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Winter Flight Safety

Story and photo by H. Dean Chamberlain
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

In preparing for winter flights, all pilots should remember what survival experts have said for years. Pilots should always carry a survival kit appropriate to the conditions along their route of flight and to always dress to be able to walk home in the conditions in or over which they will be flying. The same is true of all passengers onboard. For example, Alaska and Canada have specific survival kit requirements and restrictions for pilots and passengers that must be followed when operating within those areas or within designated areas. Even though the "lower 48" have no such requirement, a winter survival kit may be a good "best practice."

If you are flying from one set of conditions such as a cold, snow-covered area to a warm, sunny beach area or from a beach area to the ski slopes, you need to consider the needs of both areas for yourself and your aircraft. But to give yourself the best chance to survive your trip in case you have to make an off-airport landing, the most important instruction is to always fly your aircraft. A controlled off-airport landing rather than an out of control crash is your most important aircraft survival tool. Then, once you are safely on the ground, you need to think about the following.

The Essential 10

The list of items that some organizations consider the essential 10 items every survival kit should contain is shown in the sidebar. Once you have the essential 10, you can decide on additional essentials, based upon your local environmental conditions and how much money you want to spend or what other items you may want to carry. Some people will never carry any type of survival kit. Some will carry a very basic kit. Others will be very well prepared. To best illustrate that point, an Air Force survival expert made an important point at a safety meeting several years ago by asking the question, "Why would you want to carry one of those small reflective type emergency survival blankets when you can carry a real sleeping bag and be warm and comfortable?" I thought he made a good point. Why restrict or limit your comfort if you have the space and load carrying capability to carry what will keep you both alive and comfortable?


1. Compass
2. Clothing to survive most adverse conditions probable and some form of emergency shelter
3. Extra food and water (Note: Water is more important.)
4. Flashlight with extra batteries and bulb
5. Fire starting material, such as a candle or cotton balls covered in petroleum jelly, (35 mm plastic film containers make great storage containers for the cotton balls)
6. First aid kit
7. Sunglasses or some type of eye protection
8. Knife (Note: Big is not necessarily better.)
9. Map (A topographical one for your local area is best.)
10. Waterproof matches or other means of starting a fire

For pilots, some of these basic items should be in your aircraft such as a compass, map, and flashlight. Other nice to have items include some form of tent, bivy sack, or emergency shelter, emergency signal mirror, loud whistle, plastic sheeting and tubing for collecting water, needle and thread, flexible wire saw, safety pins, cleaning wipes, solar still instructions, fishing line and hooks, wire, space blanket, some type of rope or line, more than one type or method of starting a fire, extra water in multiple bottles or canteens so if one breaks during a rough landing, you still have some water remaining, appropriate hat and coat, windbreaker, waterproof raincoat or poncho, large leaf or lawn plastic garbage bags, bug or sunscreen lotion, a metal cooking/drinking cup or container to heat food or drinks over an open fire, toilet tissue, sleeping bag in a waterproof container, insulated sleeping ground pad, ground cloth, water purifying kit, cooking and eating utensils, soap and towel, insulated waterproof sitting pad, backpack large enough to contain the items you decide to carry, cellular telephone, aircraft frequency transceiver, handheld GPS unit, lots of extra batteries, extra eyeglasses if required, large handkerchief or bandanna, canteen, any special medicines, fleece or wool sweater, appropriate fleece or wool clothing for layering, shorts, notebook and pencil, lip balm, mosquito head netting, multi-function tool, small folding wood saw, one or two hacksaw blades, duct tape, mini flares, and some basic tools that might be found in your aircraft.

Hopefully, this list of possible survival items will give you a good starting point to develop your own kit designed to protect you in your local environment. Space, weight, and cost will determine what you carry. However, regardless of what you carry, if you don't know how to safely use and carry those items, you will not gain the most protection and benefit from those items. Nothing will save you if you don't know how to survive, but people have survived on practically nothing because they knew what they were doing and their will to live overcame their environment. Have a safe winter of flying and traveling.


Only you can determine how comfortable you want to be in case you have to land off-airport. Then there is the case of some tourists who took a helicopter sight seeing trip over a glacier in Alaska. They had to spend the night on the glacier after the helicopter had to make a precautionary landing. Then the rescue helicopter had problems. I expect it was a chilly, if not a down right cold, night on the glacier for some of the tourists. I wonder how many had thought to carry some extra clothing or some simple survival items in their pockets. How many times have you left the house to go flying without taking a bottle of water or a simple snack with you? The point is, you need to be prepared whenever you leave the comfort of your home to fend for yourself until you can return there. Some people have written that they had to survive in the wild after an off-airport landing with only what they carried in their pockets. (Their aircraft sank in water with their gear.) Survival may be as simple as not having to eat junk food at the local FBO on a late cross-country flight, or being able to sit out a storm at an unfamiliar airport, or making a precautionary landing along a deserted highway miles from anywhere without undue stress or discomfort.

Is Your Aircraft Ready?

Once you have the items you wouldn't want to be caught dead without, pilots need to think what items their aircraft may need for the local flight conditions. When was the last time you reviewed your aircraft manual for how to prepare your aircraft for winter and your local conditions? Is the recommended grade of oil installed based upon the anticipated local temperatures? If you fly in really cold conditions, are engine baffle plates required or recommended? Has the aircraft heater system been checked? Is your heater safe? If you use an aircraft pre-heater to warm your engine before you start it, has it been serviced and is it ready and safe to use? Do you remember how to safely operate the pre-heater? And what about your battery, has it been checked recently? Will it be able to start your engine when the temperature drops? Does your aircraft require any special lubricants in cold weather? If your aircraft has control cables, have they been adjusted for the change in temperature?

Have you reviewed the recommended safe operating procedures for operating on snow or ice covered runways? Do you know the regulations concerning flight in known icing conditions? Do you know the rules for pre-flight your aircraft when frost is present? Have you checked your flight manual for any recommended operating procedures for operating on wet runways in freezing conditions? If your aircraft has retractable landing gear, what are the recommended procedures for retracting the wheels in icing conditions? Have you checked with your local aviation maintenance technician for any manufacturers required or recommended maintenance procedure? And if your aircraft is not equipped for operating in known icing conditions, what is the recommended procedure to follow if you find your aircraft suddenly icing up? If your aircraft is approved for flight into known icing conditions, do you know the recommended operating procedures for your particular anti or deicing system? Have you read the latest FAA recommended de-icing boot operating procedures? If you have pitot heat, does it work?

Does your aircraft flashlight or flashlights have fresh batteries? After all, the days are shorter and more flying is being done at night. If nothing else, you might need a good flashlight to preflight your aircraft in the dark. Are you night current? Are you night proficient? Are you instrument rated and current?

Have you checked your aircraft's tire pressure? Have you checked for water in your fuel system? If there is water in your tanks or lines, it might freeze and cause you a moment of extreme silence. Have you checked your emergency locator beacon (ELT)? Has the ELT been inspected as required by regulations and is the battery current? Better yet, for a faster search and rescue response in case of an accident, you might want to upgrade your aircraft to a 406 MHz ELT. The reason is 406 MHz ELT alerts get checked out faster by the search and rescue folks compared to the more false-alert prone 121.5 MHz ELT alerts.

Passing Through

If you normally operate in a warmer area of the country during the winter months, are you prepared for cold weather operations in case you decide to fly in a colder part of the country? Are you and your aircraft prepared for the change in operating environment? Can you land and take-off on a snow-covered runway? Can you even spell ice and snow? (This writer is jealous of those who cannot spell either or who have never seen ice or snow.)

These are only a few of the many questions that pilots and aircraft owners should ask themselves as most of the nation changes to cold weather operations. I think it is safe to say that for those who operate year round in cold areas'such as along the northern tier states and in Alaska'pilots, operators, FBO's, and maintenance technicians know what has to be done to safely operate their aircraft in cold conditions and should have passed that information along to the new folks operating in those areas.

I think it is important that everyone should review their aircraft's operating manual for cold weather operations. For those who have not yet learned the lessons, and for those who may have forgotten the lessons, now is a good time to take a few minutes and review the books, both for your aircraft and on the art of winter survival. It is never a bad idea to prepare for a safe and prosperous winter season of flying.

The Dangers of Cotton Clothing

One important survival note everyone should remember is that cotton clothing can be deadly. If the cotton clothing (and you) becomes wet through such exciting things as landing or falling in a lake, river, or ocean, or while being exposed to rain, sleet, wet snow, or even your own sweat'yes, your own sweat'you may be in danger. Perspiration can wet cotton clothing enough to make you hypothermic if the environmental conditions are conducive. Whether the temperature is below freezing or is 80 degrees and sunny, but with a strong wind, hypothermia can become a killer if you are not protected. As noted, hypothermia can occur at any time of the year. The key danger numbers are both temperature and the wind chill index.

The good news is there are some things you can do to protect yourself. These include staying dry and out of the wind. Another is wearing the right kind of clothing. Wool or the newer synthetic fleece fabrics used in some types of winter clothing are the preferred choices for winter clothing anytime you are subject to hypothermic conditions or you are at risk of becoming wet. The reason is wool and the synthetic fleece materials can help keep you warm even if they get wet and still provide a degree of insulation. Cotton cannot provide the same warmth when wet. Nor can the best natural insulator and possibly the best insulator natural or synthetic known to man, down, protect you when it gets wet. Although down has many unique advantages, such as its great insulating qualities and its ability to be compressed into a small space, down like cotton cannot protect you from heat loss when it gets wet. Anytime you are wearing down insulated clothing, you need to take care to stay dry. If your flight takes you to or over areas or through conditions where you are at risk for getting wet, you may want to carefully think about what type of clothing to wear before you leave.

The Dangers of Fire

But of the two types of material that can help protect you even in wet conditions, wool and synthetic fleece, wool is the preferred material if there is also a fire risk. The risk of fire leads to our next safety comment. If you are one of those paranoid, white knuckle-type flyers getting on your average big commercial aircraft as you prepare to takeoff on your annual mid-winter getaway flight, you may want to wear a shirt with long sleeves and long pants made of natural fibers such as wool or cotton on the flight rather than the synthetic nylon or polyester shorts and short sleeve tops or shirts many passengers wear. The reason is in case of an accident and the resulting possibility of a cabin flash fire, natural fabrics will protect you more because they won't melt or burn like many synthetic materials. Natural fabrics may char and possibly burn, but the wounds they cause are normally less severe then those of a burning synthetic material that can melt into your flesh. Also, the long pants and long sleeve shirt simply protect more of your body. If you are flying your own aircraft and you don't like wool, now you have to balance the risk of wearing cotton for fire protection compared to its hypothermia risks if it gets wet.

Traveling Shoes

The final safety comment for any flight is to wear shoes that don't restrict your mobility in case you have to quickly evacuate the aircraft. Good walking shoes (with no or low heels for women) that lace securely are one style of shoe that meets this recommendation. However, shoes with extremely thick soles or cushioning, like top of the line running shoes, can actually interfere with your "feel" of the rudder pedals.


There is both a need to prepare yourself and your aircraft for the winter season if you live where it gets cold. Your aircraft manual and local aircraft maintenance technician can help you prepare your aircraft. Your local certificated flight instructor or FAA Safety Team Representative can help you prepare your piloting skills for the change in operating conditions. But the most important item you have to prepare is yourself. In addition to preparing yourself, as a pilot in command, you have a responsibility to your passengers to ensure their survival in the event of an off-airport emergency landing or accident. The question is, are you prepared to save yourself and your passengers? If you have any doubts of your ability to save yourself and your passengers, you may want to take an emergency survival course or at least read a few books on the subject. In any type of survival situation, common sense and a desire to survive are the most important elements in any survival situation. A good survival kit just makes surviving that much easier.


One final thought, although we have been discussing how to prepare your aircraft and yourself for winter operations and survival in the event of an accident, please remember you are also at risk driving to the airport or on any trip away from home out of sight of someone who can or would be willing to help you in the event of an accident in bad weather. There have been recorded deaths of people whose car broke down along the road in remote areas during snowstorms, who tried to walk to a nearby house only to die from exposure within sight of the house. As in an aircraft accident, if you are in your car or even on a snowmobile during a snowstorm, you must consider the risks of leaving the vehicle in search of help or shelter. The risks are real. In many cases the best recommendation would be to stay with the aircraft or vehicle until help arrives, but only you can make that decision based upon all available information. Although winter is a beautiful time of the year, it does pose some unique dangers. The key is knowledge and preparedness.


For those with access to the Internet, it has some great outdoor survival sites and various government sites contain more data than you 'will ever need. Also, several national organizations publish good emergency or survival type books. Examples include survival or disaster type books published by the American Red Cross, the Boy Scouts', and the U.S. Government. There are also many good hiking and camping books sold by some of the national outdoor recreational stores or those for sale on the Internet.

An excellent source for survival type information especially for natural disasters are those produced and distributed for free or sold through the Government Printing Office (GPO). Information produced by the various Federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or even the FAA contain some great information.

One U.S. Air Force manual I recommend highly is sold through GPO. Its title is "Aircrew Survival," Air Force Pamphlet AFP 36-2246, dated 1 March 1996. Although it contains escape and evasion data for airmen in enemy territory, the waterproof green spiral bound booklet contains some great survival ideas and data for all types of terrain. From building shelters to finding food to basic first aid, the book has it all in a size that is perfect for a flight bag. For those who may want to build a good survival library, GPO also sells both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army detailed survival manuals that go into more detail than you ever wanted or possibly need to know. Some of the data in the military manuals are in color to aid identification of select plants, snakes, and other exciting things in the boonies.

Another good source of data is your local state government. Local state data is particularly valuable if you are going to operate 'within a relatively small area. The bottom line is quality information is available either for free or for a small fee, the question is are your interested enough to find it before you need it?

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