Safety Publications/Articles


Winter is a blast

But ice is a danger for every aircraft

The worst icing I've ever encountered was off the coast of San Diego. I was circling my Navy A-4 Skyhawk jet above a stratus overcast layer at 16,000 feet when one slat came out and the other didn't. This caused one wing to stall and threw the aircraft out of control-in itself not unusual for that aircraft. As I entered the clouds, the canopy completely iced over. Thankfully, a few thousand feet after breaking out of the weather, the ice slid off.

In light aircraft, I have encountered rime icing at relatively low altitudes in other California locations. Coastal clouds carry large amounts of moisture, so if you are flying at an altitude where ice is likely, you may not remain flying for long. Ice can build rapidly, and since most light aircraft can't climb above the weather, be prepared to descend.

I had another icing experience while flying a Cessna 320 to El Paso, Texas. The air was clear above 3,000 feet, and there was an overcast layer with surprisingly cool temperatures. I flew an ILS to the active runway and broke out several hundred feet above the ground. I couldn't see because the entire windshield had frosted over with rime ice. I had my friend fly the airplane while I grabbed a credit card, opened the side window, and scraped a small hole so I could see to land. There had been no pilot reports indicating any ice, but since most aircraft flying into and out of El Paso under those conditions were airliners with higher speeds and heated windshields, they probably didn't notice anything unusual.

Piston engines aren't fond of winter. How do we start cold engines? The best choice is not to. In other words, warm them first with a portable heater. But if that isn't possible, make sure the magnetos are off and the wheels are chocked, and then pull the propeller through numerous times to loosen the cylinders. Doing so pulls oil into the cylinders and makes starting easier. Make sure that all of your engine temperatures are in the green before taking off.

Wet surfaces can freeze as soon as you take off, so ensure that all hinges are free of ice and water, and check wheel pants for packed snow. For retractable-gear aircraft, tapping slushy brakes before retraction can fuse them together. Even throttle controls can freeze under certain conditions, so don't rush your preflight.

Airplanes do not steer or stop well on ice. Taking off or landing in a crosswind on icy runways is not recommended. Snow will slow acceleration and may prevent a takeoff. Wet runways can lead to hydroplaning. Standing water has the same effect as powdered snow. Taking off under such conditions is like attempting it with the brakes on. Avoid taxiing on painted lines or markings as water or ice makes them slick.

Pilots who live in areas that are hit hard by winter know many of these things and take precautions, but places that are the least likely to generate severe ice may be the ones that affect you the most.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for FedEx. A CFI for 26 years, he has flown more than 11,000 hours.

By Mark Danielson

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