As the season transitions from fall to winter and the temperature is consistently below freezing, unique challenges are presented to pilots. Flight training doesn’t need to stop in the winter though; in fact the colder months provide some great opportunities to expand your knowledge on weather and aircraft operations in less than ideal conditions. There are other benefits too, including improved aircraft performance and nearly unlimited visibility on clear days.
Here are some winter weather tips to consider as the temperature gets colder:
- Always carry winter weather gear – This first tip may seem like common sense, but I can’t stress enough the importance of carrying cold weather gear when the temperature gets below freezing. Most modern training airplanes provide a comfortable, warm cabin up in the air, even as the temperature approaches 0° F outside. This can cause a false sense of security and lead you into thinking that you may not need the extra clothing layers, gloves, hats, etc. But you have to always be prepared for an emergency landing, which could leave you in cold conditions for hours or even days. And the most important piece of cold weather gear? A cell phone of course.
- Don’t rule out frost after you land – Most flight schools and aircraft owners are very conscious about frost forming on the airplane when left out on clear nights when the temperature is close to or below freezing. If your flight needs to get out early in the morning, the airplane should be hangared overnight and pulled out just before departure. There’s another time when frost can sneak up on you though, causing a delay if you’re not prepared. Let’s say you takeoff just before sunrise and head to another airport not too far away to visit the airport diner. When you come back to your airplane 30 – 60 minutes later, there’s a good chance you’ll find a fresh layer of frost on the wings and tail.
- Practice takeoffs and landings on contaminated runways – Just because the runway at your airport has residual snow or slick spots doesn’t mean you have to cancel your flight lesson. In fact, ask any Alaskan bush pilot and they’ll probably tell you that landing on snow-covered runways is the norm rather than the exception in the winter. After a winter storm passes you’ll want to wait for the airport maintenance crew to clear the majority of snow from the runway. Then determine the braking action from the published NOTAM or from airport officials, which will be described as Good, Fair, Poor or Nil. If you and your instructor determine runway and braking conditions are suitable, continue on with your lesson. You’ll quickly learn the importance of speed control on final approach and how to make real-world use of the soft-field takeoff and landing techniques. Just be sure to taxi at slower than normal speeds and keep an eye on the wings when maneuvering near tall snow banks.
- Review cold weather procedures for your aircraft – There’s probably a good chance you haven’t reviewed your aircraft’s cold weather normal and emergency procedures since last year (unless you had an FAA pilot checkride over the summer). I like to make it a habit each fall to pull out the POH for each aircraft I fly and review cold weather starting limitations, normal procedures and emergency checklists pertinent to cold weather ops. You should commit to memory temperature and battery limitations, starter duty cycle limits and the first few items in the checklist for an engine fire during start.
- Recognize aircraft and engine limitations in cold weather – When the temperature is below freezing you’ll want to be more cautious about how you operate the aircraft engine. A good procedure is to avoid making sudden power changes as temperatures drop below 20°F and below. This means staying away from maneuvers like touch-n-gos, simulated engine failures and stall recoveries when the temperature is that cold.
- Call ahead for cold-weather airport services – This last tip is one to remember during your entire flying career. If you’re making a cross-country to another airport in the winter months and need some type of service from the FBO, call ahead first to verify it will be available. Don’t assume that because a particular FBO is at a large airport that they will have hangar space, engine pre-heat or other cold-weather service instantly available to you.
- Make reports about the conditions you experience – In my flying experience the best weather reports don’t come from the National Weather Service, but rather from the pilots currently in the air and reporting the weather conditions they’re experiencing. These pilot reports (PIREPs) will provide you with actual temperatures aloft, cloud coverage and tops, and turbulence and icing reports, all packed into just a few lines of data. As an instrument pilot in the winter, I pay close attention to the icing reports (or lack thereof) to help determine cruise altitudes and where there might be moisture-free air between cloud layers. Make it a point to contribute to the system and relay your flight conditions to ATC when time permits. And don’t get in the habit of only making PIREPs when you experience unfavorable conditions — some of the most useful PIREPs are the ones describing flight above the cloud layers in smooth air.