Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Winter Flying Tips

Twenty things you can do to stay safe and have fun

15 Consider a SPOT personal tracker, a Spidertracks unit or one of the other flight-tracking devices now available. The capability to communicate, albeit one way, with loved ones and friends of your status, and to provide a data track in the event of an unforeseen diversion or accident, can be even more important in cold weather than during summer months. Time can be of the essence with injuries and hypothermia in cold weather.


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US Naval Observatory
16 When was the last time you checked your tire inflation? Aircraft tires contain a low volume of air, and cold temperatures can decrease the tire pressure substantially. Tires are the Rodney Dangerfield of the airplane world: They don't get any respect. It's hard to visually observe low tire pressures, particularly if the airplane is equipped with wheel fairings. If your tire pressure is low to start with, flight into colder temperatures (or rolling the airplane from a warm hangar into wintry outdoor temperatures) can lower the pressure even further. Low tire pressure may cause a tire to slip on the rim during a landing, shearing a valve stem. The result: flat tire and immobile airplane in the middle of a runway. If this happens while operating at an uncontrolled airport near dark, you've created a real hazard, and in any case, it's not going to be fun getting the thing fixed in the cold and dark.

17 A careful check of your airplane's battery at the onset of winter weather will save you considerable trouble once temperatures drop. Frequently, a weak battery will suffice right up till the temperatures drop a bit, then, "Click...." nothing. A check of electrolyte levels and battery voltage is easy and is considered preventive (as in owner-performed) maintenance. If your airplane is flown infrequently in winter, consider having a low- voltage battery maintainer (trickle charger) installed to keep it charged between flights. All batteries will lose some of their charge between cycles, and if you fly infrequently, the cold can really sap that charge.

18 The end of summer is also a good time to change your engine oil to remove contaminants and moisture from the engine and start the winter with fresh oil. If you run straight-weight oil in summer, you may want to switch to multiviscosity oil in winter. It might just pay for itself in reduced engine wear and the ability to start that one time when your engine got a LITTLE cooler than you'd like prior to a start.

19 Sometime between the first hard frost and the onset of really cold weather, take the opportunity to thoroughly clean your windshield and windows. If, like me, you park in an unheated hangar or worse yet, outdoors, this might be your last chance to thoroughly clean that collection of bugs off the windows before spring. Your airplane will also benefit from a thorough airframe wash before winter—all those bugs create drag.

20 We need to recalibrate our thinking about flying weather as we go into winter. While our biggest concerns in summer may be convective activity and occasional low ceilings, winter weather presents very different challenges to flight safety. Icing is a very real threat; winds are often stronger and frequently gusty. And, winter-weather systems often move faster and are more "energetic" than summer systems. As a consequence, we need to shift our weather THINKING to more of a strategic mind-set, as opposed to the more tactical approach we may be able to get away with in summer flying. Planning a cross-country flight of any significant distance in winter should include a good bit of planning well before the planned trip, and if at all possible, dates should be flexible. Remember the winter aviator's mantra: "If you have time to spare, go by air."

So, there you have it: Some ideas to help you get out and enjoy some winter flying while caring for your airplane in what can be very challenging weather conditions. But, as I noted at the beginning of this article, winter flights can be very enjoyable and safe with just a little preparation and care. Go enjoy the smoothest air of the year, along with some gorgeous sunsets and sunrises, without having to get out of bed at 4 a.m.


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