The Go/No-Go Decision In Winter
The rules change when the weather turns cold
It had been a long day. It was January 2003, and I’d departed Reykjavik, Iceland, in a 58 Baron; destination Iqaluit, Nunavit, Canada, with stops in Greenland, where it was clear and cold—in this case, minus-20 degrees C. I’d landed on the gravel runway at Kulusuk in the dark of noon, refueled as quickly as possible to avoid having the engines cool down, and leaped back off across the ice cap for the old U.S. air base at Sondre Strom Fjord, well above the Arctic Circle. The weather remained perfect as I spanned the cap at 14,000 feet in smooth, frigid air.
I tracked directly over the old DYE-2 radar site at Raven, its characteristic ball-shaped dome reflecting the dancing blue and orange colors of the aurora borealis. [To learn about flying in Greenland, read “Extreme Flying!” from Pilot Journal Nov/Dec 2008 at our online home.] As I cleared the ice cap, Sondre Strom appeared in the distance, a tiny beacon of light seemingly suspended in an expanse of perpetual black. Predictably, Sondre Strom took a while to negotiate, but I finally got off in time to arrive in Iqaluit by 7 p.m. local time. Iqaluit was bitter-cold, minus-35 degrees C, though again, as so often happens in the far north during a cold snap, the weather was severe clear.
After topping the tanks for the fourth time that day, I asked about a heated hangar for the night, knowing it wouldn’t be cheap. The local airline, First Air, had a huge, empty hangar available, large enough for a 737. The service manager said he thought the rate was $75 Canadian, but he’d have to check. Wow, I thought, that’s incredibly cheap, only about $60 U.S. We walked into his office, he pulled out a rate sheet and verified, “Yep, I was right. It’s $75 per hour.”
Tired and dispirited, I said “thanks anyway” and filed a flight plan for Wabush, Newfoundland, 600 miles south, where I knew the temperature wouldn’t be a problem. I hiked back to the Baron through the cold and dark, and launched for the fourth leg of the day. I wasn’t about to leave the near-new Baron to cold soak overnight in minus-30 degree C temperatures. I arrived at Wabush at midnight, after a longer day than I had planned. Flying that last leg was a decision I wouldn’t have had to make in summer.
As some readers may know, I now live in Southern California, where anything colder than 0 degrees C is considered a return to the Ice Age. The “yeah, but…” is that I grew up flying Civil Air Patrol in Alaska and, these days, I fly regular trips through northeastern Canada in winter practically every year. Accordingly, I know many of the mistakes with airplanes in that part of the world because I’ve made virtually all of them.
The go/no-go decision becomes more difficult in winter for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is simply the temperature. It’s colder (duh!), and pilots, weather and airplanes become less friendly when the thermometer falls. For our part, pilots tend to take shortcuts when the weather is cold/wet/snowy. Perhaps the easiest shortcut is to treat winter like summer, but that’s pretty unrealistic if you plan to survive until spring. Another philosophy is simply to lock the hangar door and not fly again until the weather is warmer. That also may not be a practical alternative if you hope to realize the utility of an airplane.