Mostly Uneventful: An Emergency in Greece

Dubrovnik was difficult to leave, but it is important not to grow too comfortable anywhere along the route, lest our trip extend indefinitely. After a morning spent touring the old city, which is remarkably preserved, even after the ravages of the 1991 war, and an afternoon climbing thousands of stairs and walking the parapets of the startlingly high walls surrounding the city, we were ready to move ahead to Crete, our midway stop between Croatia and Egypt. Just as we were contemplating that flight, EgyptAir lost an Airbus 320 over the Mediterranean on a late-night flight from Paris to Cairo. Flight 804 apparently went into the sea not far from Crete, shortly after entering Egyptian airspace. All of us in aviation know that early speculation about crashes, disappearances, and adverse events of all kinds is often wrong and usually unhelpful, but this has all the markings of a man-made event, an intentional act, of some sort and so makes it particularly distressing. We won’t speculate here; I will leave that to the media, the parties involved, and wiser men than I. Whatever its cause, it is a tragedy and reminds us how fragile we are.

Regardless, our next leg would traverse some of the same airspace.  Flight planning for us involved cobbling together a weather forecast from various sources and relying, as has become more our practice, on AutoRouter to find an IFR route acceptable to EuroControl and likely to at least get us started toward our destination. Prog charts showed a large low in our path with clouds of an indeterminate – at least to us – height and some chance of weather, ie., convective weather associated later in the afternoon, but nothing that seemed threatening.

The actual flight yesterday from Dubrovnik was largely uneventful, mostly IMC, with occasional glimpses of the high peaks and steep valleys of the Pindu Mountains of Albania and Greece at the southern extent of the Balkans. I say largely uneventful because of some icing we encountered at FL110 over Greece. We were talking to Athens radar. We were IMC as we had been for most of the flight. All was well. I reached into the rear of the airplane to fetch some snacks and was required to take off my headset and my oxygen for a few moments while I stretched, squirmed, and wriggled behind our seats. I somehow sensed something amiss; I don’t recall the trigger. I turned my head and saw Adam motioning for me to put on my headset and return to my seat. When I did, he said, “We are losing airspeed.” Indeed we were. Rapidly and to an unsustainable extent. I immediately looked at the wings and saw ice building rapidly. The airframe buffeted. A stall would be not long in coming at this attitude and angle of attack. We turned off the autopilot, the altitude hold function of which was going to get us in trouble, was already in fact responsible for our loss of airspeed and progress toward a stall; we reduced the angle of attack and began a descent. I called Athens radar, declared an emergency, informed her that we were in moderate icing and would be descending as necessary. I was not in a mood to negotiate an altitude change. I was not inclined to make a request. I was making a statement. I was aware, even in that moment, that I was declaring an emergency in Greek airspace, perhaps even to the same sector, that had lost the EgyptAir flight only a day before, so I was careful to specify the reason. I was also aware that, heavily loaded, with enough ice to slow the airplane fifty knots, we were not going to attempt to climb out of the ice.  We were near max power and we had no additional angle of attack available.  We were in the tops of cumulus clouds, classic icing territory.  The OAT had slipped just below freezing and there was nothing to suggest an inversion, so warmer air lay not far below us. Of course, so did the mountains, but we had checked the vertical profile of the flight earlier and noted that we had several thousand feet of clearance over even the highest peaks, which were not immediately on our route – so lower was the best option.  I looked and observed ice on the horizontal stabilizer and briefly considered the prospect of a tailplane stall, and, realizing that it was possible, decided to deal with the more likely phenomenon, the more familiar, and the most manageable.  Common things are common.  Occam’s razor.  Athens Radar asked a few more questions, which I mostly ignored. We turned on the TKS, which is not intended as deicing equipment, only anti-icing, but with the airplane in a descent, regaining airspeed, warmer air engulfing us, the TKS flowing as best it could, we soon began to shed ice. From that point, it again became routine. Clarifying with Athens our situation and that we intended to continue, negotiating a return to FL110 after determining that we would not likely encounter further icing, and taking a few deep breaths of oxygen – and determining that we would leave the postmortem to the evening.* We continued on and focused on the challenges of descent, approach and landing. The arrival procedure involved a DME arc and some puzzling symbology that required close attention and the approach, a circling approach, required study even though the weather suggested a visual approach would be likely.

Which came to be. A vectored descent, a visual approach, another of Adam’s perfect landings, the usual handling tedium of Europe, customs, where our flight crew credentials – and handling fees – moved us to the front of the line. Acquisition of a rental car and we were soon on our way out of Heraklion en route along the northern coast to Rethymno, which Dora of the Mitre had recommended what seems like so long ago in Paddington.

*The flight instructor in me – that never seems to go away or shut up – cannot refrain from reviewing for myself and for anyone listening the lessons here …

  • Icing and thunderstorms are the chimera of instrument flying, the beasts of which to be very afraid.
  • Do not mistake TKS for a de-icing system. It’s not.
  • Do not, for a moment, assume that your TKS system equips your airplane to fly into known ice. The requirements for known icing certification, which itself is a slippery concept, are far more complicated and extensive than keeping ice off of the wings, tail, and props. They involve such things as the fuel tank vents, the antennas, and a host of other things that can be adversely affected by ice – and those requirements have changed over the years. A known-ice airplane certified in 1984 is not the same thing as one certified in 2016.  If you fly a known-ice airplane, do the research. There are some good advisory circulars not simply about icing but about the icing certification process.  They are sobering.
  • Become familiar with the best icing forecast products. Jepp produces an excellent one and the AviationWeather Center icing page is useful.  Look for PIREPs and make PIREPs when you can.  As an NTSB meteorologist said to me once, “Please remember that a negative PIREP is also valuable, sometimes more so, to both pilots and meteorologists.”  Yes, I know that the PIREP system is awkward and needs overhauling.  There are people working on it.  Do your best.  Study cloud formations, weather systems, icing meteorology.  Don’t be a slave to the charts.  Try to understand their implications.  And get a standard briefing from a FSS briefer.  Flying in Europe and elsewhere in the world, where it is not possible or at least impractical to have an interactive conversation with a trained weather briefer who can help one wade through the sea of information and find the pertinent issues, who understands local weather patterns, who watched the weather every day and has been sorting through today’s weather for hours seeking to understand it and explain it to one pilot after another, some in the flight levels in turbine equipment and some in flivvers hopping over the hills — do not take that privilege for granted.  Trust me.  You will miss it when it is gone.  And you are left all alone.
  • In flight, watch the OATs. You know the advice about the dangerous temperature ranges. There are outlying situations.
  • More than simply watching the OAT, know where the warmer air is and where the colder air is, so you know where to go if you have to get warmer
  • Do not use the altitude hold function of your autopilot if you find yourself in ice. It will increase your angle of attack in a desperate attempt to maintain altitude in spite of ice. It probably won’t persist all the way into a stall, but it might. And if it gives up just prior to the stall, it is going to hand back to you an airplane trimmed for an unsustainable angle of attack. If you are using altitude hold, be very alert to any change in airspeed that is otherwise inexplicable. (Same is true in mountain wave activity or thunderstorms.)
  • Turn on any heat, such as pitot heat, any time you are in the clouds. Don’t wait.
  • Decrease the angle of attack, whatever that requires, do not reconfigure the airplane by deploying flaps or gear, and keep it flying at all costs.
  • Practice stall recoveries on instruments. They are more confusing than you realize now. With enough altitude and enough presence of mind, there is a good chance you can get even an iced up, stalled, maybe spinning airplane back under control. How good a chance. I have no idea, frankly. But I do know that having done literally thousands of stalls as an instructor gives me a better chance than the guy who does one or two every two years on his biannual and really has no idea what happens other than pull and then push, particularly if he has not done them solely on instruments.
  • Be alert to the possibility of a tailplane stall. If you haven’t thought through that phenomenon and its recovery by the time it happens – it’s probably too late.
  • As the old saying goes, “Altitude is your friend.  Airspeed is your life.”  Keep it flying.  Even all the way to the ground if you have to.
  • Do not be distracted by less important matters when you encounter icing. What are those less important matters? Damn near everything.

2 thoughts on “Mostly Uneventful: An Emergency in Greece

  • May 21, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    So glad you didn’t hesitate to declare and emergency and get out of the icing! Glad you two are safe and sound in Crete!

  • May 21, 2016 at 8:39 pm

    Thanks for the updates! Fun to watch your adventure – always seem to be living vicariously through you 🙂


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