Ice Flight

By Leoma Retan

The sky was as dark as the inside of a closet. Sue’s flashlight provided just enough light to see the single-engine Mooney’s ice-coated wings.

“Don’t worry, the Mooney’s a great ice hauler,” she said.

There wasn’t supposed to be ice on our route from Van Nuys to Oakland, California. No sane person plans to fly a small plane into icing conditions. Ice adds weight and changes the shape of the front edge when it builds up on the wings, reducing lift. When lift becomes less than gravity, the plane can’t maintain altitude.

The report when I called flight service for the weather at noon mentioned icing. It was expected to move east, away from our destination, within a few hours. There were still icing reports at two o’clock. And at four o’clock. The cold front moved away slower than predicted.

We waited.

Sue considered buying an airline ticket even though she didn’t want to fly commercial. “That’s no fun,” she said. But it was her mother’s eightieth birthday and Ruby was having a party at her women’s club. Sue needed to be there.

At five p.m., the go/no-go time for the three-hour flight, flight service said that the icing had moved east into the Central Valley. We could fly.

We’d head generally north, keeping Interstate 5 on our right and the coastal mountain ranges on our left until we reached the north end of the San Joaquin Valley, then turn west over the Diablo mountain range and into Oakland. It was six o’clock by the time we took off; we’d definitely be late.

For the first half of the flight we took turns flying and napping as the winter sunset. We didn’t discover that the weather prediction was wrong until we turned west. The cold front unexpectedly stalled. Rime ice formed on the Mooney’s wings; it thickened with every minute. Air Traffic Control changed our flight path, then our altitude, trying to find us a safer way through. Flying became a two person job. We shared the controls. Sue frequently checked for ice; I talked to Air Traffic Control.

The lights in Fresno, east of us in the central valley, beckoned with the promise of safety as the ice build-up grew to a quarter inch. But Sue promised her mother we’d be there for her party. We flew on.

God smiled on us that winter night. Less than an hour from Oakland, about to give up and divert to Fresno, we reached warmer air, an end to the icing. No trace of it remained by the time we touched down and parked.

We arrived at the party at eleven o’clock, barely in time to have dessert and wish Ruby “Happy Birthday.” We didn’t know that it would be the last time.

That night Ruby, who had been ill, was taken to the hospital. A few weeks later she died. Because we continued despite our fear, Sue was able to share that one, last good time with her mother.

"leoma-retan-pic"An engineer by day and a writer by night, Leoma Retan continuously adds to her bucket list because so many items from the original are complete. For the past three years she’s helped to plan the WriteAngles conference. She is currently working on her first fantasy novel, DREAM SONGS.


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