Are you one of those pilots who opts to hang up their wings during the winter? While it is true that the shorter days, colder weather, ice, snow, and rain can make flying more of a challenge, there is no reason to slam on the brakes. With a little more planning you can make the most of the flyable days.
Watch the Weather
Looking out the window and/or listening to the ASOS/AWOS/ATIS at the airport does not constitute a weather briefing.
Though there is no such thing as an official “FAA weather briefing,” obtaining reports that require a discreet login or call are helpful, because if something goes bad, one of the first things the investigation looks for is if the pilot obtained a weather briefing. A discreet login or voice on the tape provides proof.
Because winter weather can be more dynamic than summer, consult the TAFs and METARs from a wide area—say 100 miles in all directions.
When you access the forecast, note the position of fronts, in particular fast-moving cold fronts as these often bring the nastiest weather. The abbreviation “PRESFR” means that barometric pressure is falling rapidly. This usually means a strong front with high winds is approaching.
Note the freezing level, especially when there is rain, snow, or visible moisture in the form of low clouds or fog in the vicinity. The warmest part of the day is around 2 p.m., after that the earth cools. If the temperature and dew point are within 3 degrees and it is after 2 p.m., consider the flight carefully because fog can form in a hurry. If you’re flying at night and start to see rainbow halos forming around lights, this is also an indication of converging temperature/dew point.
Know Your Personal Limitations
Every pilot should have these for ceilings, visibility, and wind. They should also be adjusted for each situation.
For example, if you’ve been flying on a regular basis for at least a year and feel confident in your skills and proficiency, a 12-knot direct crosswind may be nothing but fun. But if you are planning to take your 85-year-old grandmother up for a flight, you might reconsider.
If you’re a student pilot with solo privileges, respect the weather limitations your CFI has placed on your solo endorsement. Though it can be tempting to fly when the weather is slightly beyond those limitations, that’s the quickest way to lose solo privileges as it demonstrates the hazardous attitudes macho, anti-authority, and—to some extent—invulnerability. As your experience and skills increase, your CFI will adjust the limitations on the solo to reflect this.
Learn About De-icing and Defrosting
It takes two things to de-ice and defrost an airplane: time and heat.
Businesses with limited hangar space often have a protocol where they put the aircraft that’ll be the first to launch in the hangar overnight, and in the morning, it’s moved onto the ramp, and the second aircraft to launch is moved inside to expedite defrosting. This process repeats until the entire fleet is defrosted. Other businesses use a combination of turning the aircraft so their tails face the sun and the application of de-icing fluid with the aircraft on the ramp.
If you’re a renter, understand that you may have to arrive at the FBO a half hour to an hour early to do your own defrosting. Don’t take off unless the aircraft is completely ice- and frost-free and has been dried off to prevent refreezing.
Do not use a credit card or another piece of plastic to scrape ice or frost from an airplane. Wait for it to melt, then remove the moisture from the airplane with a squeegee or a clean towel. Make sure not to just grab a shop rag, as these may be too coarse and could potentially scratch the plexiglass windscreen and windows, or even strip off the paint.
If a towel has been dropped on the ground, it should never touch the aircraft again as it may have picked up grit.
Don’t forget to defrost the cockpit, too. If you see condensation on the instruments, that’s a good indication that there’s a leak in the canopy and water has reached the interior of the instruments. A warm air blower can help dry things up.
Pre-heat Before Engine Start
If the engine is cold soaked it will likely be necessary to preheat the engine before start. Often this is done with a small heater and duct work designed to blow warm air into the engine compartment.
The preheater is left on for a certain amount of time (usually 10 to 15 minutes) then disconnected and the engine started. For the places where freezing (32 F) is considered “warm” in the winter, you may want to invest in an oil preheater. Smart aircraft owners in these climates activate the oil preheater the day before they plan to fly to give it plenty of time to work.
Learn These Cold-Weather Rules of Thumb
If the roads are icy getting to the airport, expect the airport surfaces to be the same. Many airports close entirely during snow and ice events for this very reason. Check notams carefully. If the airport is open, expect to see piles of snow and anticipate icy ramps and taxiways and runways.
Ice-covered surfaces means less traction and therefore less braking action. If you have any experience flying floatplanes, this will be familiar. But unlike open water, taxiways and runways don’t have unlimited lateral clearance and a sideways skid or crosswind might put you into a snowdrift. Exercise caution.
You may find that you can’t wear your normal winter coat in the aircraft because it is too puffy. Dress in layers, but not so many that you have trouble bending your knees and elbows—like Randy in “A Christmas Story.” Don’t forget a cap and gloves. Add an additional 10 pounds to your weight and balance calculation per person to accommodate for the extra clothing.
Before takeoff, check the aircraft’s defrosting system (if it has one) and to be safe, keep a clean, windscreen appropriate rag on hand to clear condensation from the windscreen, if needed.
During the flight, keep your eyes peeled for frost and ice, especially on the wing area over or under the fuel tanks. If you are in a carburetor-equipped aircraft and experience an uncommanded loss of engine power, no matter how slight, that could be carburetor icing, so activate carburetor heat immediately. Respect the fact that most general aviation training aircraft are NOT certificated for flight into “known icing conditions.”
Don’t Pause Your Training
If you’re a student pilot, you don’t need to halt training during the winter months. You just need to find an instructor who’s committed to teaching and not just there to build hours.
With all flight training there are three options:
- Do a flight lesson
- Do a ground lesson
The smart instructor figures out a way to modify the lesson to take advantage of the weather they have. For example, if it is cold with marginal VFR ceiling and visibility, practicing in the traffic pattern or doing ground reference maneuvers may be appropriate. If the weather dictates the best course of action is to stay on the ground, the CFI should have at least two ground-only lesson plans ready to go, such as introduction of a new skill or review—such as a review of systems in preparation for the check ride.
You may benefit from sitting in the cockpit for a systems review. As you look over the instrument and its system, talk out loud, and touch or point to the instrument or display in the aircraft.
If the syllabus allows, the on-the-ground days are wonderful for the introduction of cross-country flight planning. Focus on planning the flight on a paper sectional and filing out a navigational log with distances, true course and so forth. Plan to an airport that you will eventually be flying to. These nav logs can be “pre-loaded” so the day of the actual flight all you have to do is drop in the appropriate weather and determine ground speed, wind correction angles, etc.
Or, for the ambitious, plan that epic flight you want to complete someday—such as flying to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for EAA AirVenture, or from coast to coast.
If the school has an AATD (advanced aviation training device), it can be utilized on the less-than-flyable days. Though the number of hours in the AATD that can be allocated toward a certificate or rating are limited, there’s no rule that says you can’t go beyond those hours to teach and reinforce procedures.
Learning is learning, and if the AATD cockpit facilitates that, go for it. You can use it to train for the pattern, emergencies, and even for cross-country flights, as it is a great place to learn how to do all manner of tasks—as it’s easy to pause the AATD and start again.
Try doing that in an airplane!