Longtime AOPA Pilot columnist Mark R. Twombly lives in Southwest Florida.
First let it be said that, according to people with enough time on their hands to assemble such information, Chicago, at 10.4 mph, reportedly ranks far below Dodge City, Kansas (14 mph), and Boston (12.5 mph) and just barely ahead of Detroit (10.3 mph) in "average annual wind speed." There's your first clue that Chicago's "Windy City" handle refers to something other than the stuff chasing low-pressure systems (politicians, promoters, and East-Coast detractors discharging mass quantities of hot air have all been implicated). When I arrived at Chicago Midway International Airport, the ATIS was promising about 2.5 times the city's average annual wind speed, along with a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Welcome to the Wind Chill City.
We had departed south Florida on a balmy afternoon, flew into the clouds in northern Florida, and didn't see the ground until descending through 1,000 feet on the approach to Runway 4R at Chicago. It was dark, and the recognition lights revealed that it was snowing in the lower-level clouds. Fortunately, none of it was reaching the ground. In the descent the outboard leading edges were decorated with a thin ribbon of white.
The stiff wind on the nose made for a relatively slow final-approach groundspeed and short rollout. With one hand holding my cap on my head, I unloaded the bags and escorted our passengers across the black, windswept ramp.
I calculated the wind chill at about 29 degrees Fahrenheit. A warm November evening by Chicago standards, I'm sure, but as we entered the building I couldn't stop from saying to no one in particular, "This is why I live in Florida."
I haven't always been a warm-weather wimp. I used to live up north and routinely fly simple (under 200 horsepower) fixed-gear light airplanes in the winter. Strong winds, surly weather, early darkness — all part of the deal if you live in the north and want to go places year-round in a light general aviation airplane.
I used to make an occasional flight east to Cape Cod to visit my brother and his family. On one winter trip years ago I had to have the FBO preheat the engine, and also direct some hot air onto the tiedown rings so I could unravel the frozen knots.
The weather was marginal — ceilings at about 2,200 feet and 5 miles visibility in very light snowshowers — but it was flyable. The chatter on Flight Watch was about light to moderate icing and varying cloud tops. The clouds eventually began to lift, and I finished off the flight in sunshine.
The next morning, I awoke to find 13 inches of snow on the ground. I wasn't due to fly again for a few days, but I went to the airport to dig out my airplane. It rested on its tail, and the huge layer of snow on tail and wings looked like rising bread dough. The runway had not yet been plowed, and no fuel was being pumped, but I was assured things would be up and running by the time I planned to leave.
I got lucky and was able to depart on schedule between weather systems. A cold front was advancing westward across the country, and the winds aloft were blowing mightily from the southwest. What normally is a three-hour nonstop flight turned into an interminable 4.5-hour trip with fuel stop. Groundspeeds were in the 70-knot class.
My plan was to drop off a couple of passengers, refuel, then head south to home base, arriving just after dark. The headwinds dictated otherwise. I landed at the intermediate stop in one of the strongest crosswinds I've ever had to tackle, and no one was home at the FBO. Darkness was at hand, and I had to admit to myself that the fight had gone out of me anyhow. I stayed the night.
A restful sleep restored my energy and resolve. A glance heavenward drained it all. The sky was obscured by low, gray, icy-looking clouds. VFR was out of the question, and IFR was questionable. Few pireps were available to confirm or deny the forecasts. The lineman cheerfully put my airplane in a big heated hangar to thaw, and to preheat the engine. Another truth of winter flying was reinforced: Respect thy line person. He or she has a miserable job in the winter, and the ones who do it well and with a smile are special people. Treat them well.
A Saratoga departed the airport for Florida, and the pilot called back with a pirep. Good news: It was a thin layer, just a trace of ice on the climb, and clear above. By the time I was ready to roll, the clouds were breaking up. I got my clearance and flew through the barest wisp of a cloud on my way to 6,000 feet.
The undercast rose as I flew south. Soon I was skimming just above the tops. Before I could ask for higher, the New York Center controller who was responsible for my blip asked if I would like 7,000; he had heard from a pilot ahead of me that I could expect ice at 6,000. A bit farther on, the controller volunteered an amendment to my routing. "Would you like direct to your destination?" he asked. Yes, and thank you for your very good service.
Nearing home, I descended to 5,000 feet, which put me in the clouds. The Skyhawk began to accumulate a bit of rime, so I asked for lower. It took a few minutes to get that approved, and by then, the ice was past the trace stage. I broke out at 4,000, but the ice didn't come off until reaching pattern altitude.
I patted the Skyhawk on its warm nose after it was snugged back into its customary parking spot. A job well done. It had been an arduous, adventuresome, frustrating, interesting, challenging 10 hours of flying, spread over several days. Lightplane flying in the winter is good, honest, hard work, a reminder of how easy those warm-weather wimps have it.