Mitigate danger & trust the Lord

PA32-300 Piper Cherokee Six like one I had

In my preceding post, I described my feeble methods for staying alive in the Argentine civil war, now called “the Dirty War” by historical revisionists. After describing how I turned my safety over to the Lord, I said:

“From that day on, I have not feared for my life–despite being in great danger on numerous occasions. If I discover myself in danger, I do whatever I can to mitigate the risk. But, the Lord is in absolute control of the outcome.”

Over later posts, I’m going to dig into my spiritual journal for examples demonstrating what I meant in the above quote. These examples will illustrate what I mean by doing “whatever I can to mitigate the risk,” while accepting that “the Lord is in absolute control of the outcome”

I previously wrote how flying fighters became my childhood ambition during World War II. As a Marine I failed the color-blindness test to be a fighter pilot. However, I couldn’t shake my love of flying, and when I could afford it, I secured a private pilot’s license, instrument rating, commercial pilot certificate, and an airplane: a Piper Cherokee Six, PA32-300(hp).

Over the years, I flew 49 different aircraft (20 designs), logged 878 hours of flight, of which 505 were cross-country, 40 at night, 103 solely by reference to instruments (actual IFR); including 950 takeoffs and landings. I kept intellectually committed through thousands of hours of courses, seminars, reading accident reports, and reading articles like mine below.

Piloting aircraft has been defined by one wag as: “thousands of hours of boredom punctuated by rare moments of sheer terror.”

In May of 1989, I encountered my first (and only) such moment. The following is taken verbatim from my personal journal (edited only for clarity):

Sunday, April 30, 1989 to Sunday, May 7, 1989 [inflight icing nearly kills me].  Flew alone on business in Delaware, regarding relocating my company there. First leg, flew to my folks’ house in Williamsport, PA, for dinner and the night. Same day, took (sister) Josie’s family for ride. Monday, flew to Allentown, PA, which was as close as I wanted to go in (the prevalent bad) weather, because it had (the) best instrument facilities. After business, I took off for Ohio State University field, where I refueled. The account of the icing encounter follows below the (following) logbook entries.

Date From To Flight time Aircraft ID Make & Model Remarks
4/30/89 SUS IPT 4.5 N2174S PA32-300 non-stop using 55% power and had 38 gallons (2.5 hrs.) left!!!
4/30/89 IPT IPT 0.5 N2174S PA32-300 Josie’s family for ride.
5/1/89 IPT ABE 0.8 N2174S PA32-300 Allentown ILS to 400 feet; drove to Dover DE
5/6/1989 ABE OSU 3 N2174S PA32-300 OSU NDB
5/6/89 OSU DAY 0.8 N2174S PA32-300 DAY ILS: Heavy icing caused me to abort flight and overnight here
5/7/89 DAY SUS 3 N2174S PA32-300

IPT = Williamsport Regional Airport, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, USA

SUS = Spirit of St. Louis Airport, MO

ABE = Lehigh Valley International, Allenown, PA

OSU = Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

DAY = James M Cox Dayton International, Dayton, OH

Below is my article published in AOPA Online (Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association). (article was still online there on June 10, 2008, 19 years later)

Weather and Flight Experience

Listen to your Briefer

This is taken from my journal. At the time, I was an 800-hour pilot, current for IFR and flying the same plane that I had earned my IFR rating in five years earlier. I flew all cross-country under IFR and had about 80 hours actual IMC experience.

May 6, 1989: Returning from Dover, Delaware, where I had been involved in stressful business, I was traveling home to Spirit of St. Louis airport using my Cherokee Six.

I stopped at Columbus, Ohio, at the Ohio State University airstrip for refueling. As I got my IFR weather debriefing over the phone, the briefer told me that there was a Pirep (pilot report) that a Cessna had encountered light icing southeast of the field. Yeah, yeah, I thought to myself. Just like the “chance of thunderstorms” you get all summer long from the FSS in CAVU. Well, they had cried “WOLF” so many times that this Pirep went right through my ears. But, I was now alerted to the possibility of icing, although I considered it remote in the month of May and with the temperatures aloft along my route.

Then this intrepid aviator took his beloved Cherokee Six off into a four hundred foot ceiling (IFR, remember) in light rain and was chugging onward at four thousand feet under Dayton Approach Control about twenty miles out, when I entered driving snow, which changed to sleet and freezing rain, which made my engine run rough, so, because I was a well trained and current IFR pilot with 5 years in this airplane, I opened the air cleaner by-pass by rote for the first time in five years. But the engine continued to run rough as the prop iced up. And ice started to form on my leading edges and on my windscreen.

This situation got my undivided attention. So I yelped: “Dayton Approach Control, this is Cherokee xxxx Sierra IFR to St. Louis. I have encountered freezing rain and need to land immediately”.

“Cherokee xxxx Sierra, are you declaring an emergency?”

“Yes I am!”

“Cherokee xxxx Sierra, turn left to a heading of 210, immediately descend to two thousand feet and intercept the localizer for runway 24 Right. I have put all other traffic on hold.”

“xxxx Sierra. Thank you!”

Moments later, I broke out of the clouds and the ice started to melt and break off the prop, cowl, windshield, wings, wheel fairings etc. I kept the indicated airspeed up to about 140 knots on the approach and 120 knots over the threshold numbers, because I knew that the ice might seriously degrade lift on my wings. Moreover, despite the pitot heat, the pitot tube might be iced up and not giving airspeed correctly. Normal stall was about 65 miles per hour without flaps. You don’t use flaps in this situation. Training pays off in the knowledge that this is not the first time this type of situation has been thought through.

Then I touched down with a loud “CRASH” sound as all the ice fell off the plane as I touched down and, once on the ground, I cut the throttle, pushed the nose down and slowly lowered full flaps. It was a 10,900-foot runway, so I had no problem stopping with a mile to spare from the high speed.

As I walked into the FBO’s office, the phone rang for me. The briefer who had told me about the icing Pirep on the phone briefing in Columbus asked me: “Why did you decide to go after I told you of the Pirep about icing?”

“It was southeast and I was going west. I went up to take a look for myself. But, thanks for saving my life”, I told him.

The briefer was gracious. No infractions were levied on me. The FAA controllers saved my life with immediate rerouting, putting all the incoming airliners in holding patterns, as they are prepared to do when the pilot declares an Emergency.

The moral and lessons of the story are several. Listen to your weather briefing carefully. To assure that you get full benefit from the briefing, do not “tune out” what you perceive as boilerplate. And Pireps are far from boilerplate. Know the risks ahead before starting. Always keep trained for the worst (icing does happen in May), and ready to recognize and declare an emergency IMMEDIATELY. If I had waited five minutes, I would have been buried in a hole in an Ohio cornfield. The logic is this: if I make an error in judgment, own up to it, get out of the danger and deal with it on the ground.

So, you might ask, how does this incident stand up to my words about risk:

“From that day on, I have not feared for my life–despite being in great danger on numerous occasions. If I discover myself in danger, I do whatever I can to mitigate the risk. But, the Lord is in absolute control of the outcome.”

For my part, I did what I could to mitigate the risks:

  1. Aircraft maintained in excellent condition;
  2. Pilot well-rested and healthy;
  3. Pilot well-trained in this aircraft;
  4. Recent Pilot experience in Instrument Meteorological Conditions ;
  5. Pilot pretrained for this specific meteorological condition (icing);
  6. Pilot alert for and recognized conditions as they deteriorated;
  7. Pilot immediately announced problem to Air Traffic Control;

God has a plan for my life, and another plan for yours. This situation could have easily led to a wide range of outcomes, with death as most likely. The icing could have been just a little worse, and the plane would have become uncontrollable. Or, I could have tried to solve the problem on my own, because I didn’t want to admit I had made a mistake–or was afraid of what the FAA might do to me. But, I did what I had previously trained to do, including the preset decision to immediately declare an emergency.

That’s one example, of how a Christian can live without (groundless) fear, and take reasonable risks by training beforehand for adversity. Some had thought I was a control freak in flying. Actually, I was only complying with regulations and industry guidelines for safe flying. That I misread a piece of data was a human mistake, but I was up front in admitting the problem to authorities who could help, and they did. The FAA encouraged honesty at that time by foregoing penalties when pilots reported their errors.

Since I pray as a regular element of daily life, wherever I may be, and start every day with the Holy Spirit and the Bible (which He inspired various men to write)–including on that day described in the article–I live with the indwelling Holy Spirit inside me wherever I go. When this crisis arose, I acted through training, but accepted that the outcome was in His hands.

Thanks for visiting,

Rick Burke