Flying Lessons: Once Upon a Winter

Dan Moore

The snow level in the Oakland hills dropped to about 1,500 feet the other day, a description that makes sense only in mountainous areas at the edges of winter, or in California pretty much all of the time. Since it's almost never cold enough for snow to survive at sea level, snow in California is typically measured not by the depth of the snowfall but by the altitude above sea level where the temperature drops enough to turn the rain into snow. So in San Francisco Bay terms, a snow level of 1,500 feet means that winter has arrived. Such as it is.

My Grumman Cheetah is safely parked in the lowlands just east of the Oakland hills, well clear of any accumulation. Come to think of it, I don't think the Cheetah has ever had to deal with snow in my care. A little ice outside her hangar in Santa Rosa one day, maybe. And, OK, there was the time she got stranded in New York, right after 9/11. When I finally got back there to pick her up in October, it was cold enough that I did the preflight with gloves on. But even as I recall that chilly morning, I can almost feel my old Cessna 120 glaring down at me, her 60-year-old eyes rolling at the thought of a single 30-degree preflight being classified as a winter challenge. For while she now lives in Texas, the Cessna 120 and I did more than our share of winter flying, once upon a time. Enough, probably, to last the both of us the rest of our flying careers.

I bought the Cessna 120 with my friend Jim, who is an eternal optimist when it comes to airplanes and flying. We bought the plane in January, so our first road trip with our new baby took place in early February. The trip was from Clark County, Indiana, where we based the plane, to Hamilton, Ohio, where Jim's family lived. It's not a long flight, even in a Cessna 120, and the flight up was chilly but uneventful. But come morning, the sky was overcast with the kind of dull, gray light that usually presages a winter storm. Jim went off to call weather, and he returned shortly with the news that we'd be fine, but we needed to get moving.

After that day, I learned how to read that kind of comment a lot better. But then again, after that day, I also always made a point of calling weather myself, regardless of which one of us was going to be flying. Because "we'll be fine, but we need to get moving" turned out to be Jim's optimistic interpretation of a forecast calling for an unexpectedly fast-moving storm front to slam the entire region within a few hours. So he was correct … with one minor caveat. We would be fine — as long as we beat the storm home.

We hustled out to the airport and took off into an impressive headwind. Normally, the entire trip took about 45 minutes. Twenty minutes into the trip, we weren't even to the Ohio-Indiana border. But it wasn't until I looked down at the oil pressure gauge, and saw the needle wobbling around half its normal value, that I started to get concerned. I poked Jim and pointed to the gauge.

"Yeah, I know. I see it," he said.

"Well, should we worry?" I asked. I'd had my license less than a year, and Jim was a mechanic as well as a pilot, with more than 800 tailwheel hours under his belt.

"Not unless it gets too low."

"Well, what's too low?"

"Let's just say we don't want it to get any lower than it is."

Terrific. I started alternating my attention between the oil gauge and potential landing sites along our route. A few minutes later, it started to rain. There was decent visibility under the clouds, but I soon noticed what looked suspiciously like ice granules accumulating at the corners of the windscreen. I poked Jim again.

"Yeah, I know. I see it," he said again.

"Well, should we worry?" The interchange was beginning to feel like a ritual.

"It's still above freezing," Jim said. "We don't have to worry unless the rain starts changing over to ice or snow."

As if on cue, the precipitation coming through the prop abruptly changed from clear to white. I poked Jim again.

"Yeah, I know. I see it. We're turning around," he replied with a sigh.

Within minutes, we were on short final to Hamilton, running full power to make any kind of forward progress. It's the only time I've ever done a helicopter landing in a fixed-wing aircraft. We didn't roll at all — just bounced once and stopped, still running power on the airplane. We had to get help to get the airplane taxied in and parked.

And that was before we lived in Minnesota.

Minnesota, of course, brings a whole new meaning to the concept of winter. This is a state, mind you, where a city actually went to court to defend its right to the title "Icebox of the Nation." Where people unzip their jackets when the temperature hits 25 degrees, because that's often about 50 degrees warmer than it was the week before. Where it's said they don't have seasons; they have nine months of winter and three months of bad sledding.

Winter flying in a place like that requires extra fortitude, as well as extra equipment. We had the luxury of a hangar at that point, but Jim fashioned inlet baffles to try to keep the engine a little warmer in flight. But even with the baffles, I went out to do some touch-and-goes one January morning and stopped after the third one, because the engine kept quitting in the pattern. It was just too cold for the engine to keep running at low power settings.

A lot of tailwheel pilots in Minnesota, however, embraced winter by putting skis on their planes and flying right through all the cold and snow. Those pilots were hardy souls worthy of a Garrison Keillor monologue, because the clearest weather occurred south of about 20 degrees. And mechanical equipment tends to get unhappy in the single or negative digits.

For example, I learned, in those years, that some engines won't start without damage at 11 degrees below zero, because there's no clearance between the main bearings and the crankshaft. I also discovered that a Nikon camera freezes up after about six frames at 25 below zero, that frostbite is astoundingly easy to get in sub-zero temperatures with a 20-knot wind, and that two people bundled up in Sorel boots and Michelin-man snowmobile outfits in an old, two-seat Cessna are something less than comfortable.

On the other hand, the difficulty involved quickly weeded out all but the most passionate of pilots. So the pilots who did fly in the Minnesota winter tended to be hearty, as well as hardy, souls. One of the ski pilots I flew with there was a guy by the name of Loren Schiebe, who was involved in just about every Minnesota aviation organization there was. He had a house on a small lake west of Minneapolis, where he and friends would tie up their ski planes for winter. They were all old winter-flying hands who knew tricks like parking your plane with its nose downwind to keep the engine warmer, and draining the oil out of your plane and bringing it inside with you if you got caught out by a storm so you could start the plane again in the morning.

But flying with Loren and his friends, I also learned, as a friend is fond of saying, that there are some experiences that are available only to those who are willing to have them. For the good news about Minnesota-style winter flying was that, if you were willing to brave the elements and the hassles with a good pair of skis, the wide-open lakes and fields of Minnesota became an endless banquet of landing sites. And somewhere in there, you could find yourself stumbling on perfection that usually resides only in the fantasyland of movies or Christmas cards.

One of my very best Minnesota memories, in fact, is of a day I went flying with Loren and a couple of other friends. It was really, really cold -- which in Minnesota terms means around 20 below — but that also means it was crystal clear, sunny and dry. A fresh dusting of snow had covered up all tracks, and we were soon away from civilization and cruising over a Currier & Ives world of pine trees and snowfields dotted with the occasional wooden cabin marked by smoke curling up from a chimney.

We planned to stop for lunch at a lodge perched on the shore of a long, oval lake tucked into a forest of evergreens. The snow on the lake was that sparkly kind of white that twinkles in the sunlight, and we landed in soft powder along a shoreline thick with snow-covered pines. Far away from civilization, nature really does know how to put on a show, sometimes.

We taxied back to a cove where the small, wooden lodge beckoned. Inside, we found a huge fireplace with a crackling fire and hot food. Sitting with my hot coffee and soup by the windows, looking out at our colorful little ski planes parked on the edge of the lake against a pristine winter wonderland, I thought to myself, "This can't be real. Real life isn't this perfect."

But it was. For that one moment in time, anyway.

I can't say I miss shoveling the roof, snowstorms in May, the sub-zero temperatures or the sleet, snow and cold that came along with my time in the snow belt. I like being able to preflight without gloves or ski gear, and without worries about icing and preheating, 12 months of the year. But if I'd never lived among all that, I also wouldn't have the memory of that shiny, glittering picture-postcard-perfect day.

I'm glad I live where I do now. But my life is far richer for the fact that winter defined by snow levels is not the only kind of winter I've ever known.


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