Winter may be snowbird's delight

December 28, 2011

Knock on wood, but if fall in the Northeast was any indication, maybe winter won’t be worth getting frosted about this year.

That’s what some people are saying, anyway. Will their whimsy be warranted? Or will they be walking in a winter wonderland?

For an answer—or anyway, for clues—it is customary this time of year to turn to Andover, Mass.-based Weather Services International for its seasonal outlook in six regions of the country. Whether you are a business owner budgeting energy outlays for the next three months, or a pilot wondering when to winterize your aircraft—or angling for assignment to a heated hangar—WSI can help you make your move.

And the answer is … that in all regions except the Southeast and South-Central, WSI expects a colder-than-normal January and February. In March, the Southwest also will catch a break, but everyone else will remain in the icebox.

Thank you, polar vortex!

So, was the Northeast’s warm November just a cruel hoax?

Not exactly, but for the niceness to continue you have to count on something called the polar vortex to keep doing its thing—namely, confining the frigid air to its namesake region. WSI thinks that’s a big ask.

“So far, the heating season has been fairly mild across the major energy demand centers of the U.S., as a very strong polar vortex has kept most of the significant and sustained cold out of the eastern U.S.,” said WSI’s chief meteorologist, Todd Crawford. “While no significant short-term change to this pattern is expected, we do foresee at least a slight weakening of the polar vortex heading into January. This will increase the odds of some colder spells in the Northeast.”

So it ends up as pretty much a good-news, bad-news prognostication.

In colder areas, you might even see your late-winter natural gas heating bill go down compared to last year thanks to “aggregate demand” that factors in the effects of warmer weather expected in southern regions. But if you live north of an El Paso, Texas, to Washington, D.C., line, sorry. You’re still out in the cold.

For the entire winter, WSI says, total demand for gas heating is expected to be the lowest since 2006.

Sleigh bells ring

Whether you get that warm spot in the hangar, or remain rudely relegated to the ramp, the arrival of winter is a reminder to conspire, as you dream by the fire, to once again review cold-weather operations as prescribed in your pilot’s operating handbook. Check on when it’s cold enough to preheat the engine, and how to perform a cold-weather start if it’s not.

If Santa brought you an aircraft fire extinguisher, thank him—and then read the instructions.

Be careful around that propeller—and that means using extreme caution when accomplishing any published procedure you might decide to follow that involves “limbering the oil” before a start. Keep any bystanders well clear. Don’t stand on icy ground during ground handling of the aircraft this time of year. That seems obvious, but you’d be surprised.

Flying around in the pattern, or descending from on high after a cross-country? Remember that shock cooling of the engine is a cold-weather hazard of low-power operations and long glides.

Landing or taxiing in snow, avoid braking as much as possible, and be alert for locked brakes caused by melted and refrozen snow.

Dress warmly, please, and carry survival gear. A carbon monoxide detector in the cabin is cheap safety for the asking. File a fight plan or at least let someone know where you are headed, and when you will be back.

Student pilots: This is a great time of year to bundle your instructor into the aircraft and finish up those night-flying requirements toward your private pilot certificate. Moonlight and snow-covered ground combine to provide a spectacular night-flying experience.

WSI provides weather-driven business solutions to the energy, aviation, and media markets, and many government agencies; is a member of The Weather Channel Companies; and has offices in Andover, Mass., and Birmingham, England.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.