Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Winter Flying Tips

Twenty things you can do to stay safe and have fun

Winter is as inevitable as aging, and for pilots who live in or fly to the northern latitudes, every winter will present significant challenges. Even the most prepared aviator will occasionally get caught by one of Old Man Winter's little surprises. That said, some of my most memorable flights have taken place in the depths of winter. Let's consider some tips that can make your winter flying safer and more enjoyable:

1 Dress for the environment that you'll be flying over. More than one pilot has departed from an airport in relatively balmy weather, only to arrive at an airport that's locked up after hours, and where the weather is substantially colder/windier/raining/snowing. The worst-case scenario would result from an enroute engine failure, resulting in an off-airport landing, and the subsequent wait for search and rescue to arrive, possibly with injuries. Winter flying should dictate wearing clothing appropriate to walk around in the weather and terrain you're planning to fly over.

2 Preheat your engine. When temperatures drop below about 32 deg F, I apply preheat to my engine prior to start. While the engine manufacturers place the minimum temperature for start without preheat somewhat lower, I'm a firm believer in proper preheat any time the ambient temperature (or the overnight temperature if a morning launch) is below about 32 degrees F. There are a number of very efficient engine heaters available if you have access to electricity. Without electricity, you'll have to get a little more creative, but there are also combustion heaters that work well. In any case, gentle slow heat over several hours is always better than a short blast of very high heat. Remember—your goal is to get that essential heat to the very core of that engine, and that takes a little time to penetrate the mass of the engine.

3 You need to wrap that expensive engine in an insulated engine cover. This is to make that preheat really effective on an overnight stay or for parking your airplane outdoors for a few hours without heat during a stopover. If the ambient temperatures aren't really THAT cold, you may be able to get by with something as simple as an old sleeping bag or quilt draped over the cowling, but a good-quality engine cover is both efficient and easier to keep in place in even the windiest of conditions.

4 If you're going to park outdoors in temperatures that may dip below the freezing point, you also need to acquire a good set of wing covers and carry them with you. These aren't intended to protect the paint from oxidation, but rather, they prevent the buildup of frost or ice on the flying surfaces. And, don't forget that the horizontal tail is also an aerodynamic surface, and should be covered in frosty weather.

5 Does your airplane have a winterization kit? Many manufacturers provide an oil-cooler cover, some provide "winter fronts" to block off part of the air inlets. Be careful doing the MacGyver thing though, i.e. creating your own "homemade" winterization kit. First, check for factory-provided products. Modifying the air inlets to your engine can disrupt air flow through your cowling and cause damage to your engine. Neither the airframe manufacturer nor the FAA will look kindly on such unapproved modifications.

6 Are you night-current? These winter days are much shorter than summer ones, and during the fall transition, it's easy to forget just how much shorter the daylight is as we lose three to four minutes a day. Don't let yourself fall into the trap of departing in daylight on a cross-country flight home, only to realize midflight that your arrival will be more than one hour after sunset. Spend a little time reacquainting yourself with night operations BEFORE you find yourself on that late cross-country flight.


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