The Weather Outside is Frightful

January 8, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

winter2 2.2.00Cold and snow have dominated the news for the last week, so maybe now’s a good time to review cold weather ops. Those of you in the South can either ignore or pay especially close attention if your travels will bring you North. A tankful of fuel can move us out of the sunny climes and into really cold country in just a few hours.

If you’ve got an hour to spend, go to one of the recorded cold weather operations webinars on our website (Cold Weather Ops and Airframe Ice: Avoidance and Escape). The conversation is wide ranging and we’re joined by pilots who live in cold Alaska, Idaho, or North Dakota. Here’s a quick synopsis:

  • Engine preheatAlthough the manufacturers will often not specify it above 20 degrees, many owners use it when the temps get below freezing. Those criteria should be met in a lot of places this week! The setup need not be exotic. If you don’t have an engine block heater, an incandescent light bulb works when placed directly underneath the engine, especially when the cowl plugs are in place. Haven’t had much experience with using the new CFL lights for this, so would welcome some feedback. Other electric heaters can be used, but be careful of fire hazards. It would be a touch ironic to burn down your hangar and burn up your aircraft for an engine preheat: The engine will be toasty warm but not really useable.
  • Engine fires during start are a possibility (usually due to over-priming), so know what to do. Carbureted engines are more susceptible. Preheat eliminates this problem—mostly.
  • Dress the part—Feeling compelled to hurry the preflight? You’re not ready to do a thorough preflight and definitely not ready for an off-airport landing where help may not arrive until the next day or so. It may seem silly to carry boots, a parka, heavy mittens, and a hat, but you get the idea. In my USAF North Dakota days we were not allowed to even drive our cars in the winter without some basic survival gear including a blanket, a tarp, a candle, matches, and a flashlight. Everybody was issued cold weather gear and expected to use it. As we often said, “20 below keeps the riff-raff out!”
  • File a flight plan—Nice to know someone will come looking for you. I also carry a 406-MHz personal locator beacon (PLB). Spot, Spidertracks, or one of the other trackers are also a good idea.
  • Know how to install the cold weather baffle for your engine and under what conditions to use it. If you fly South from the cold remember to remove it after landing for sun flying and reinstall upon return to the cold country.
  • NO frost or snow—Outside parking is a bummer, but if you have to do it…all frost and snow has to come off the wings and tail. Forget about “polishing” the frost—I’m never sure what kind of wax to use, and how far down I’m supposed to go. Sorry—bad joke. A garden sprayer with the appropriate elixir works, and I’ve used automotive windshield deicer on metal aircraft in a pinch. DO NOT use it on aircraft windows. Don’t know how it would work on composite airplanes. Better—by far—to park it inside, or let it thaw inside.
  • Patchy ice and snow makes taxiing sporty, landings more so. Run-ups should be done on dry pavement even if you aren’t at the run-up pad.
  • Give and get braking action reports—If it’s anything less than “fair” (less than MU 30) find another runway. If you’re scratching your head, read this Safety Brief.
  • Call ahead or check notams to be sure the airport (or the runway you need because of prevailing winds) is open. Mind the snowbanks on landing. Some airports may not get the snow off the runways immediately after a big one. Verify!

Obviously, there’s much more we could discuss, but here’s a quick review.

Winter flying can be very good—it just requires more preparation and more clothing.

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Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • John Vinokur

    Good advice, Bruce! (And I KNOW about cold-weather flying, because I live in Canada – where it sometimes gets so cold outside that our words come out as little snowballs, and we have to heat ’em over a fire to hear what we’re saying!

    One comment – I can’t see how trying to preheat the engine with a CFL bulb would do much (if any) good, because the whole point of CFL technology is to make light-generation far more energy-efficient, which means that there is far less heat production as a generally-wasted byproduct. (For example, only 23 watts of power are required for a CFL bulb to put out exactly the same number of lumens as a 100-watt incandescent bulb, so the 77 watts of “wasted” heat energy just isn’t there.) So, stick with incandescent bulbs for engine preheating as long as possible (now that the sale of incandescent bulbs has been strictly limited, on the way to complete banning), and then you’ll have to find another way entirely.