(December 2011) If you live in a snowy climate, chances are good your logbook looks a little thin during the winter months.
It’s happened to me.
I started flying for transportation shortly after I moved to Connecticut in the mid-1990s direct from sunny southern California. Even after I had my instrument rating, the winter played havoc on my travel plans, and every year despite my efforts to reverse the trend, I wound up flying a lot less than normal from around late November through early March, give or take an early or late snowstorm. One year I had to cancel four trips in a row up to London, Ontario, Canada, due to heavy snows.
That’s winter life if you live and fly in a cold place. Sometimes, actually, the flying is the easy part. The real challenges are often found while getting ready to go flying or getting back from having flown.
Over time I developed a number of ways to cope with the winter months, and after a few years, I got the hang of it.
The secret is to make like a Boy Scout and be prepared. With winter flying, it’s critical. From your preflight planning to arrival at your destination, cold temperatures and uncertain conditions demand an attention to detail and a discipline that few pilots practice on sunny days. Some of the tricks you can use to make cold weather operations safer and saner are just common sense. Others are tricks developed out of necessity by pilots who have been there before. As you gain experience, you’re likely to come up with your own strategies and techniques to cut down on the chills and lessen the inherent risks associated with off-season aviating.
Understanding the Weather Map
At the risk of stating the obvious, winter weather works differently than summer weather does. Storms are generated in different places. The weather they spawn is for the most part fundamentally different. The ways they develop, evolve and degenerate are also different.
The way storms form can be at once local and the results of phenomena a thousand miles away. Understanding how it works can give you an edge when it comes to planning your flight and also planning your deviations, if necessary. In winter, local knowledge can be key.
Global knowledge helps too. The upper atmosphere is where winter storms are hatched. An area of low pressure aloft — a trough — will generate surface lows, which will spawn storms if given half a chance. The necessary ingredients are cold air — often provided by Canadian continental air masses moving south (remember that trough) — combined with moisture (the Gulf of Mexico is the big contributor here) and lifting, which requires only two air masses meeting and not hitting it off. The result can be widespread storms with snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain, reduced visibility and contaminated runways. All of which ratchet up the risk.
So knowing what the weather is and what it is forecast to be is crucial, as is being prepared to make alternative plans if the weather changes, as it is more apt to do in winter than summer.