A Sign of Ice

By Robert Mark on September 12th, 2021

                American Champion 7KCAB

Although this story is old, the details and the learning experiences are as valuable today as they were years ago. Rob

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Inexperience, stupidity, get-home-itis — take your pick. Any of them applied to me one late November evening as I cruised over Chicago’s Loop with an electric night sign slung beneath the belly of an old, but well running Champion Citabria 7KCAB.

It was supposed to be a routine advertising sign trip over Soldier Field adjacent to Merrill C. Meigs Airport (CGX) on the lakefront. I’d flown the trip many times before and I knew the area well. At the time I had about 400 hours and a commercial certificate under my belt. I was working on my instrument rating.

The Job

The night sign – a conglomeration of wires and lights – was usually hung under the Champ in the fall when the nights were longer. It was an old design that resembled an early mobile billboard, a chicken-wire cage running from wing tip to wing tip underneath the airplane and would show whatever message was programmed into it. To the aircraft owner the sign meant extra income. To a pilot the sign meant a paycheck too, but it also represented extra drag.

As I prepared for the flight from Palwaukee Municipal Airport (now Chicago Executive), I was aware that light snow was forecast, but not for nearly three hours after that night’s job would end. Unfortunately, as I approached the plane, I noticed it leaning to one side because the right main tire was flat. After some quick phone calls to the customer about the delay, I managed to find the night mechanic to fix the tire. More than an hour late, I rushed to get airborne into the now darkened sky.

I hadn’t checked the weather for almost two hours, but when I did, DuPage Airport to the west was still good VFR. I didn’t think to check the weather at Rockford, about 30 miles northwest of DuPage. If I had, I would have known that it was already reporting a 200 overcast and a half-mile in snow.

Night signs slung beneath some aircraft.

I turned on the night sign while still about six miles north of the target, figuring the customer had the extra bit of time coming. I circled around the target many times, and the conversation with the tower controller at Meigs made it tough to tell who was more bored.

The Weather

I’d been over the target for perhaps half an hour when I saw lightning to the west of the city. I called Chicago Flight Service and learned that DuPage was IFR in snow, with a thunderstorm, too. I had to do something. But with only $3 in my pocket, I wouldn’t even be able to pay for the cab ride back to my apartment if I landed at Meigs. I made a few more passes around the target to give the customer his money’s worth before I bade the Meigs controller good night and headed north up the Lake Michigan shoreline toward Palwaukee. Actually, Palwaukee is northwest of Meigs, but I didn’t feel comfortable flying over the city at night in a single.

Three miles north of Meigs, drizzle began that sounded like thousands of tiny grains of sand hitting the plexiglass windshield. The visibility was still good, so I figured that I was home free, even though the outside air temperature was near freezing. As I looked toward my destination, I realized that some of the city was beginning to disappear in the precipitation. I thought about it for a minute and decided that it was time to break my rule and fly over the city.

The intensity of the rain seemed to increase, but only for a short time. Then, the only sound was the constant drone of that 150-horsepower Lycoming. It took me a few minutes to realize why much of the noise had disappeared and why I no longer saw the rain streaming across the windshield. The precipitation was freezing. I saw tiny drops of ice clinging to the struts and tires; but, most of all, it was clinging to the hundreds of feet of wire on that big night sign.

My Decisions

As I looked behind me to the shoreline, I decided it was too late to turn around. Palwaukee, now six miles ahead, was reporting three miles visibility in freezing rain. I did the only thing that I thought I could — I climbed — hoping to give myself more time once this big block of ice decided to come down. Straight ahead, the rotating beacon of what was then the Glenview Naval Air Station seemed to beckon. For years, I’d been told that civilian airplanes were not allowed there except in emergencies. The lights of Glenview’s 7,000-foot runway reflected off the ice on my sign as I passed over the field.

Palwaukee was two-and-a-half miles away as I flew a straight-in approach to Runway 30 Right. Even though I was still holding full power, the aircraft was beginning to descend. A mile out on final, I was down to about 400 feet agl. The icicles hanging from the night sign looked like stiff tinsel. I held full power almost to the ground. About six feet above the runway I began easing back on the throttle. As the rpm slowed through 2,250, the old Champ gave up the fight and fell to the runway. I don’t think that airplane rolled more than 200 feet before it stopped. The snow, sleet, and freezing rain were now so heavy that I could barely see the tower half a mile away.

As I taxied closer to the fuel pumps, I watched the line attendant’s eyes widen in amazement. I shut down and took a few deep breaths before I got out. Now it was my turn to look surprised. The little taildragger looked as though it were encased in clear plastic.

After I tied down the airplane, I headed for the airport restaurant and some coffee. I ran into one of the charter pilots I knew and told him what had happened. “Why didn’t you land at Meigs?” he asked. “Why didn’t you declare an emergency and land at Glenview?” he continued. “Why didn’t you keep closer track of the weather? What kind of decisions are those?” By now, I realized that most of my decisions had been pretty poor.

I had been presented with plenty of options but had been too single-minded on getting home to see them. That night I learned there are always other options … you just have to look out the windows to see them. When you see them in a worst-case scenario, as in the airplane and you might not survive, the decisions come much easier.

This story was originally published in AOPA Pilot.

Rob Mark

 

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