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Keeping Your Cool in the Cold - Making the Most of Winter Flying Opportunities

Source:, By Paul Cianciolo

If you’ve decided to fly this winter — and not flee or fold up shop — then it’s time to dig your airplane out of the snow and give it a good checkup. Here are some tips to help you and your airplane bear the cold and have a safe winter flying season.

Silent but Deadly

Since you’ll likely be using more of your cabin heater this time of year (the predominant source of carbon monoxide (CO) contamination), be sure to thoroughly inspect your CO detector. If you use a chemical spot CO detector, check its expiration date. Once unwrapped, these simple life-saving devices typically only last three to 18 months depending on the brand. Even if still in the original packaging, it will expire after a few years.

“Heaters require special attention,” explains Peter Wilhelmson, an airworthiness aviation safety inspector with the FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam). “Components such as combustion liners, air pressure switches, and fuel regulator valves have been known to be problematic and have resulted in FAA issuing airworthiness directives (ADs) as corrective measures. You should know if an AD applies to the combustion heater installed on the aircraft you are working on or flying.”

Since you are checking that heater, have a look at the battery as well. Although winter normally reduces cranking power, a healthy aircraft battery should only need charging after several weeks of disuse. When in doubt, have it tested. And don’t forget that Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 43, Appendix A, allows pilots to do some preventive maintenance on batteries, including replacing and servicing.

In Liquid State

Another possible contributor to poor battery performance is your engine oil. Oil that’s too thick will keep your engine from starting in cold weather because it challenges your battery and starter motor to spin the engine fast enough for it to fire. Engine preheaters might help, but you may also need to change to an oil better suited for cold weather operations. Check your aircraft manual for specifics.

The other important liquid to consider is your fuel. Some aircraft require special fuel additives, which change the low temperature characteristics of the fuel. Check with the manufacturer to see what’s recommended. There is also a greater risk of water condensation in the aircraft fuel tanks during winter, so drain fluid from all water drains — yes, all of the drains. It may be cold outside, but this is not the time to skip this vital check.

Keep it Clean

Before any flight, clean off all frost, snow, and ice from the aircraft. Use a soft broom or snowbrush to remove snow — or better yet, use clean towels/rags to prevent scratching the paint by accident. The best way to melt frost or ice is inside a warm hangar for an hour. However, if that is not an option, spray the aircraft with an approved deicing fluid. Do not use automobile anti-freeze to deice your aircraft — it has a different chemical consistency and application requirement. Remember that frost, ice, or snow the thickness of sandpaper can reduce lift by 30 percent and drag by 40 percent.

As stated in one of its safety alerts, the NTSB “believes strongly that the only way to ensure that the wing is free from critical contamination is to touch it with your bare skin.” Physically check if the wing is simply wet or if it has a thin film of ice on it. Have gloves handy to keep your hands warm after your inspection.

If you just returned from a flight and are about to depart again, check for newly formed frost or clear ice over the wings, even if the temperature on the ground is above freezing. The wings may still be below freezing due to “cold soaked” fuel tanks from flying where the air is much colder.

Once you start moving in your aircraft, you don’t want to undo all the work you did to clean it off. Taxi slowly to avoid throwing up snow and slush into the wheel wells and onto aircraft surfaces. Taking it slow is also safer. You have more response time in case the tires decide to slide on an icy patch.

“Remove the airplane’s wheelpants if equipped,” notes Jay Flowers, FAASTeam program manager at the Fargo Flight Standards District Office. “Slush and ice can collect inside the wheel pant and freeze the brakes to the rotors making for an interesting landing with wheels that won’t spin. Removal of the wheelpants will also allow you a clearer view to inspect tire condition and the possibility of leaking fluid.”

Once in the air, if you see ice forming anywhere on the aircraft, get out of the icing conditions as soon as possible. Depending on where warmer air may exist, this might mean climbing to a higher altitude. If you do notice ice, pay close attention to your airspeed. As little as a 1/4 inch of leading-edge ice can increase the stall speed 25-40 knots.

Finally, avoid flying at cloud tops. The concentration of water droplets is often greatest near the top of the cloud and ice could build up quickly.

Watch Your Rear

Did you know that the tail section of an aircraft typically builds up ice three to six times faster than the wings? This is due to the sharp-edged surfaces that are more susceptible to collecting ice. And since the tail is often out of sight on many aircraft, ice buildup there can easily go unnoticed. Be sure to refer to your aircraft flight manual (AFM) or pilot’s operating handbook (POH) for more on the hazards of tail ice and any specific procedures your aircraft manufacturer recommends.

If you’re using an autopilot, be aware that it could mask some of the symptoms of ice accumulation (both tail and wing). Be on the lookout for abnormal elevator effectiveness and vibrations, a sudden nose-down pitch, and/or the autopilot performing excessive pitch trim.

Playing it Safe

If you experience icing, notify ATC so that others may be warned. If you are in trouble, ask for help and squawk 7700 to make it easier for ATC to pinpoint your location and help get you out of the icing conditions and land safely.

Winter may offer the best air for flying, but it also presents its own set of challenges. The most important thing to remember is that there is no such thing as a little ice.

Learn More

FAASTeam Pamphlet: Winter Flying Tips -

FAASTeam Course ALC-33: Inflight Icing -

Paul Cianciolo is an assistant editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and a rated aircrew member and search and rescue team leader with the Civil Air Patrol.

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