Canada’s Maritime Provinces are among the country’s most beautiful regions, with rolling tundras, pristine lakes and dramatic coastlines. Unfortunately, the area also is possessed of some of the country’s most dynamic weather. While the far west may have the more vicious winter temperatures, often subceeding minus-40 degrees C, the northeast is infamous for its radically changeable winter atmospherics.
I’ve flown through northeastern Canada several times a year for the last quarter-century, and it’s certainly one of the more volatile weather venues on the planet, especially in winter. Winds can accelerate from five to 50 knots in a few minutes, fog can appear faster than you’d believe possible and snow-laden winter clouds can grow to 15,000 feet or higher.
Late last winter, for instance, I brought a pair of Beech 55 Barons back from Bournemouth, England, to Dallas. The trip included a marathon four-leg, 14-hour day of flying, fighting headwinds most of the way. I departed Reykjavik, Iceland, flew to Kulusuk and Sondre Strom, Greenland, then hopped 500 miles across the Davis Strait to Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada. I had planned to stop in Iqaluit for the night, but the temperature was minus-35 degrees C, and the only available hangar was priced at $80 Canadian…per hour.
I was tired, but the weather was severe clear, typical of the far north, and I wasn’t about to leave the airplane sitting on the ramp in such nasty conditions. As a result, I fired back up before the engines could cool and headed south for Schefferville (CYKL), Quebec. When I landed at CYKL at 9:00 p.m., the temperature was up to a more manageable zero degrees C, but the weather was forecast to be down in the morning.
Sure enough, the atmospherics were blotto the following morning. I phoned in my flight plan to Flight Service and was advised to call Moncton immediately after takeoff. (Schefferville is uncontrolled.) Accordingly, I started up and took off into the glop toward Bangor (KBGR), Maine. It took 15 minutes before Moncton finally acknowledged my existence, but eventually, they cleared me as filed at 10,000 feet on the short 600-nm hop to KBGR.
It was not to be, however. Within an hour, I knew that I couldn’t make it to Bangor
nonstop. I was plunging through waves of frozen clouds at minus-25 degrees C. The wind was blowing about 60 knots on the nose, and the snow was becoming nastier by the minute.
“Moncton, Baron G-IFTB needs to change destination to Sept-Îlles, Quebec. Wind is just too much for us today,” I said in an understatement.
I was still 100 miles from Sept-Îlles when the controller came back on and said, “Roger, Tango Bravo. Weather at Sept-Îlles is down to 100 feet overcast in heavy snow with 1⁄4-mile visibility, but it’s going up and down rapidly. You can expect the runway 9 ILS via the 15 DME arc and marginal braking action on the ground. Say intentions.”
“We’re gonna give it a try,” I said. Non-radar environment, but at least it was an ILS, I rationalized.
Naturally, the temperature began to rise in the descent. At about minus-10 degrees C, the little Baron began to assume a coating of ice. My only defense was pitot heat, which had been on since takeoff. There also was a windshield alcohol system that didn’t work.
The snow got worse as I descended to lower altitude, but the temperature gradually warmed up. When I started inbound on the ILS, I was at plus-one degree C, although the weather was still at 100 and 1⁄4, and the last two airplanes had both missed and gone somewhere else. The wind, turbulence and snow were becoming progressively worse.
I tried to fly the ILS one bar to the right so I could better spot the rabbit, and to my surprise, it worked. Right at minimums, I saw the glow of the sequential strobes just below my left wing, popped out into a semblance of snow-obscured VMC, chopped both throttles and dropped the airplane onto a white runway that was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. The controller was right; there was no braking action to speak of, but the runway was more than 6,000 feet long, so it barely mattered.
Winter hazards obviously aren’t confined to Canada. In-flight icing and heavy snow can afflict much lower latitudes. Flying a new Cessna 180 to Alaska many years ago, I flew into so much ice over Idaho that I was forced to land at a grass strip that was totally covered with fresh powder snow. It was so deep and unspoiled that I could barely make out the location of the runway.
Fortunately, the airplane had the slightly oversized balloon tires installed. When it plunked into the feather-light powder, it kicked up a giant plume of snow, and deceleration was phenomenal, although manageable with the stick full back. I waited three hours on the ground for the weather to pass before resuming my flight, leaving rooster-tails of snow behind me on takeoff.
Cold temperatures alone can cause problems you might not imagine. Ferrying the first production Piper Mirage to Europe in 1989, I made the initial leg to Bangor, watching the temperature drop dramatically as I flew north from Florida. Up at my cruise altitude of FL190, OAT was a brisk minus-40 degrees C. By the time I reached Maine, even the surface temperature was minus-30 degrees C. Weather at Bangor was good, and when I entered downwind, I was cleared to land immediately. I flipped the gear switch to the down position and waited for the wheels to lock in place.
They didn’t. No big deal. Probably just a little stiff. I retracted the wheels, waited a few seconds and put the switch back to the down position. Still no joy. Hmmm. Five cycles later, it was obvious that I had a real problem. The right main gear refused to lock into position. I advised the tower, broke out of the pattern and flew off to the east to troubleshoot the problem.
Reluctantly, I went to the emergency system to allow gravity to drop the wheels. I was already half-convinced it wasn’t going to work. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, it didn’t. I tried swapping out the bulbs, but the right light remained stubbornly dark. I could only speculate that the malfunction had something to do with the severe temperature.
I didn’t want to bust the world’s first Mirage, so finally, in desperation, I reverted to a technique that I had read about for extending a stuck gear on WWII fighters. I rolled the airplane into a hard-right bank; then punched the top, left rudder to the floor. This levered the nose up and put a down force on the inside of the right main gear, theoretically helping to lever it down. On the fifth try, the right gear light winked at me, then stayed on.
Naturally, when I was safe on the ground with the airplane on jacks in a warm shop, the wheels cycled up and down without difficulty. It turned out that the lubricant on the gear mechanism wasn’t designed for low temperatures. The shop in Bangor lubed the gear legs with a special cold-weather grease, and the problem was solved.
Cold weather can cause other problems you might not expect. Flying out of Fargo, N.D., in January once after a severe cold overnight in a Maule M7, I ordered the obligatory preheat of the engine and the cabin, then started up and began a slow taxi. The ramp seemed to have some major bumps that I didn’t remember from the night before as the airplane bounced along on the way to the run-up area.
It took me a while to realize that the bumps in the asphalt were the flat spots from the bottom of the tires rolling across the taxiway. The lesson in extreme cold conditions was to apply a little preheat to the tires to avoid chipping the embrittled rubber.
Cold is a nasty enemy of virtually every part of an airplane, from the engine, interior and tires to the brake and hydraulic systems, avionics, door locks and instruments. The cold also can have an adverse effect on the airplane’s environment, and unlike the airplane that can benefit from preheat, there’s no way to artificially heat a sub-zero sky or a frozen runway. I’ve landed in heavy snow many times in wheeled airplanes without problems. The hazard can arise when the runway is clear of snow but coated with ice, sometimes referred to as black ice.
I had my most embarrassing encounter with black ice while flying a Bellanca Cruisemaster through Texas in mid-December. I was on my way to the Bahamas for Christmas and was landing at Amarillo, Texas, for fuel. The tower warned me that braking action was poor, but I couldn’t have imagined how bad it was. There was a significant crosswind blowing as I rolled out on final, and I congratulated myself on my good technique, dropping a wing into the wind and continuing to track the centerline.
Things went well until I plunked the airplane onto what looked to be a dry, black asphalt runway. It turned out to be coated with glare ice. Right after touchdown, the airplane started a gentle rotation to the left, and nothing that I could do had any effect. The Cruisemaster made a series of horizontal 360s to the left, tracking the centerline all the while as if I had planned it that way. After three full revolutions, the airplane finally stopped, still on the centerline. Of course, the tower controller who had observed my unusual landing couldn’t resist asking, “Bellanca 86 November, are you in need of assistance?” It took four people to manhandle the airplane off the runway and into the shelter of a hangar.
(I read about a TWA pilot landing at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport in a Lockheed Constellation in the 1950s who faced a similar situation and came up with a novel solution. With no directional control from the rudders or brakes after touchdown, he used the engines to slowly rotate the big airplane until it was sliding backward down the runway; then, he applied full power to bring the Connie to a stop.)
Temperature can wreak havoc with fuel systems, as well. If you’re an infrequent winter flier, you may be surprised to learn that the fuel additive Prist isn’t just for jets. Prist inhibits formation of ice crystals in fuel at extremely low temperatures, and because jets must operate at high altitude (usually above 30,000 feet) to be most efficient, they’re almost guaranteed to experience temperatures of minus-40 degrees C or colder. In winter, however, Prist works equally well in piston products, and there’s much of the northern U.S. that sees temperatures of minus-40 degrees C or lower.
I’ve experienced fuel icing a half-dozen times in a variety of airplanes, from Aerostars and 421s to Mooney 252s and A36TC Bonanzas, most often while operating in the flight levels. In some parts of Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana, even surface temperatures in winter are cold enough to introduce ice crystals into fuel. Climb to 8,000 or 10,000 feet, and you may be well inside the ice-crystal threshold. Prist isn’t cheap, but it’s a false economy to save a few bucks while refueling only to have the engine(s) stagger and cough as you climb up into colder air.
The lessons of winter are harsh, and considering the harmful consequences, I try not to make the same mistakes twice. But I usually manage to find new ones.