Your connection with the sky

Training in the Cold – Great Performance and Important Experience

C-172RG in the snow

It’s January!  If you’re me, that means that the year-end slog as a commercial lawyer is over and I can get back into the cockpit, knock off the rust, and start flying again in earnest. Many people, especially student pilots and especially student pilots in northern climes, don’t realize that cold weather can be great weather for flying.  Let’s talk a little bit about why.

When it’s colder, air molecules are moving more slowly and the air is a little more dense.  That means that you get more molecules in which to move the wings and the airplane responds better, even at lower true airspeeds.  Additionally, most normally-aspirated engines (like the ones in most training aircraft) like it cold because they like to burn thicker air.  So the airplane will generally climb more quickly and give you better performance than it will on a 90 F day in the middle of the summer.

Additionally, there tends to be less convective turbulence in the winter.  Convective turbulence comes from temperature inequalities over your flight path and those rising columns of air over farm fields and parking lots on a summer afternoon can beat you up a little.  If you’re like I was when I began training, I understood intellectually that the airplane was build to take a lot of jostling and that convective turbulence is rarely a safety problem.  But, all things being equal, it’s easier to do your initial learning in smooth air where you can concentrate on basic control inputs and maneuvers without being uncomfortable or having to fight the airplane as much as you might on a hot summer afternoon.  Temperature inequalities are smaller and convection is less strong in the winter, making for a lot more smooth days on which to train.

Additionally, you’ll see things in winter flying that will help you later on in your flying career.  Remember, you’re not going to be a student pilot forever.  Do you really want to see frost on the wings for the first time on a cross-country some morning five years down the road when you don’t have an instructor around and you don’t have any personal experience with it to know what to do or how to make a go/no-go decision?  Additionally, aviation weather gets a lot less academic when you’re trying to decide whether to launch in the winter with marginal ceilings.  Flying in it during your initial training will give you additional tools in your pilot bag that will help you make good decisions.  Part of the point of instruction is to fly with an experienced instructor in as many circumstances as possible so that you’ll see as much of the range of experiences as possible with a mentor at your side.  The chances are good that you’ll be fling in winter eventually, so why not get the experience now while you’re training.

Lastly, for all the benefits, not many people fly as much in the winter.  The upside of that is that the chances of both your favorite instructor and airplane both being available are much better than, say, a Saturday in June.  You might have the entire ramp to yourself and have your pick of aircraft.  Yeah! 

I don’t mean to suggest that flying in winter is a cakewalk every day.  I flew yesterday for the first time in 2009 after being weathered out of two prior scheduled flights.  (And I’m instrument rated and actually wanted to go fly in the clouds!)  Low ceilings, high winds, icing, and other factors can keep you on the ground more often than not.

So here’s what I do.  Schedule several flights about half again as frequently as you otherwise would.  Assume that a quarter to a third of them will be weathered out.  If you get to fly, that’s great.  Just cancel any flights beyond what you wanted to fly (although make sure that you do so well before the school’s cancellation deadline).  If you get weathered out, you’ll still have flights scheduled and you can keep up the pace you want.  Plus, there’s nothing like having a flight actually scheduled to keep you focused on it, make you pay attention to the book learning for that flight, and keep aviation on your mind.

If it’s cold where you are, take advantage of this opportunity to experience the benefits of winter flying and understand what it can teach you!  And, if you happen to hit one of those cobalt-blue-sky days flying in a high-pressure system over stark-white terrain with 100-mile visibilities, you’ll experience one of the best reasons to fly!

2 Responses to “Training in the Cold – Great Performance and Important Experience”

  1. Boy do you have it right! I finally got to fly today (Thursday 1-22-09) in an airplane I have never flown before - a tailwheel Cessna 152.

    Here in Michigan it is tough to find weather good enough to just tool around the sky for some much needed relaxation.

    Finally made it.

  2. Jim McSherry Says:
    January 24th, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Good points all the way. And let's not forget the joys of pre-heating aircraft (and why); of developing more enjoyable ways to clear snow or frost from surfaces; the new and puzzling appearances of terrain when covered with snow (puzzles most students).
    The scheduling tip alone may be worth more than the price of admission. More good reasons not to live in California!

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