Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

The Winds Of Winter

When Flying Is Worth The Effort

Winter can provide some of the best flying weather and some of the worst. Knowing what to expect and how to prepare for it is essential knowledge for all-season pilots.

I remember one brisk winter day in south-central Pennsylvania. A renter pilot called our FBO from upstate New York to discuss a problem with one of our airplanes. He claimed the engine would occasionally lose power and backfire in flight. I agreed that didn't sound good, and we arranged for a local mechanic to have a look at the bird. About an hour later the renter called again and told me the mechanic was unable to find anything wrong. I spoke to the mechanic, who insisted there was nothing wrong with the machine. He opined that my renter was probably a new pilot and nervous about his first long-distance trip from home.

New pilot was true enough - I'd examined him for his private certificate in the fall - but as to nerves, a backfiring engine is something difficult to conjure up out of one's imagination. I spoke with the renter and offered to bring him a replacement airplane. He said it wasn't essential but he would appreciate it. I was glad I could preflight the airplane in the hangar - especially when the cold wind chilled me to the bone during the short push from hangar to ramp.

With the assistance of a fortuitous tailwind I landed at the New York airfield an hour and a half later, turned over the new airplane to the renter, and looked up the mechanic to pay his bill. He reiterated his assessment that the renter was just nervous about flying so far from home. I settled the mechanic's bill and flew the airplane in the pattern for a few minutes. The engine ran like a top, and so I headed for home. It was still very cold and rather windy with good visibilities under a 2,000- to 3,000-foot ceiling. IFR altitudes would put me in the clouds and potential icing conditions, so I flew VFR about 2,000 feet above ground level. After a while the ceiling rose to the point where a higher VFR altitude was available, but the headwind encouraged me to stay low.

The most desolate terrain along the route was relatively close to home, and of course it was there that the engine began to exhibit the symptoms described by my renter. It ran rather better on one magneto than two, but neither the airplane nor its pilot was very happy. I climbed to about 4,000 feet agl and took stock of my situation. The closest airport was home base. There were plenty of places to make a forced landing between here and there, but that would surely be a last-ditch option. Because I had left my cold-weather clothing in my car at the airport, there was a very good chance I'd survive a forced landing only to freeze before I could get out of the woods. I stayed high and didn't descend until I was over my home field. The landing was, as they say, uneventful.

Our mechanic discovered contact problems with both magnetos that were obvious even to a new pilot. I called the New York mechanic. "I thought you said you checked the magnetos and found nothing wrong. Even I can see the problem." "I did check the mags," he said. "The engine ran up just fine."

Alaska and parts of Canada require survival gear on board all airplanes. It's a good idea in the lower 48 as well. A parka, gloves, water-repellant pants, and boots are basic requirements. Add matches, some tinder, a metal water container - so you can melt snow when your water's gone - and a sheet of plastic for shelter, and you can survive - albeit not as comfortably as you'd like - until help comes. I store these items in a small backpack and throw it in with the luggage, preferably where it can be accessed from the cabin. A number of years ago a pilot landed - well, mostly crashed - about a mile and a half short of the runway at a nontowered airport on Christmas Eve. He survived with injuries that left him unable to walk and spent a very uncomfortable night in what was left of the fuselage. During the night he tore down the window curtains and stuffed them into his clothes to increase the insulation. In colder circumstances access to warm clothing could have been essential to survival.

I'll bet that all pilots can recite the rule for flying with ice, snow, or frost contamination on the airplane: "Don't do it!" But many pilots in northern climes know of someone who did fly with frost on the wings and suffered no perceptible adverse effect, so the question becomes, "How much is too much?" I have the answer.

About 20 years ago I saw what was left of an airplane that had crashed just after takeoff. One aileron and a portion of wing had torn off the machine as the pilot accelerated toward cruise speed. The pilot managed to maintain some control and actually crawled away from the wreck. He described aileron flutter followed by departure of the aileron and wing tip. Yes, there had been a little frost on the airplane, but it was only a little and he'd flown with that much frost before. The difference, it turned out, was that the airplane had been repainted in the spring and this was the first frost-contaminated flight with the new paint. Apparently the frost was enough to put the aileron out of balance, and that caused the flutter. So the answer to how much is too much is "I don't know." That's why the airplane has to be squeaky clean.

There's a lot more to winter flying. of course. For more information see "Safety Pilot: Snow Time," December 2001 AOPA Pilot. Enjoy the season and encourage your students to make the extra effort to get out and fly. They'll enjoy the experience, and there'll be less rust for you to knock off in the spring.

By John Steuernagle

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports