Frost on the pumpkins…and the airplanes

It’s that time of year here in Maryland–the cold weather has finally started to settle in, and we’ve had a few mornings when frost on the cars necessitated judicious use of a scraper.

So, CFIs, have you talked to your students about removing all traces of frost from airfoils? And you students, have you paid attention? I hope so. Frost glittering on an airplane’s surface is a beautiful thing to behold first thing in the morning. But that which is beautiful can also be deadly. Here’s the nickel explanation: Frost (or ice, or snow) spoils the flow of air over wings, elevator, or other surfaces, which in turn messes with the flight characteristics. Think higher stall speed, longer takeoff roll, or inability to get off the ground at all. The Air Safety Institute’s excellent Wing Contamination Safety Brief explains it all.

Yesterday I happened to be visiting a New England airport. A flight school Cessna 172 was parked on the ramp in front of the FBO. A flight school employee was hard at work standing on a ladder,┬áremoving frost from the top of the wings with what looked like a squeegee on a very long handle. A student came out to preflight, and he had a long-handled squeegee of his own. They don’t let cold weather get the drop on them up north.

You shouldn’t, either. When preparing to fly on a cold morning, leave yourself extra time to do a thorough job of cleaning frost off the entire airplane. I used to carry an old towel in my car–it could then be easily tossed into my flight bag–for this purpose. If your flight school sends out the de-icing fluid brigade, be mindful where you step, particularly if you have to climb up on a wing–that stuff is slippery.

–Jill W. Tallman