Icing Above
Flying|February 2017

The quest for Diamonds in the sky.

Robert M. Hanrahan

I was a 30-year-old 600-hour instrument instructor with half ownership in a well-equipped Piper Archer II and a good job to pay the bills. I felt I had a good understanding of my personal minimums and promised myself never to break them — a policy that has paid off many times. But that almost wasn’t the case on one chilly October day in New York.

Ever since I’d started flying out of Westchester County Airport (HPN), my brother Gene, who has a passion for gems and minerals, had urged me to take him to Herkimer, New York, to search for crystals. That region of upstate New York has a reputation for growing some beautiful clear gem formations within the mountainsides — so clear that they are often called “Herkimer diamonds.” I invited my girlfriend and brother Ed to join us and planned a simple instrument flight between HPN and Utica Airport (UCA), north of the Catskill Mountains and only a few miles from Herkimer. On the morning of the trip, I called Flight Service to learn the forecast was VFR with some late-day buildups in front of a weak cold front. Otherwise, it appeared to be a fine day for flying.

Although I’d warned him about our limited load, Gene showed up with various mining tools, including chisels, hammers, and pails weighing enough that I needed to defuel one tank to the 17-gallon tab. My passengers requested a scenic route, so I filed north along the Hudson River and received clearance as filed. On landing, we found a pleasant FBO with a guest car waiting. I wrote up a fuel order to fill the tanks to the tabs, anticipating extra treasure on the return flight.

It was a beautiful sunny day, reaching about 50 degrees F while we cracked open rocks. We found more than a few Herkimer diamonds. Midday, I noticed some buildups off in the distant west, so I called Flight Service for an update. They noted scattered cumulus clouds and expected occasional passing cumulonimbus clouds in front of the cold front, about 100 miles west and moving slowly. As the buildups became more visible, I decided to play it safe and announced an earlier-than-planned departure. All were happy with the decision, but Gene started gathering as much unbroken rock as he could fit in his pail for cracking after he returned home. Knowing we had instructed the FBO to limit the fuel, I agreed to 40 pounds of rock, leaving ample margin to the airplane’s weight limits.

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