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Training Tip: Pitch perfectTraining Tip: Pitch perfect

It seems like everyone is out flying today, now that the one-two punch of back-to-back snowstorms has subsided and the airport crew has done its usual fine job of cleaning up the resulting snowy mess.

Winter flying presents special challenges in the air and on the ground. Photo by David Tulis.

You taxi carefully across the slippery ramp, down the icy taxiways, and between towering snowdrifts. Now, as you line up for takeoff on the long, wide, paved and plowed runway, what takeoff technique is the appropriate choice?

Don’t let the runway’s paved surface and comfortable length lull you into complacency. Here and there along its length, despite the best efforts of even the most highly skilled plowing crews, patches of snow likely still dot the asphalt—some of them hard-packed or glazed over with ice.

That’s not the kind of “runway contamination” you want to encounter with a nosewheel or a main gear wheel at any speed above taxi, so treat this takeoff as a rough-field operation with the goal of getting the airplane airborne as early as possible, using the recommended method and configuration for the make and model trainer you fly.

As with any soft-field/rough-field takeoff, the plan is to become airborne, under positive control, at the lowest possible airspeed, then to lower the pitch attitude slightly and accelerate in ground effect—it extends to about a wingspan above the surface—until you attain the recommended climb speed.

Avoid becoming airborne prematurely, just as you would if operating from an uneven surface at an undeveloped airfield—because the runway’s contaminated condition can mimic that environment. Be ready to react if you run into a bumpy surprise.

Pitch control is the key to all phases of this kind of takeoff, and it takes a precise but delicate touch to perform it with skill. You must coax the aircraft off the surface early, but not too early; then lower the nose just enough to remain in the ground-effect realm, but not enough to force the aircraft back to the ground or so little that you gain too much altitude and stall, or become unable to accelerate and climb.

Returning from your training flight, check for any updates on the runway condition, and plan to touch down at the lowest possible airspeed, with plenty of room to roll.  

Stay sharp with your directional control after touchdown. Minimize braking; by now some of those packed mounds of snow may have melted and refrozen into invisible patches of ice.

How are winter runway conditions at your airport? Share your experience at AOPA Hangar.com.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Pilot Training and Certification, Flight Training, Student
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