered him one of the best controllers we ever encountered any where in the country. The reason was that he spoke slowly and clearly and was heard and understood on his first transmission. Good guy, but when I met him, I was expecting a John Wayne looking dude. He was our hero. He was not the dude I dealt with in this story. Once I heard Frankie ask an airline pilot if he turned his wife on the same way he turned his transponder on. That captain did not see the humor.