Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fog seeding leads to cockpit whiteout

An entry in the East Oregonian’s Days Gone By column spurred a letter from Michael Stratton, a Pendleton financial advisor. His father, Clair Stratton, was featured in the daily history column when a fog seeding trial at the Pendleton airport created an unseasonal snowfall in downtown Pendleton in December 1965. Mike said he appreciated the trip down memory lane, and then related a second seeding run that created a whiteout of a completely different kind.

Clair Stratton and his family moved to Pendleton in 1960, and he opened an aircraft maintenance shop first at Woodpecker Field east of Pendleton, and then at the Pendleton airport in 1962. He became a full-service fixed base operator and a Cessna dealer.

Stratton was under contract with United Airlines during the 1960s to do fog seeding when visibility was lower than legal for planes to land. He and his crew used a Cessna Skylane equipped with a storage container and a chute to deliver dry ice into the fog bank. In the winter of 1966, Stratton and his crew were called for another fog seeding run but the Skylane they normally used was not available. “Dad, being innovative, looked around and realized they had a new Cessna Turbo 206 in stock and he decided they would use it for that day’s flight,” Mike remembers.

The seeding project started out using dry ice, but by 1966 they had moved to using large bags of a white powdery substance. Stratton took a rear door off the 206, turned a passenger seat backward and then strapped himself into the seat with the bags loaded in beside him. Once his pilot, Joe Ferrucci, leveled out above the fog, Stratton cut the corner off one of the bags and started dumping the powder out the door.

The first bag was dispensed without incident, Mike said. But the wind caught the powder from the second bag and blew it back into the cockpit of the plane. Now they were flying not only by instrument flight rules, but there was zero visibility inside the plane as well. The powder was statically attracted to everything inside the plane, including the instrument panel and the insides of the windows.

Stratton and Ferrucci calmly managed to complete their mission and land safely. But, Mike said, “They literally looked like two snowmen as they exited the airplane.”

The Cessna Turbo 206 was eventually sold to Walla Walla wheat rancher Pat Lynch. One of Mike’s jobs as “ramp rat” at the airport was to clean airplanes after their annual inspections. He said for the next few years after the “in-flight whiteout,” small amounts of white powder still turned up from under the seats and other areas of the interior during the plane’s annual cleaning.

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