Aviation Safety Letter 1/2005

To the Letter - Thank Goodness for Canadian Pilot Training - It Saved my Life!

Dear Editor,

A couple of years ago, I was departing from Nelson, B.C., in my Piper Comanche. It was early September, and I was heading back east after a vacation. While the weather was quite good, I filed IFR rather than flying the valleys. I filed to Billings, Montana, starting on the Victor Airway that goes right over Nelson to Lethbridge, Alta. I filed at 11 000 ft.

It was a beautiful early morning when I left Nelson and flew down the west arm of Kootenay Lake, B.C., climbing until I could make contact with Vancouver Centre. I was instructed to climb to 12 000 ft, and upon reaching my assigned altitude I levelledoff and established myself on the airway. As I sped along, enjoying the scenery, I noticed cloud ahead of me. As I entered the cloud, I also noticed that the temperature was -1°C.

I very quickly noticed clear ice building on the temperature probe, informed Vancouver, and asked for lower. After a short while, they cleared me to 11 000 ft. I was already noticing an airspeed drop and higher angle of attack (AOA) to keep my altitude. At 11 000 ft, I broke clear of cloud and tried to level off. I was having difficulty in holding 11 000 ft, my AOA was high and my airspeed was dropping. The temperature was still below freezing. I am still amazed how quickly this condition materialized.

To my left, actually near the Great Divide, I could see the valley that winds down through to Fernie, B.C. At this point, with my airspeed at 95 kt, I made the decision to drop down into the valley to above-freezing temperatures and clear whatever ice had now built up under my wings. Another amazing fact, and a lesson to be learned is that no ice was visible on the leading edge; it was only on the temperature gauge and the windshield.

At that very second, when I mentally made the decision to descend, the left wing violently stalled. In a heartbeat, I was in a spin, and just like my training days, I could see the ground below rotating and coming closer.

I had not performed a spin recovery in 17 years - at which time I entered them intentionally - and did not have any experience with a spin recovery in a Comanche. The recent John F. Kennedy Jr. tragedy had probably made me think about spins and spirals, and due to the number of publications that highlighted the incident, I did quite a bit of reading about it. Amazingly, I could hear my instructor, Bill Tourtel of Hamilton, Ont., methodically saying, "power off, opposite rudder to the direction of the spin, when spin stops allow airspeed to increase before establishing level flight, increase power to maintain straight and level flight."

With the throttle right off, and the gear warning screaming, I went through the routine. As soon as I put full opposite rudder, the spin stopped instantly, the ground stopped spinning, and I started breathing. The rest was just like training. After full recovery, I flew out through the Kicking Horse Pass, B.C., and reestablished my IFR flight plan on to Billings once clear of the mountains.

I am glad I trained in Canada, where spins are part of your licence requirement. If I had trained in some other countries, I would probably be another statistic in the Rocky Mountains.

Bill Tourtel was chief flying instructor (CFI) at Peninsular Air in Hamilton. Wherever you are Bill, thank you for your superb instruction; after 17 years, I did not forget it, and it saved my life. I have heard talk of taking spin training out of the Canadian training requirements, as in the USA. I am living proof that this would not be a good idea.

Name withheld on request

Very, very interesting story. First, your account of the icing build-up sends a strong message to all. Asking for lower before entering a cloud with the temperature being near the freezing point should be a strong consideration. Your decision to ask for lower, albeit a tad late, was vital and still was not enough to prevent the stall. Your spin recovery is commendable, so is your willingness to share this episode with the ASL readership.

Regarding your comment "I have heard talk of taking spin training out of the Canadian training requirements.", spin training remains a requirement in Canada. Stall/Spin Awareness - Guidance Notes - Private and Commercial Pilot Training (TP 13747E), have been developed to assist the conduct of this training. Exercise 13, Spin, is no longer tested on the private pilot flight test, but students are still required to demonstrate competency in spin recoveries to their instructors. - Ed.

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