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When the desert blooms

April 20, 2013

I just took a Cessna 172 from Miami to Santiago de Chile. It was a nice trip, 7 days in all. Bahamas to Jamaica, Colombia to Ecuador, Peru and finally Chile. My last fuel stop was in the Atacama desert in Chile, about 3 hours north of Santiago by C172. Deserts can be beautiful places and Atacama is no exception.

I make a point of bringing up the things I like about each place in conversation with the local people at the various stops on my flights. I get a chance to see many beautiful places – and places not many tourists go – but in some of these far-flung places life isn’t all that easy. So I make a point of showing my appreciation for their service, the hospitality, etc.

On this stop, when I was chatting with the refuelers I mentioned how beautiful the desert looks from the sky. One of the fuel guys responded that the desert is REALLY BEAUTIFUL when the desert is in bloom, it has all kind of colors and looks just amazing. I asked when that happens and he said when it rains. So in my silly world of seasons I asked him what time of the year it rains to make the desert bloom, which months of the year? He looked at me like pitty you poor foreigner and replied: “Not which months, only when it rains, the last time it rained was like 3 years ago.” Then I got it :)

* * *

Three words more sacred than I love you: “ILS and avgas”. Atacama Desert (SCAT) has both ILS and avgas. Trust me, fly some light airplanes around far-off places and you’ll agree about the 3 words thingy.

Landing at Desierto de Atacama

Landing in the Atacama desert “Desierto de Atacama” Chile

Refueling in the Atacama desert

Refueling in the Atacama desert. C172 ferry flight to Santiago, Chile.

Smoke in the cockpit

January 16, 2013

There aren’t many worse feelings than smoke in the cockpit. It’s only happened to me once, many moons ago. As I was reading the news of the JAL and ANA grounding of their B787 Dreamliners I immediately thought back to the one awful moment that I realized there was smoke in the cockpit.

I’d been warned.

I was a lowly flight instructor in the days after Sept 11, 2001. Flying jobs were next to impossible to find so I was “biding my time” as a flight instructor in Merritt Island, Florida. My flight that fateful day was to do a flight-review with an 80-something year old lady. She was a retired US Navy officer and I’d been told she had a bit of a strong character. Her doctor had told her she shouldn’t be flying any more but she decided to come to our flight school to prove otherwise. I’d never flown with her before but other flight instructors urged me not to sign her logbook ( for a flight review ) if I wasn’t comfortable.

My “student” had her own airplane, an older Cessna 172. She was impatient and went to pre-fly the airplane while I was taking care of some paperwork inside.

It was my own fault.

My student started her airplane and pulled up in front of our flight school office. I jumped in without stopping the engine. In an older Cessna it’s hard to see if the battery is charging once the airplane is running. The generator charge is something that you should check immediately after starting, it’s on the after-start checklist. I wasn’t in the airplane when it was started. I should have stopped and started over but I didn’t.

We took off and were climbing out to the practice area to the West of the airport when I noticed the generator field circuit breaker had tripped. Something I’d been taught long before is that you NEVER NEVER NEVER reset a tripped circuit breaker in flight unless you absolutely need that missing system to avoid a grave and imminent emergency.

So I pushed in the generator field circuit breaker.

To this day I don’t know what made me do that. I think because I didn’t do the entire pre-flight and before-start checklists with my student, I figured that she simply didn’t check the circuit breakers. For whatever reason, I just pushed in that circuit breaker. As soon as I pushed in the circuit breaker I said to myself something along the lines of “What the devil did you do that for?” Maybe I simply blocked out the idea that airplanes do catch on fire because most all of our flights are always routine, most airline pilots fly an entire career without dealing with a serious system emergency. Either way, it was a pull-type circuit breaker so I didn’t worry about it.

For about 20 seconds. That’s when electrical smoke started to fill the cockpit. I reached over to my old friend the generator field circuit breaker and pulled. And pulled. And pulled.


One reason to never push in a popped circuit breaker is that the breaker may weld itself shut when you push it back in. This one did. Smoke kept filling the cockpit. I practically rolled the airplane on its side doing a 180 back to the airport. We were only minutes away from the airport and over nice open fields. When we approached the airport is where I had to make a decision. The last few miles to the airport were devoid of suitable emergency landing sites. I either had to continue or set down in an open field. Our smoke situation wasn’t getting any better but I figured I had some time. We continued to the airport and landed safely. I later learned the airplane was an awful mess of years of neglect and “pilot / owner maintenance”. The generator had been jerry-rigged to basically by-pass the voltage regulator. More RPM meant more voltage in direct correlation.

* * *

I’m sure Boeing will figure the 787 issues out eventually. I’ve done some work with New Product Introduction (NPI) at GE Aircraft Engines and there are always some growing pains. Having said that, there aren’t any worse feelings than smoke in the cockpit.


Flying over the Egyptian desert. Lots of good emergency landing room here…


October 3, 2012

NOTE: “Iceman” is not the person in this story’s real call sign. Everything else in the story is true to the best of my knowledge. “Iceman” asked me not to use his real FAP call sign so in honor of the “Top Gun” movie re-release I replaced the actual FAP call sign with “Iceman”.


On final for Rwy 19 in Piura

We turned final for landing in Piura, Perú (SPUR). I had been doing most of the radio work since we left Independence but my copilot now called Piura tower using his old Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) call sign:

“Piura tower, Iceman turning final Rwy ONE-NINE.”

The runway shook and the dust blew away.
Sleepy airport hangars jumped to attention.
Saggy roof lines straightened out.
Iceman is back!

* * *

That morning we had departed from Cali and stopped for fuel in Guayaquil. We had run into some issues in Colombia and after a few stressful days in Colombia we were happy to be back in the air for the last remaining legs of our flight to Lima, Peru.


Approaching “ANGEL”, the navigation point on the boundary between Colombia and Ecuador.

The airspace boundary between Colombia and Ecuador along the route we were flying is a navigation point called “ANGEL”. As we approached “ANGEL” my copilot asked if the Galapagos Islands would display on the Garmin G1000 map. I expanded the range on the G1000.

When the Galapagos came into view on the map Iceman said “I flew there.”


I sort of shrugged. Many people visit the Galapagos nowadays. Patricia and I have been wanting to take a vacation there ourselves.

“I flew to the Galapagos in the Mirage during the war with Ecuador.”

I looked at Iceman in disbelief. Then he told me the story of the FAP Mirages that flew to the Galapagos during the Paquisha War in 1981:

There had been a long running territorial dispute between Peru and Ecuador. The dispute was not formally resolved until 1998. The Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) had historically been one of the strongest air forces in Latin America. When the Paquisha War broke out, Peru received intelligence that the Fuerza Aérea Ecuatoriana (FAE) had moved many of its aircraft to the Galapagos as a defensive maneuver. To verify the intelligence received, the FAP decided to send a Canberra reconnaissance aircraft (a variant of the venerable English Electric Canberra bomber) to the Galapagos. The unarmed reconnaissance aircraft was to be escorted by 2 of the FAP’s Mirage 5P fighters.

At the time the FAP had moved most of its aircraft from airbases near the Ecuadorian border back to Chiclayo, further away from the border. The 2 Mirages were to take off from Chiclayo, fly to the Galapagos and return to Chiclayo. Due to the long distance of the flight and fuel weight, the Mirages carried no weapons other than ammunition in their guns.

When the aircraft reached the Galapagos the reconnaissance Canberra quickly took its pictures and turned back to Peru. The Mirages lingered over the Galapagos to provide protection for the departing Canberra. The FAE sent up 6 interceptor aircraft, 3 FAE aircraft pursued each of the FAP Mirages.

Iceman briefly engaged the FAE aircraft but outnumbered, with no armament and precious little fuel there was nothing the Mirages could do. Iceman dove down to “the deck”, zigzagging just above the Pacific Ocean to shake the FAE aircraft. The FAE aircraft gave up pursuit.

The FAP Canberra had now reached a reasonably safe distance from the target and the FAP Mirages turned back to Chiclayo. When reaching Chiclayo the Mirages were desperately low on fuel but due to the war time traffic they were forced to hold before landing at Chiclayo.

By the time the Mirages were finally cleared to land they were so desperately low on fuel that Iceman and his wingman executed their break and landed simultaneously, in opposite directions, on Chiclayo’s only runway. On the runway both aircraft ran out of fuel and had to be towed back to the hangars.

This is the story as told to me by Iceman himself. I believe every word he said.

I asked Iceman if he realized how dangerous the mission was beforehand. He replied that it was a volunteer mission, when you really believe in something you are willing to give everything for it.

Iceman shook his head.

“Man, I was only 24 at the time.”

Fascinated though I was, I wanted to break the serious mood so I said “Just be sure not to tell anybody in Guayaquil about this, ok?”

Guayaquil is a nice place, I’ve stopped there several times now. The service is great, the people are friendly. Peru and Ecuador are like Portugal and Spain nowadays, or Ontario and Quebec. It’s practically unimaginable now they fought wars as recently as 1995. But I’m sure some of the people we ran into at Guayaquil airport had to be on the opposite side of the conflict. Maybe the weather briefers we shook hands with, the marshallers, the fuel truck drivers, who knows?

I never got to ask Iceman, what would he do if he ran into one of the guys who was sent up to shoot him down? Maybe some AeroGal pilot, or one of the LAN Ecuador crew who were parked next to us? Would you shake their hand and have a beer?

What could you do?

Iceman left the FAP 20 or so years ago and I don’t think he’d flown any aircraft from the time he left the FAP until he accompanied me on this flight to Peru. But once we got to Piura, tower controllers who probably weren’t even born when the Paquisha War happened, they knew the name Iceman with great respect.

Iceman spent most of the time since he left the FAP in the US, he has a family, a job, a business. I wonder how many people never knew what an extraordinary thing he did. How many guys at work shook his hand not having the faintest idea?


On the ramp at Guayaquil, Ecuador (SEGU)

Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) Canberra

Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) Canberra bombers, now mothballed at Pisco airport.


Map of route Chiclayo to Galapagos.

fuerza aerea peru fap mirage

Fuerza Aerea Peru (FAP) Mirage

Route picture courtesy of Great Circle Mapper. Mirage picture from here.


September 24, 2012

Alternate title: to Nairobi by Cessna 182

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to meet Ted and Hanne of the Hanne Howard Fund recently. Ted contacted me some time ago when he began planning to fly his Cessna 182 from Ottawa to Nairobi. I agreed to fly with Ted as ferry pilot / safety pilot in his Cessna 182, nicknamed “48-Fox”.

Ted kept a blog detailing each of our legs at I’ve been back home now for about 2 weeks and just thought I’d reflect on the trip here, not in a trip-report type format, just some details, the good, the bad and the trivia:

The trip got off to an ominous start:

45 minutes into the 70+ hour flight I noticed that we had lost the alternator. We were just north of Montreal at the time and had climbed to 9500 feet VFR above some scattered cloud layers. We circled down below the Montreal class B and limped into Lachute (CSE4) – which is a very good general aviation airport.


48-Fox with alternator problems at LaChute airport

We got the alternator repaired in short order and continued on our way. After this we had no issues with the airplane the rest of the way.

Nada, zilch, nothing.

Think about that for a moment: We flew a 1966 Cessna 182 over the Atlantic Ocean and through 3 continents. 70+ flight hours in temperatures ranging from -15C over the Greenland icecap to over 40C in Jeddah. Rain, mist, gravel, desert sand, you name it.

“48-Fox” was designed in the 1950s – when my father was a teenager – and built in 1966. Nearly 50 years old she flies like a new airplane. Think about the draftsmen who drew the blueprints by hand. The engineers who calculated rivet joint shear loads by slide rule. The things we humans can accomplish are nothing short of amazing. (*)

The route of flight:

We flew without ferry tank, keeping the legs 750nm or less. The hardest part of the routing was to find avgas in Africa. Here is our complete route:


Map of Cessna 182 ferry flight to Nairobi

Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.

The stop in Graz looks like a “dog-leg” because we intended to route to Corfu (Greece) after Graz and stay inside the EU/Schengen zone (to facilitate transit). However, due to weather and traffic in Corfu we routed via Nis (Serbia) instead, hence the “dog-leg”.

Most expensive avgas along the route of flight:

The most expensive avgas was in Djibouti, where we paid $2,160 for two 55-gallon drums of avgas. Do the math if you wish. I can sort of understand the cost since Djibouti is the only place in a 500 mile radius that has avgas and the refuelers told us they sell avgas on average once every month, or less.

Honorable Dishonorable mention goes out to Kuujjuaq (CYVP) where a drum of avgas is now north of $750, an increase of nearly 50% in the past 2-3 years. By comparison avgas in Iqaluit (CYFB) is around $350 per drum.

The scariest part of the flight:

There were some scary moments, thankfully, none while flying (**):

In Denmark our taxi driver was proudly showing us some of the sights along the way to the hotel and while distracted we nearly rear-ended a stopped car. In Jeddah we returned to the hotel (after having eaten a piece of chicken that, in Ted’s words, “looked like it had been chased here from Cairo without having a drink of water”) when our driver made a U-turn in ungodly amounts of oncoming traffic.

And in Denmark there was that scary moment when I was brushing my hair in the morning, admiring my good looks in the full-length mirror, when an ugly-looking spider came rappelling down from the ceiling. I jumped and screamed like a little girl :)

The young lady at the hotel desk told me spiders are common but not dangerous in Denmark. Then again, this was the same young lady who called our taxi that nearly took us to the wrong airport so take it for what it’s worth.

Most difficult part of the trip:

The go/no-go decision on takeoff in Iqaluit was the most difficult part of the trip. The weather in Iqaluit was very low IFR and forecast to stay that way for the foreseeable future. The weather was such that you really don’t want to fly in it but there were also no legal/operational considerations that would prevent us from doing so. The low IFR weather was localized and we had good weather over the ocean. Being mid-August we didn’t want to delay very much because good weather over the North-Atlantic gets very scarce after the end of August.

Once my decision was made the takeoff out of Iqaluit was uneventful.

The worst part of the trip:

We got stuck in Jeddah for 2 days because I miscalculated our fuel on takeoff and realized we wouldn’t be able to reach Djibouti safely on our first attempt. After returning to Jeddah we found out we were stuck there because our fuel stop (Rabigh/OERB) was closed the next day due to the Muslim weekend. All told the extra cost for fuel, handling and hotels was very painful.

The only other bad part of the trip was our stop in Crete (Greece). All of the people we spoke to there are just disgusted with the politics of their country and the bad financial situation Greece is in. One taxi driver said he was emigrating to Canada. It is really sad to see such a beautiful country with such a great history affected so badly by a few arrogant dumbasses in suits. For what it’s worth, the Germans didn’t preach austerity back when Euros were plentiful and the Greeks were spending their Euros on fine German automobiles.


On final to Iraklion (LGIR) airport, Crete.

The best part of the trip:

There were a lot of nice moments. I always enjoy the flying, even though I’ve done quite a few ferry flights now, I love the flying, I love the scenery. But I have said it before and I will say it again: the best part of this job is not the flying but the great people I get to meet along the way.

We stopped in Halifax to spend a day with Ted’s family. Even though I was only a guest, sort of outside-looking-in, it was obviously a very nice moment.

We refueled in Wroclaw (Poland) where we met with my friend Kamil. I hadn’t seen Kamil in a couple of years since we flew a Mooney Acclaim from Chicago to Wroclaw together. It was great seeing him and seeing that he is doing well, flying a beautiful corporate aircraft.

Another nice moment was meeting Brian Miller and some of his fellow US Navy ATC specialists in Djibouti (Camp Lemonnier). Brian helped us on his own time with some issues at the Djibouti airport and then was kind enough to send an email to his friends/contacts to let them know of the good work Ted and Hanne do in Nairobi with the Hanne Howard Fund. Nothing but respect to Brian and the men/women who serve with him.

The very best part of the trip has to be the reception we received in Nairobi. Arriving later than we planned after a long day of flying we were not expecting a big welcome but were happily surprised by about 20 kids from the Hanne Howard Fund project who had waited over 2 hours at the airport to meet us.


Welcome at the Aero Club in Nairobi

Most important new words learned:

Jambo: Swahili for “hello”.

Tusker: as in, it was time for a couple of Tuskers when we finally landed in Nairobi!

You had to be there moment:

While having a late dinner in Roskilde (Denmark) we happened to be seated next to 3 very inebriated people. An attractive 30-something woman was literally too drunk to walk (she fell down on the sidewalk) but somehow managed to do a number of push-ups, in some apparent attempt to impress her companions, or something.

You just had to be there.

And for some dry humor:

I uploaded this picture on FB of our landing in Aqaba, Jordan. A pilot friend of mine commented:

“Watch out the tree!”


Cessna 182 landing at Aqaba King Hussein Intl Airport (OJAQ)


(*) Ted made sure the airplane was ready for the trip by extensively upgrading and servicing the airplane before our departure but the fact that the airplane performed so well is also very much a testament to the design of the Cessna 182.

(**) I don’t say this with a “nothing can happen to me” bravado, only to point out that a ferry flight is nothing more than a series of back-to-back cross-country flights. Some legs require special planning and precautions due to the distance between airports, lack of ground facilities in remote areas or weather but there is no reason if a pilot complies with the relevant procedures and precautions for each leg that a ferry flight should be more dangerous than any other flight. Above all else, if you are careful with winds/weather and conservative with fuel/range, the ferry flight will be uneventful.

To EAA Oshkosh by plane, train and automobile

September 15, 2012

Patrick had asked me if I would fly with him and his son Arthur from France to EAA Oshkosh this year. Patrick owns a Cessna 340A based in Vannes, in the beautiful Brittany region of France.

Arthur had provided me with an airline ticket to Paris, where he planned to meet me to buy a few last-minute supplies before heading to Vannes. We asked our taxi to rush to the train station and with literally a minute to spare we climbed aboard the “TGV”, the very fast trains that are widely used in France.

By TGV Vannes is about 3 hours from Paris. About 2 hours into the ride we made our first stop in Rennes (or was it Nantes?). The train conductor comes on the intercom:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going to have a delay of 15 minutes here in Rennes due to a technical issue with your TGV.”

A few minutes later:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going to have a delay of 2 hours here in Rennes due to a technical issue with your TGV.”

Arthur jumped out of the TGV and said we’re taking a taxi the rest of the way. A few minutes later we were on our way by taxi for the rest of the trip to Vannes. What’s the first thing you do when you arrive in Brittany? You go eat crepes of course!

The next day we were on our way to Oshkosh. Patrick did most of the flying and Arthur accompanied us in the back of the C340. We took the most northern route to cross the Atlantic, the same route I take on most of my trips:


Most northern Atlantic ferry flight route.

I like this route because airports are spaced more closely than along the more southern routes and Sondre Stromfjord (BGSF) is the most reliable airport in Greenland by far. In a C340 we could take the slightly more direct route via Narsarsuaq but this requires HF radio below FL250. The C340 can cruise comfortably at FL250 but going westbound at that level would give us a serious headwind. Even in a C340 with locker tanks we probably wouldn’t have the range to go from Reykjavik to Narsarsuaq and divert to Sondre Stromfjord if weather at Narsarsuaq was bad.

Leaving Scotland we flew to Egilsstadir (BIEG) for our first fuel stop in Iceland. The winds were particularly bad from Scotland to Iceland, so we opted for the shortest distance to BIEG instead of going direct to Reykjavik.

Just for an idea of how bad the weather over the North Atlantic can be: leaving Scotland we filed FL180 (18,000 feet) to Egilsstadir. There was some weather between us and Iceland but the C340 has full de-ice and according to the charts we were expecting to be above any icing at FL180. Starting around FL140 we began to pick up ice. At FL170 I decided to disconnect the autopilot and hand-fly the airplane. As soon as I disconnected the autopilot the airplane felt as if it wanted to fall out of the sky. Not convinced that we’d be out of ice soon or that the airplane would climb much more I called Scottish and asked for lower. We descended down to FL140 for the next hour or so until we were clear of most weather and then climbed back up.

After clearing the weather north of Scotland the rest of the flight was uneventful with good weather all the way.


Refueling at Egilsstadir, Iceland (BIEG). Cessna 340 ferry flight to EAA Oshkosh 2012.


Greenland in summer: taking off from Sondre Stromfjord (BGSF) enroute to Iqaluit, Canada.


A First Air B767 cargo plane taking off in Iqaluit. Outside of the summer shipping season everything is delivered to Iqaluit by plane.

So how was EAA Oshkosh you ask? I’m sorry to say I don’t know. I picked up a little cold somewhere during the trip and when we arrived at Fond du Lac it became a really bad miserable cold. While Patrick and Arthur were at the airshow I slept in the hotel all day :(

* * *

The Cessna 340 like all of the big Cessna twins is a really nice flying airplane. The airplane handles very well and with its pressurized cabin it’s a great airplane to go places. Like all piston-engine twins the C340 isn’t very powerful on one engine, so you have to be careful with weight and takeoff performance. All of the Cessna twins are now over 25 years old with many 30 or 40 years old. In recent years piston engine twins have somewhat fallen out of favor against the single-engine turbines like the Piper Meridian and TBMs but I’m old fashioned, I still like the piston twins.

Miles for HHF kids

August 23, 2012

Just a quick note: I’m on my way to Nairobi, Kenya in a Cessna 182.


“Miles for Kids” – Cessna 182 Ottawa to Nairobi. For details about the trip or more info about the Hanne Howard Fund please follow us at

* * *

La Maquina / The machine:

“48 Foxtrot” is a C182J outfitted with a P.Ponk Super Eagle O-470-50 engine. In other words, she leaps off the ground and climbs like a bat out of you-know-what.

For bush flying in Africa, “48 Foxtrot” also has a Sportsman STOL kit and tundra tires, which have the exact specification of “Big Old Tires”.

We are now in Scotland – not quite halfway – and “48 Foxtrot” has treated us very well so far. She took off in low IFR out of Iqaluit, cruised VFR over the Greenland Icecap and easily climbed to FL150 (15,000 feet) over cloud layers between Iceland and Scotland.

Here’s the link to the HHF Miles for Kids blog one more time, so check it out now:

Air France AF447 and my experience with frozen pitot tubes

July 5, 2012

The final report on the 2009 AF447 crash is out today. I didn’t read the entire report but most of the blame was placed on faulty pitot-tubes, as had been expected. There is also a fair amount of discussion about the pilot’s actions but the head of the French BEA stated that “the same situation could have occurred with a different crew on board”.

I can appreciate that statement and the difficulty the AF447 pilots were in. Airline pilots are practically human robots, almost everything they do is a programmed procedure. That’s not to say there aren’t many times they have to exercise sound judgment but when it comes to basic flying procedures, they aren’t supposed to have to figure things out. When the pitot tubes became frozen the AF447 crew was presented with conflicting warnings and information that made no sense. The cockpit warnings and information weren’t reflective of the aerodynamic condition that the airplane was in, nor was it a situation the crew had been adequately trained to deal with. How do you react when one indication contradicts another? My condolences go out to the families of the passengers and crew.

* * *

I had a frozen pitot tube once. I was flying an older Seneca to Europe at the end of the northern hemisphere winter. I had refueled in Kuujjuaq and was on my way to Iqaluit. In Iqaluit avgas (100LL) is available in drums only and you have to buy the entire drum. I was hoping to buy just one drum of avgas in Iqaluit but my fuel consumption looked to be a bit high. Not wanting to buy a second drum for an additional 10 gals or so I decided to throttle back to a more conservative power setting, hoping to save a bit of gas between CYVP and CYFB.


Ferry flight route from Kuujjuaq via Iqaluit to Greenland and Iceland

Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.

I knew I shouldn’t have throttled back, one of the points I often have to explain about doing ferry flights over the North Atlantic is that many times you won’t be able to go to max range power settings in piston engine airplanes because the engine temperatures will fall below the green arc due to the extreme cold. As it was the temps in my Seneca didn’t fall below the green arc but only a few minutes after I had throttled back the left engine oil pressure started to drop and the left engine oil temperature started to rise. Both needles stabilized before going out of the green arc but I knew something had happened nonetheless.


Indication of frozen oil cooler on a Piper Seneca

My guess was that the left oil cooler had congealed or frozen. The oil inside the cooler got so cold that it would no longer flow through, thereby blocking the cooler. The oil cooler bypass valve opened so I was running the left engine essentially with no oil cooler. This wasn’t a dangerous situation in itself as long as the oil temperature and pressure stayed in the green arc, but not fun either.

As I approached Iqaluit the weather was beautiful and clear but surface temperatures were in the -30C range. I had been delayed a bit in Kuujjuaq and was arriving in Iqaluit about 20 minutes after dark so I decided to set up for the ILS approach. My Seneca had a nice autopilot and I decided to fly a coupled approach. I was flying a stabilized approach at 95 kts IAS, one notch of flaps and was passing through about 1,600 feet when the airspeed dropped to about 90. I added some power.

I should note that the pitot heat was ON. I fly light airplanes like you would a large airplane, meaning I turn the pitot heat ON when I go on the runway and OFF when I leave the runway.

A few moments after I added power the airspeed dropped again, this time significantly. My immediate thought was that I lost the cranky left engine. I grabbed the yoke, disconnected the autopilot and shoved both throttles way up. I looked at the airspeed and it had now dropped dangerously low to around 65 knots. If you stall a twin engine airplane on one engine, especially close to the ground, you most likely won’t live. So I did what I was trained to do. I yanked both throttles back and pushed the nose down.

I yanked the throttles back because I thought at the time the airplane was only developing power on one engine, which would be extremely dangerous in a stall.

I pushed the nose down hard. It was dark but I could see the runway. I only had just over a thousand feet of altitude.

The airspeed kept dropping and I realized something wasn’t right. I was reacting to an indication of low airspeed but there were no other stall indications. No stall warning, no aerodynamic buffet, nothing. I glanced over at the GPS and saw the groundspeed indicating something like 130 knots. By now my airspeed indicator was flat at ZERO.

Realizing that I was not in a stall but had a frozen pitot tube, I added power and raised the nose to a nose-level attitude. I was only about 3 miles from the runway and I flew the rest of the way by eyeballing the nose attitude, guestimating the power setting and glancing at the GPS groundspeed, making sure to keep it up quite high.

Iqaluit has a long runway and I was able to make a reasonable landing. The entire “upset” (if you want to call it that) only lasted maybe 10 seconds, maybe less. Much like the AF447 crew, I reacted in a programmed way but the situation was not what was indicated. First I reacted to what I thought was an indication of losing an engine (unusual drop in airspeed during an autopilot coupled approach) and then I reacted to what I thought was a stall. My problem was easy to identify, as soon as I realized my initial responses didn’t produce the expected result I was able to identify the real problem, the frozen pitot tube. Sadly, the AF447 crew was in a much more complicated and dire situation (for one, they weren’t able to see the ground and fly by visual reference, I was).

On the rollout the pitot tube started to unfreeze. There was never any loss of power on the left engine, that was just my initial reaction based on the indicated loss of airspeed and earlier indications (which had persisted) of high oil temp and low oil pressure. There was also never a loss of airspeed, just a frozen pitot tube.


Not long after I took this picture the Seneca’s left oil cooler froze up on me.


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