I needed to know the airplane’s exact performance prior to the long overwater legs ahead. The back seats were filled with survival suits, rafts, and even a hand-crank fuel pump for fueling the airplane in Northern Canada. I was northbound to Milwaukee— one of my favorite overnight stops before launching into Canada.
Though I’m not much for superstition, I do have rituals. In fact, most ferry pilots have rituals. My ritual involved having a tomato-bisque dinner prior to the first day over water. The next morning, I would don my survival suit and cross an icy Lake Michigan on the way to Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.
Ferry flying has always been one of aviation’s most mysterious and thrilling career paths. I receive questions from people all the time wondering how to become a ferry pilot and how to prepare themselves for long-distance flights. My answers are usually the same: planning, knowledge and precision. Although you may not be taking an exotic airplane to an exotic location, the same skills I’ve learned on ferry flights can also apply to a new private pilot. Because of my exposure to far-northern climates, I’ve learned a lot of lessons from ferry flying that could help prepare pilots for the adventures of winter flying.
Though an airplane may be legal for flight into known icing, it’s still possible to end up in a dangerous situation. The Cessna 210 was one of the first single-engine piston aircraft to be certified for flight into known icing in the 1970s. It was equipped for deice boots powered by a vacuum pump, with windshield and prop heat. Though the airplane was certified with this system, the technology is very antiquated and does not meet the certification standards of today’s FIKI aircraft.
Along my route, an occluded front had formed that stretched thousands of miles. As I entered the clouds surrounding the boundary of the front, it didn’t take long for ice to start forming on the wings. When enough ice accumulated, I cycled the boots in an attempt to shed the ice. As I looked over to the wings, my heart sunk. Theice was bridging on the left wing while being shed on the right.
I was experiencing a now nearly extinct phenomenon known as ice bridging. Ice bridging is when the boots push the ice out, but the ice doesn’t break off, creating a layer of ice that is separated from the boot by an air gap. Most modern boot systems have more advanced technology to prevent this, but for early boot-equipped aircraft, it was a problem. The wing continued to get heavier, and the performance continued to decline, so I immediately executed Plan B by descending to 5,000 feet where the temperature was above freezing. As the ice melted off the wings, my immediate crisis was averted, but I now had an additional problem: The freezing level across the remainder of my route was at the surface, and I had to avoid icing at all costs.
Spending any amount of time among fellow pilots always produces extravagant stories of survival and ingenuity. I have heard of exaggerated stories and unconventional tricks ferry pilots have used over the years to avoid perilous icing. One pilot swore spraying Rain-X on the wings kept ice from sticking. Another ferry pilot claimed to have descended to 20 feet above the North Atlantic Ocean to use salty seawater spray to clean the wings.
Though I can’t speak to the legitimacy or effectiveness of any of these techniques, I do know they’re not recommended by the aircraft’s manufacturer. As pilots, it’s critical that we operate within the aircraft’s limitations. The good news is, technology can help us forecast icing conditions, and manufacturers have created very thorough procedures for dealing with harsh winter climates in small airplanes.
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