I swear there are days when a pilot should just stay in bed. But that thought was far from my mind one August day as I climbed the brawny C210 towards FL105 with Grasmere VOR’s beeps growing fainter behind me.
The flight ‘mission’ involved a quick hop from Rand to Lanseria to collect cargo for Cape Town. One of the splendid things about solo cargo flights is the ideal quality of the onboard social experience, because freight doesn’t ask stupid questions, need ‘biological breaks’, interrupt your ATC calls or do anything to spoil a good day’s flying. My 1,000-hour mark was coming up on this flight and the ride was my favourite – our ‘near-new’ Centurion demonstrator, so the prediction was for a delightful day.
The C210 lifted off from Runway 35 at Rand with very little meddling from me, and it was already pointing pretty much at Lanseria which made for a short, but busy few minutes' flight under the TMA to line up for a direct-in to Runway 06 Right. The first task after parking at Lanseria was to get the boxes in the back; next was to hang online at the office phone while the weather oracle did its chanting and incense burning and pronounced clear with light headwinds at altitude and a weak front passing Cape Town, but forecast to be CAVOK by my ETA. Fortified with this information, I did the maths, filed the plan, kicked the tyres for the second time that day and was soon airborne again.
Lanseria departures always had me edgy because I prefer, wherever possible, to avoid mid-air collisions and back then the corridor past Johannesburg’s Northcliff water tower was one of the busiest air spaces in Africa, full of fliers with a variety of aircraft and abilities. Mixing it up with a lost novice wasn’t on the to-do list for the day, so, with a sigh of relief, I passed Grasmere, poured on the coals and headed for the clear air at FL105.
The plan route was FALA to Grasmere, then west of Welkom to ‘sneak’ between the Kimberley and Bloemfontein TMAs to Petrusville, on to Victoria West and then Sutherland. A planned cruise descent from SLV to end overhead CSV would give an easy transition into FACT airspace and the Jagersfontein NDB was there, if needed, in the stretch between Welkom and PVV. It was my usual and familiar route to FACT.
During the climb and cruise setup, I’d skipped using the autopilot and was having a daily fun ‘fix’ hand flying the Centurion. However, once at cruising altitude, handing control over to the autopilot gave me the freedom to watch the ‘non-scenery’ of the western Free State slide below, while I absorbed the Centurion’s capable aura.
‘The Cessna 210 is a superplane’ was one of the random thoughts floating in the space between my headset pads. As piston singles go, it’s a plane with big muscles, the kind of aircraft that makes its pilot feel invulnerable, like having a big muscle-bound wingman with you on a pub crawl. I could do anything in this plane – its competence made me feel like Superman, the ‘man of steel’ (well, aluminium actually, but you get my drift) as I cruised aloft on sturdy wings in the brilliant sunshine.
It was turning out to be a day to remember – but, as it transpired, for a very different reason.
Six minutes late overhead Sutherland revealed that the headwinds ahead of the ‘weak’ frontal system were stronger than expected. Not keen to change my ETA, I decided to ‘push the yellow line’ during the descent to Ceres and set the still co-operating autopilot for a 300-per-minute descent without backing off too much on the throttle. The weather update from Cape Town was for solid stratus between 7,000 and 10,000 ft in the descent path, and I’d already ‘legalised’ the flight plan to IFR.
The cloud materialised ahead, and I’d be descending through it at a fair rate of knots, but it wasn’t my first descent through cloud and the 7,000 ft base would leave plenty of open air between me and the mountain peaks. I thought, no sweat, been there, done that, and slid ‘Superplane’ down into the clag.
A handful of minutes into the descent and the big Continental’s manifold pressure was sinking. Twiddling the black knob didn’t help at all because the airspeed started dropping off and the engine developed a rough-running ‘feel’. My instinctive reaction was carb icing – this thought died stillborn as I remembered the Continental’s fuel injection.
The rough running intensified to where it was causing noticeable airframe vibration and there were thumps around the tailplane area. I’d heard that older, coastal-based C210s had tail corrosion problems, but this one was near-new and Rand based. Confused, my neck corkscrewed rearwards to confirm the continued attachment of the tail bits. Eyes front to check the gauges again and the ASI numbers said the C210 was close to stalling. While I was still chewing on this latest issue, the autopilot decided to down tools and go home.
Most pilots can cope with one or two things going wrong if they’re able to land ASAP. Very few can successfully deal with three or more things going wrong simultaneously, and I was way past ‘pucker point’ and fast heading for a full-on panic attack. On a high-speed descent through clouds, towards mountains, with insane gauges, a rough-running engine, autopilot on the blink and the tail breaking up, my brain had put my stomach on red alert to prepare for a huge wet purge.
Superman had become a poop-scared little boy in blue tights and red underwear.
We all know that in moments of stress, you revert to what you know best, and my eyes flicked from the turn and slip to the AH to the engine gauges and back, because right then, they were the only trustworthy instruments. White knuckled at the controls, I was laser-focused on rule number one – fly the damn plane.
Something in my peripheral vision suddenly smacked me. A frosty lining was decorating the wing roots along the edges of the windscreen – ice! I’d no experience of flying in ice, no de-icing kit and didn’t have a clue what to do. But ‘pitot heat’ was front of mind so I poked it on and simultaneously recalled something about an alternate induction flap, which explained the power loss. I then also ‘clicked’ that the thumps out back were probably ice breaking off the prop and hitting the tail.
With these revelations, panic had subsided into mere apprehension and my racing thoughts explored a multitude of possible actions and outcomes. Sometimes, however, it pays not to over-think a situation, you just need to ask, “What’s the single best thing I can do right now?” That day, the single best thing was to get my butt into dry air and out of the icing ASAP.
The pitot heater was returning the static instruments to sanity and threat-matrix logic suggested that a rapid downward move was the best option. Trusting a now almost sane ASI, I throttled and pitched for Vfe, then dumped all the flaps and as it slowed, also stuck the C210’s gear outside. With the Centurion as dirty as it could get, I trimmed to get my ass down in a hurry, then called FACT and told them what I was doing and why.
Superplane ‘broke out under’ into dry, ice-free air and in an instant the visibility changed from zero to forever. As the warmer air and the heat of the Continental melted the last of the smothering ice and normal operations returned, I packed the gear away, retracted the flaps, re-lit the autopilot and transitioned the C210 for an acceptable approach and landing at Cape Town.
After shutting down, I sat in the twilight, letting my shaking hands settle as the last of the adrenaline worked its way out of my system, and reasoned that, when flying, you can never say that you’ve ‘been there, and done that’. The long list of variables such as weight and balance, load, weather, altitude, power and trim settings creates a new permutation every time and on every flight. I vowed never again to be so complacent, so much the ‘superman’ as to forget that in the air, we’re always students, whatever the aircraft.
I hadn’t stayed the hell in bed that day, but my rugged wingman had helped me avoid becoming just another CAA accident report. There was no one left on the apron when at last I replaced the pitot cover, locked the plane’s doors and walked away. I looked back at the Centurion standing inert and alone in the dark and said a quiet thank you.