Yesterday, I got into a situation that I couldn’t handle on my own and needed to call in backup; fortunately, it had nothing to do with flying.
I was a few kilometers from home just before 7:00 am, running in -10 degC weather, when suddenly I felt an intense pain with every deep breath I took. When I stopped, I realized that my upper back was somehow injured, and that I could barely walk, much less run. I shuffled slowly, like an old man, for about three quarters of a kilometer past many houses where I could have knocked on the door and asked for help, but was too shy to risk waking people up. Finally I came to a public school, and fortunately the front door was unlocked — I found an early-rising teacher with a cell phone, called home, and was picked up in about 10 minutes.
I’ve always known that eventually, something would happen during a run that would prevent me from finishing, though I’ve always assumed that it would be a leg injury. That could be a very big deal for a winter runner — I have run in temperatures as low as -25 degC this winter, and when you’re running, you have to dress relatively lightly to avoid overheating. An injury on a deserted country road, outside of cell phone coverage, could possibly be fatal. Personally, I run in the middle of Canada’s fourth-largest city, so I know that there are always people around to find me, even if I suddenly crumple unconscious with no warning (backup #1); I’m the first one awake in my house, but I always leave a note saying where I’m running and when I should be expected home (backup #2); and finally, I know that there are people I can call, starting with my spouse, to come and pick me up if I’m too injured to keep going (backup #3). If I lived in the country, running would be a whole different kind of thing — I could run on the road, and risk being killed by the reckless, high-speed drivers who seem to fill country roads all over North America, or I could go on isolated paths and just hope that I was still conscious and within cell phone coverage if anything happened. Or, more likely, I’d run only with a buddy — that’s a kind of backup that can work.
As pilots, we get pelted with safety warnings about almost everything, to the point that we eventually become a bit numb and cynical. Really, though, I think that just about all of those warnings come down to the same thing that saved me in my running: backup. Staying current on partial panel? Backup, in case your vacuum pump fails. Setting personal IFR minima of, say, a 1,000 ft ceiling? Backup, in case you have to go VFR underneath. And so on.
I’ve had exactly one icing encounter so far in my flying. I was coming home from Toronto in IMC last last winter (or early spring — I don’t recall) when I noticed that the temperature was lower than forecast at my altitude, and that I was surrounded by drizzle. I kept an eye on my outside air temperature probe — the Piper Cherokee‘s icing early warning system, since it is a thin stick poking out the front of the windshield — and soon noticed that a small piece of clear ice was forming on it. I asked for a lower altitude, descended 1,000 ft, and the ice disappeared. I continue to Ottawa and made a slightly-fast, no-flaps landing, just to be safe.
I was never in any serious danger during that trip, because I had all kinds of backup, even before I saw any ice:
- I had already listened to the ATIS for the nearest big airport, Trenton (CYTR), and knew that the surface temperature was 6 degC, so there was warmer air below me (an underpowered plane like mine cannot necessarily climb above icing, but anybody can descend).
- I tune in NDBs enroute to keep myself entertained, and in this case, I already had the Trenton NDB tuned and identified, which would be the first step for an approach. I also had the Trenton approach plates open, since I’d used them to get the ATIS frequency.
- Even though I was only 1,000 ft above MEA when I saw the ice, I was much further above MOCA, flying over flat terrain with few towers.
- I knew from the ATIS that the ceiling below me was at least marginal VMC.
My first backup plan was to change altitude, and that worked. If it hadn’t, I would have shot an approach at Trenton just until I broke out, and then (depending on the actual ceiling and whether I was still picking up ice) either declared an emergency and landed at the military base there, or (most likely) broken off the approach and proceded VFR at 1,000 ft AGL (well under the ceiling) along Lake Ontario just off the shore until Kingston, where the airport is right beside the lake. Other options included staying on my course IFR but descending to MOCA, in the hope that would melt off the ice, but it seemed like a less promising approach, since once I was at MOCA, I wouldn’t have any further backup if things didn’t work.
I’ve already written about my experience with Hope Air. That’s another place that backup is a nice thing. Usually, there’s a backup pilot for every flight, and in my case, it’s often Frank Eigler with his twin-engine, ice-certified Aztec. Knowing that there’s a backup takes a lot of the stress out of both flight planning and winter running. Now, it’s time to get myself to the physiotherapy clinic for some more repair work on my upper back, which, fortunately, is much less expensive than body work on my plane.