CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 PIETER BLACK
U.S. Army Priority Air Transport
Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland
During my career as an Army aviator, I have deployed to Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, qualified as a UH-60 pilot and become a fixed-wing instructor pilot in the RC-12 aircraft. Like all aviators, I’ve read a lot of articles on icing and events involving it. Each is unique, but there are also some similarities. In some instances, the pilots failed to recognize how severe the icing was or didn’t act in a timely manner to exit it. I have also fallen victim to the insidious nature of icing and would like to share my story so others might learn from my life-threatening experience.
It was a routine loiter mission over South Korea flying an Army C-12 King Air variant. We conducted the mission and flight planning, and the weather forecast was acceptable and included only light icing as a hazard. My co-pilot and I encountered no icing issues during our climb to altitude or for the next hour and a half on the holding track. We were flying in and out of instrument meteorological conditions and knew the potential for icing existed, so we remained vigilant for signs of it.
Just past the hour-and-a-half point, some light icing began to accumulate, so we took the appropriate measures, which included turning on aircraft systems for engine anti-ice and propeller deice. I adjusted power and airspeed as necessary for the icing conditions. Within about 20 seconds, the icing went from light rime to a moderate mixed condition. The aircraft started to shudder in just the pitch axis of the yoke. I interpreted this to mean the airflow over the aircraft’s tail was being disrupted, so I had my co-pilot inflate the deice boots since ice was accumulating quickly.
The first inflation was successful and the shudder subsided. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of seconds before the shudder returned. I looked out at my wings to make an assessment of the icing conditions and there was a clear sheen beginning to form on the leading edges. I also looked at my windscreen and noticed lines of frozen water forming on the unprotected portions.
I again asked my co-pilot to actuate the deice boots. This time, the shudder did not subside. Seconds later, as we entered the turn of our holding pattern, the shudder worsened. Our airspeed was beginning to decrease and I entered in the remaining power available. The oscillation in the pitch axis was not any better and I suspected a tail stall condition was approaching because of tail-plane icing. I knew by looking outside that we were in a tight spot. I wanted to descend but did not want to aggravate the tail into a stall.
With my hands on the flight controls and the autopilot still engaged, the stall horn let out a single beep. While it is unreliable in icing conditions, I immediately disconnected it and rolled wings-level, having only completed about 90 degrees of my 270 degree turn. My airspeed was still slowly decreasing and I knew I needed to descend; but with a tail stall condition, I knew I could not descend rapidly.
I began a slow descent, feeling the shudder in the yoke as a guide to how fast I could descend while trying my best to maintain airspeed. I was able to achieve about a 500-feet-per-minute rate of descent. I again had my co-pilot exercise the deice boots, but it did not help. I had already applied all available power in a descent, having only lost about 500 feet, when the stall horn again warned me of the impending stall.
Even descending with max power, the ice had accumulated enough that I lost the short battle I was fighting. With the stall horn beeping rapidly, I felt the aircraft pitch up and break into a full stall. I happened to look at the airspeed at that moment and saw I was about 20 knots indicated airspeed above my normal stall airspeed for our configuration and weight. At the break of the stall, the aircraft entered an uncontrollable roll to the left. I immediately looked at my trim ball to ensure I was in trim. From training I received a year before, I knew that if I was in trim then a spin should not develop.
As the aircraft stalled, I distinctly remember saying, “Oh, sh*t! Oh, sh*t!” As it rolled completely inverted, I yelled, "Oh, God! Oh, God!” I also remember thinking at that moment, “So this is how it ends.” In what seemed like a minute or two, I contemplated things like how I had never heard of a King Air 200 recovering from an inverted flight condition and that I failed to kiss my wife goodbye that morning. What seemed like a long time of reflection was really only a second or two. I then thought to myself, “I have to try something.”
The aircraft was upside down, falling toward the earth similar to a leaf falling from a tree. It was rolling from one side to the other, moving about 30 degrees each direction. It was still in trim, and knowing my best chance was to reduce aircraft G loading, I pushed the yoke forward to increase the rate of descent but decrease the G load. I left the power in to allow airspeed to build. Thinking back now, it was a smart move. The engines were running and any change in fuel flow could have changed that due to the inversion.
I verified I was in trim, with the half G push, power set, and as fast as I could I rolled the aircraft into the direction it was trending at the moment. I reached almost a 90 degree roll, but the aircraft sunk back into the inverted fall. I noticed the vertical speed indicator was maxed out as it rolled to the opposite direction. As it started to trend to the right again, I verified trim and pushed the yoke, rolled right as fast as I could and held it there. I reached 90 degrees and the aircraft hesitated, looking as if it was going to roll back into the falling leaf.
As the aircraft held for that moment, I willed for the roll to continue. Luckily, it did go past 90 degrees. I remember a feeling of relief as it rolled and my attitude indicator showed blue on top again. Granted, I could only see a sliver as we were in an extreme nose-low attitude. My co-pilot asked if I needed power. I looked at the airspeed and it was approaching 220 KIAS. I replied, “No, I actually need less.” This was the first thing I had spoken aloud since we inverted. I pulled out some power to reduce the rate of increasing airspeed while I pulled aft hard on the yoke.
The aircraft was fighting me, trying to tuck the nose back under us into another inversion. I remember looking over at my co-pilot and he just lifted his hands in the air saying, "You got it! You got it!" I think he did a wise thing. I believe he did not want his inputs fighting against mine. I just continued to pull aft as the aircraft slowly started to respond and watched my pitch slowly go from 80, to 70, then 60. I thought to myself that we might actually make it out of this if we don't hit the ground.
I immediately looked at my altitude and saw we had not lost as much as I thought. Time was passing faster in my mind than in reality. I finally got the nose above the horizon and began to have positive control over the airplane again. I added power, looked out at my wings and saw sheets of ice shedding off. My windscreen, however, still had thick streams of frozen water outside of the protected area of the windshield anti-ice system. I asked my co-pilot to contact air traffic control and advise them of what occurred and request a return to base. We had lost about 5,000 feet in what seemed like three minutes, but it had happened in just a few seconds.
There wasn’t much conversation in the cockpit on the flight back. I do remember asking, "You realize we were upside down, right?" My co-pilot’s reply was, "Yes, I do. I saw the made-in-China sticker!" The rest of the 30-minute flight was uneventful as we made it safety back to home station. The only words exchanged were for crew coordination. The ground crew told us we were white as ghosts as we exited the aircraft, still shaking from the adrenaline.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about that day’s events. I know I am lucky to still be here. I am grateful for the training that gave me the tools to recover from inverted flight. I have replayed the scenario in my mind to identify where I could have changed the events and prevented the inversion. Based on the information I had, and my experience at the time, I don’t think I could have done anything differently. It is always easier to identify what you could have done with all the information while knowing the outcome. At the time, I did my best and made good decisions I would make again. If I would have known the icing conditions that lay ahead, I would have descended earlier.
It is my experience that unit atmosphere and culture can play a large role in pilot decision-making. Prior to this event, I had been exposed to icing and somewhat desensitized to its detrimental effects. There are a couple of short stories I could tell to illustrate this, but I will just keep it to the fact that I had plenty of experience flying in icing conditions — none of which prepared me for that day.
I now have a healthy respect for ice and icing conditions. I approach each with a different mindset. You can never predict what conditions will exist out there. You also cannot fully trust the forecast to be the only possibility. Prior to this, because of command pressures and the pilot culture, I had flown continually in light icing during missions. I now will exit the conditions whenever possible. The important thing I hope to convey is that, despite command pressures and overall operational climate, weather can be extremely dangerous and should always be treated with caution.
I am a strong advocate for upset training because it contributed to saving two lives and an Army aircraft that day. It is my hope that others might learn from my experience and never find themselves in an aircraft that’s inverted and ice-covered. If by misfortune you do find yourself there, know you can get out alive.