Plane & Pilot
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Extreme Flying: Winter, Part 1

Lessons learned from an Alaskan bush pilot can be just as valuable to pilots in the lower 48

Extreme Flying: Winter, Part IIt’s Gary Chamberlain’s second cup of coffee and it’s still dark outside. For months now the sun has been rising later and later each day, only to scribe a low arc across the horizon before disappearing again just a few hours later. As the winter solstice nears in December, even the twilight hours are gone. Still, there’s flying to be done, and Chamberlain has learned the lessons that decades of living in Alaska have taught him. Despite the constant risks of whiteouts, high winds, frigid temperatures and limiting visibilities, he’s developed a set of rules that allow him to crisscross Alaska and the Yukon Territory year-round in his Cessna 185.

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Anytime his airplane isn’t flying—whether tied down at his home or in a clearing 20 miles from the middle of nowhere— Chamberlain protects it from the cold. He covers the lifting surfaces to prevent them from exposure to snow and ice formation. His engine is covered by a thermal blanket, and three separate heaters keep the cockpit instruments, the engine case and the oil warm. “Even though they’re operating in this kind of cold, my engines always make TBO,” Chamberlain says. “You’ve got to get them warmed up before you use them, you want to see the oil drop freely off the dipstick before you try to start them,” he points out. If you have the luxury of keeping your airplane in a warm hangar, always make sure the gas tanks are topped off to prevent condensation. “Otherwise you can plan on making about a cup of water in each tank,” Chamberlain knows.

Operating in winter conditions requires some special techniques, in the air and on the ground. “I try to avoid taxiing through any puddles of standing water,” says Chamberlain. “Not only does the water eat on your prop, but your brakes can freeze that way. If I suspect they’re frozen, I’m extremely cautious when returning to a hard, dry runway.” He recommends a tail-low takeoff from wet, snowy and icy surfaces. That gives the propeller more clearance, but also keeps the prop from blasting moisture over the elevators, which can then freeze in flight.

Winter flying can often mean a short climb from takeoff only to find low ceilings and low visibility. A bush pilot’s solution? “Slow down,” says Chamberlain. “You don’t have to keep flying at 130 knots. Your airplane is just as happy flying at 80, 70 or even 60 knots. That way everything else slows down, too. You have a lot more time to see things and react, and your airplane can turn in a much smaller radius if you have to make a 180.”

Low, ragged ceilings can also bring icing woes. Without deicing or anti-icing equipment, a pilot’s only recourse is to look for warmer air. “I vary altitudes, and if that doesn’t work, I turn around. Period. If the ocean is nearby, I’ll go toward the water and descend. It’s usually warmer nearer the ocean,” Chamberlain points out.

With low ceilings and ice to contend with, Chamberlain often finds that winter flying requires point-to-point navigation, as opposed to a strictly en route heading. He explains, “The weather is not always going to let you go someplace in a straight line. Sometimes you have to pick a point ahead and you fly to that. If I can see it, I know I can reach it.”

From there, he’ll pick the next point to fly to, and so on. “It’s like stepping stones, and sooner or later, I’ll get to the destination safely.”

For winter flying, Chamberlain’s C-185 is equipped with wheel skis. For the uninitiated, wheel skis allow a pilot to take off and land on wheels, or pump down the skis for landing on snow or ice, whichever is more appropriate. Obviously the wheel skis allow Chamberlain to operate more safely throughout the Alaskan winter; he can put in almost as many flying hours as he does in the more forgiving summer season.

“It doesn’t take a special rating to fly on skis, but you should learn the skill from someone who’s experienced,” Chamberlain says. “There’s little things, techniques, [to learn] like how to turn the airplane around on skis, and you need to have somebody teach you how to read the snow conditions.”


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