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The flight faced icing at FL 90 inbound to Germany from the UK on a world tour. Earlier they were flying above an overcast layer.

After they saw the icing they requested FL 70, and asked what's the minimum altitude, which was 5000 feet. How do GA pilots decide that descending is better than climbing, as in climbing away from the moisture layer?

The plane is a Cessna T210L Turbo Centurion that should be capable of 27,000 feet.

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    $\begingroup$ If you ate absolutely certain that you can descend out of visible moisture or into an area that is >5°c above freezing it may be wise to do so provided you can maneuver and land immediately -or- allow the ice to melt/sublimate off. Climbing is generally recommended (if performance permits) since ice accumulation below -15°c is less likely, though not impossible. I have has ice accumulated in a climb (surface temps ~0°c) sublimate off in temps below -20°c rapidly. $\endgroup$
    – acpilot
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ The pilot may also have gotten a PIREP or heard other pilots reporting better conditions below. $\endgroup$
    – jwzumwalt
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ Youtubate, Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, modernized rule. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 12:03

2 Answers 2


While there may be guidelines as to whether to climb or descend when you're icing at your current level, individual pilots that I have known varied widely in the specifics of what they would do depending on their experience, their comfort level in icing, the route they were flying, and their experience with that route in bad weather. My take follows.

First, @acpilot's comment gives the general guidelines and is worthy of being an answer, I believe, except that I would be happy with just a couple of degrees above freezing rather than 5°C.

I put in a few hundred hours in Turbo 210s back in the 1970s. The ones I flew had boots on the wings and hot props. As such they were a reasonable machine to handle the icing of the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The things I wanted to know to decide whether to climb or descend included:

  • what's the rate of the icing
  • what kind of ice is it, rime ice (the most prevalent) or clear ice (basically freezing rain)
  • what kind of cloud am I in, is there convective activity
  • how high can I expect the icing to persist, are there pireps giving the tops
  • how much distance will I have to fly to either be in the clear, between layers, or get to where the minimum safe altitude is above freezing
  • what's my climb capability, in other words how heavy am I and how much has my climb capability already been degraded

Even with knowing those things, it's still as much a subjective decision as an objective decision, at least it was for me.

The distinction between rime ice and clear ice is particularly important. Clear ice (basically freezing rain) is the more dangerous, accumulating faster than rime typically and heavier. It always (almost) means there's air greater than 0°C above you, which would favor climbing.

Rime ice is minute drops of super-cooled water (water less than 0°C) that changes to ice when it hits the aircraft. More often than not, rime ice means there's no air above greater than 0°C, unless you happen to be in an inversion. Climbing out of rime icing usually means you've got to get high enough to get clear of clouds or get the temp down to -15°C or so.

Fortunately most icing is rime ice rather than clear ice. The rime usually collects slowly, although it can collect quickly in convective conditions. I once iced up with rime ice in a Cessna 340 in less than a minute to the point that I was having trouble maintaining altitude.

enter image description here(skyvector)

Much of my T210 flying in bad weather was between Eugene, Oregon and airports in California's central valley (shown above left to right). V23 was the airway from the Eugene VOR to the Medford VOR to the Fort Jones VOR to the Red Bluff VOR and then south into the central valley. The airports were typically above freezing, but the MEAs were in the ice if the weather was bad, and you were guaranteed to get at least some rime ice. The MEA from Medford to Red Bluff was 10,000, and that was where the worst ice was usually encountered, but the MSA dropped rapidly south of Fort Jones.

If southbound from Eugene and approaching Medford you had already picked up more ice than you liked, and the Medford airport was above freezing, you could shoot an approach there and drop the ice before proceeding south of the Siskiyou Mountains. Once the OAT gets above freezing, the ice melts really fast, typically on the order of a minute or less. The windshield clears first. Importantly, for rime ice, the rough surface of the ice smooths quickly, permitting better airflow.

If it appeared icing along V23 was not going to be flyable, we would file over to the coast and go down over the beach so to speak with the attendant low MEAs and more airports, all usually well above freezing.

My point is, a lot of things enter into whether you should climb, descend, go another route, or get on a jet.

A couple of good (IMHO) links (pdf's) to icing information are:


I have most of my 2500hrs in Alaska and they use a very good rule of thumb. Always climb first while you are able to do it, if the situation gets worse, you are going to find out what the condition is below you whether you wanted to or not!

While the aircraft has the ability to climb use it. If that does not work out, your going to go down hill anyway. On the other hand, if you descend first and the situation gets worse, you may very likely no longer have the ability to climb to a better condition.

Remember too; except for rare conditions such as cirrus clouds, in order to have precipitation, it has to start as liquid water and that means at some it is warm enough for liquid water. (That use to be a question on the PPL test - I don't know if it still is.)

The other interesting answer that was on the FAA pilot & instrument test was _sustained precipitation_ usually requires at least 4000ft of clouds. This means that a pilot encountering rain/snow or ice, will have to climb a minimum of 4000ft to get on top of the cloud layer. So, if the aircraft capabilities or weather are not going to allow at least a 4000ft climb, your going to be forced to fly in the clouds to avoid the weather below it.

Updrafts in a thunderstorm support abundant liquid water with relatively large droplet sizes. When carried above the freezing level, the water becomes supercooled. FAA-H-8083-25B pg 12-24

As mentioned earlier, except in rare circumstances a pilot that encounters precipitation should remember there is warmer air that initiated the precipitation.

At the first sign of ice, do something. Climbing is often your best bet since you might not be able to regain altitude if you descend. Better yet is to make a gentle 180-degree turn and retreat. ... try to stay ­several thousand feet below or above it, or clear of clouds. Flying Magazine

  • $\begingroup$ Are you talking just about clear ice as opposed to rime ice? The reason I ask is that typically what I was flying in was rime ice, and it was never warmer above. Also, did you intend to characterize stratus clouds as rare? $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ Except in very rare conditions, ALL PRECIPITATION (rain/snow/ice) must start out as liquid water above you (meaning the air temp is above freezing) - its that simple. One exception is ice crystals in (edit per mins - thx) cirrus clouds can form directly without passing through the liquid state. cirrus clouds are not usually encountered by GA pilots. $\endgroup$
    – jwzumwalt
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ @jwzumwalt Super-cooled water is at or below 0C. Its presence does not mean the air temp is above freezing. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 0:41
  • $\begingroup$ "Except in very rare conditions...", super cooled water is rarely encountered by GA. It takes unpolluted air so a nucleus does not form. It is not usually found at lower altitudes and over land due to pollution $\endgroup$
    – jwzumwalt
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ I respectfully disagree with you. I've picked up a lot of rime ice in flying at GA altitudes, and rime ice is, as I understand it, formed when super cooled water contacts the aircraft surface and that surface is below 0C. I refer you to skybrary.aero/index.php/Rime_ice. Also, you seem to say that snow "must start out as liquid water above you (meaning the air temp is above freezing)." It does start as super cooled water, as I understand it, but that doesn't mean the air temp is above freezing. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 2:41

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