Zero Seven Papa is Declaring an Emergency by Rick Wagner

“Affirmative – 07Papa is declaring an emergency at this time”

There I was, 5000 msl 4000 agl with my Wife beside me in our 1954 Piper Tri-Pacer, I was full power and pitched for a standard climb and was going down. Prior to reaching 7000 when I was suppose to contact Center I called and told them I was having some problems.

“TriPacer Zero Seven Papa is 25 miles off of Park Rapids at 5000 and cannot maintain altitude, were turning back”

Center responded “07P are you declaring an emergency?”

I thought for a moment – was I really going to say it? Was I? It was only one week after getting my instrument rating, my first real IMC cross country and my Wifes first IFR experience and things were not going well. Just then a severe engine vibration started and I immediately pulled power and dropped the nose. I thought the engine would rip off the front of the airplane if I hadn’t.

“Zero Seven Papa has severe engine vibration, were iced up badly and cannot maintain altitude, I’ve pulled the power and have lost the airspeed indicator – were turning back to Park Rapids”.

Again Center responded “Roger 07P understand your turning back to Park Rapids – are you declaring an emergency?”

What I wanted to say was “what more does it take?!” We were iced up bad, real bad. I fought to look away from the panel to see what was ? of a inch of clear ice glued to the front half of the wing struts. I looked at the pitot tubes to see what looked like a 1 inch ball of ice on the front of the tube. It didn’t look to good.

I keyed the mike and said the words that I had feared to say “Affirmative – 07Papa is declaring an emergency at this time”

I could go into a long drawn out dissertation of what events led up to this point, but I won’t. The 125 mile flight from the Blaine Airport in Minnesota northwest to Park Rapids was uneventful, We flew through and on top of a cloud deck of about 5000 msl and landed Park Rapids. The Wife and I had dinner with relatives and were returning home with a 6 PM departure. Cloud bases were 1200 feet and the only significant issue was that at 4000msl I asked Gail (my Wife) to look for icing on the struts and tires to which she replied she didn’t see anything. I checked out my window and saw nothing that would indicate any icing conditions. 2 minutes later however..

As we climbed out of 4500 it was becoming obvious that we were nearing the tops of the clouds. An occasional whisper of lighter skies encouraged me that we’d soon be on top and I’d be able to relax a little as I was nervous as hell. The air was bumpy and I was working up a sweat. I knew my experience level. As a IFR pilot I was as green as you could get with my instrument ticket being all of a week old. Something wasn’t right though. Airspeed 90, pitched for a climb and the vertical indicator not moving, maybe even showing a little less than level. Scan, scan, scan. – What’s wrong I asked myself, Why aren’t we climbing. Dam – must be ice I thought. Need to get out of the clouds, need to get just a little higher. I released just a small amount of back pressure from the yoke and then pulled back to a best rate of climb pitch. Almost out! Just whispers of cloud above us. Almost out. The altimeter started to drop and the vertical indicator slumped to about 700fpm decent. Oh Sh#T! The airspeed still read 90! That cant be! I increased pitch- it should have dropped. This aint good. Dam ice.

By this time Gail had become nervous as I was talking out loud about getting on top and having picked up the weight of ice that was keeping us from climbing.

I dropped the nose by reducing the back pressure on the yoke.. I cranked in a couple of turns of down trim to reduce the pitch angle and started my call to Minneapolis Center.

“Zero Seven Papa you are cleared direct to Park Rapids, altitude your discretion weather at Park Rapids ..bla bla bla” Like I cared about the winds and temperature at the airport.

OK, how do I get back to PR? I was scared. I knew I was scared, They new I was scared, Gail knew I was scared. I was scared. I was also starting to loose it. Overload- confusion, fear, lost, but I knew the only one who could help me was me and all the stuff I was suppose to have learned in IFR training. The plane was heavy, real heavy. After several attempts to bring the power back up I must have thrown the ice off the other side of the prop and it would now spin up smoothly. Full power. Now to get back to a pitch altitude that would give me enough airspeed to stay flying and reduce my rate of decent . As the airspeed was still frozen at 90. I used “feel” and the attitude indicator to find the best pitch. At 300fpm decent I could stay just above what felt like an impending stall and was the best compromise available. I knew I had to turn around but to what heading? I’d become completely disorientated as to assigned headings so I couldn’t remember a course reversal number to work with. Center radioed they had put a airliner in a hold overhead as they would loose radio contact with me as I descended. They asked for periodic updates to my condition. A call from the airline pilot came next saying he was overhead and would stay with me. For a short period of time I felt lost, panic was starting to set in and I started to think we wouldn’t make it. Fly the plane- fly the plane- I kept hearing this voice in my head. Actually it was many voices, the voices of all the instructors and other pilots I’d flown with who over the years had said a thousand times “fly the plane!”. So I did. I requested the airliner ask center for a heading to fly back to PR as I was disorientated and had made several turns off course since this thing went bad. I was below radar and they couldn’t help me but to advise what heading to fly if I was still on the outbound course. I’m not sure if it was the turbulence or the situation but it seemed harder to control the airplane. It may have been the weight increase but I was struggling with trying to stay level.

My Wife bumped my shoulder to get my attention and asked very seriously “are we going to be all right?” I didn’t know. I told her I thought so but to be honest – I didn’t know. She responded with “your lips are saying you think so but your knees are saying were screwed”. She was right. My legs were shaking and I had not realized it before. Then the airline radioed that Minneapolis had requested “say soles onboard”. That was a real turning point for me. I responded with “relay Minneapolis that 07P has two very scared soles on board”. What else could I say, it was the purest truth I’d ever spoken. I think this was a real turning point in my mental condition. I knew then that not many people get asked that and have the opportunity to talk about it later, I knew I had to fly better than I had ever flown before, I had to think better and faster than before and I had to get it right or we were going to die.

I started the turn inbound but nearly lost it as the left wing dropped and control input was not responding. I thought a spin was starting as the DG began a quick turn. I dropped the nose and reduced power for a period of time I thought would be adequate and then pulled the nose back level and added power again. The attitude Indicator came slowly back to normal and I pitched and powered back again to best rate of “decent” as it were. A glance at the compass reminded me that I had again forgotten the heading to fly so I just took a breath and decided to reset the vfr GPS I had with. It was originally set for Blaine and under normal circumstances would have been my reference for heading but I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I normally was when just out shooting approaches. Frequently I told the airline captain what was going on. It felt good to have someone to talk to who would understand what I was saying and possibly what I was going through. The GPS gave me a heading number but when I made a very shallow turn to that heading on the dg it became obvious that the dg had presased when in the spin/turn. I turned mostly with rudder and very shallow to a GPS course that agreed with the GPS heading. Slowly we kept descending. Scared, sweating, and angry with my self for putting my wife helplessly into this situation I sat there balancing the pitch with the “feel” of the airplane hoping that our altitude would hold out to get us back to the runway. Now all I could do was wait. It took about 2 hours (to me) before we hit the bottom of the clouds. We broke out of the clouds at 1100 feet agl but was still unable to maintain altitude. Airspeed now read zero. Not that it mattered, I wasnt going to believe it no matter what it said at this point.

I’m a experienced skydiver and my wife has made 1 tandem jump. I thought about how stupid it was to ride this 40 year old fuel tank into the trees or swamp below when if we had chutes we could have just jumped and saved our lives. The windshield and side windows were now iced over and we could only see directly left or right and behind, nothing forward. I’d landed once before using the GPS to align to the runway so I thought I could do it again that gave me some confidence, and I needed all that I could get. There wasn’t anywhere else to go. No roads or fields, just trees and swamp. Our decent rate was down to about 200 fpm or less now and getting better every minute. Visibility was only just over a mile. Center relayed through the airliner a request for what approach I wanted. Funny, we were about 400 agl without a VOR signal 8 miles from the airport and I thought it was just funny. “07P is 400 agl and has no forward visibility due to ice on the windshield – were going to align to the runway with GPS and hope we don’t hit anything.” They replied with “07P climb to 2600 as soon as possible to minimum altitude, if able.” Right.

Things started getting better. 1 mile out I was able to climb some. The ice was coming off a little at a time and a 3inch hole had started to defrost near the bottom center of the windshield. The GPS did its job, again, and we soon were dropping down to runway. The GPS showed a 100knot ground speed over the threshold and I still had power at 100%. When only a couple of feet off the ground I pulled power back, just a little and pulled back on the yoke enough to maintain flight. Wrong, the plane stalled and hit the runway like a ton of bricks, I had my wife put her coat over her face and fold her arms to protect her head prior to the runway. I didn’t think I would be able to control the overweight skinny legged milk stool at that speed, but I was wrong about that to. We stopped. On the runway and in one piece. Large sheets of ice were falling off the wings and crashing into small pieces and scattered down the runway. I turned around to see the fire trucks and police cars waiting with all there lights on. We made it.

I thanked the pilots of the holding airliner, and I meant it. I don’t know if they were trying to be calming or assuring but they were, and I thank them. The Center controller was cool and professional, I needed that and I thank them also. And I thank my Wife, who after helping to bust the ice off the airplane got back in to it and flew back with me when I really needed someone to fly with.

“Un-forecasted imbedded freezing rain” said the FAA about a month later during a telephone follow up with them. I’m OK with that, and I learned a lot from that one.

P.S. The weather briefing did not include any advisories for ice. In case your wondering.

Rick Wagner