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Tips On Winter Flying

by Bryan Neville
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Winter flying poses unique challenges for the general aviation pilot. Here are a few ideas to consider for a safe flight.


Careful consideration must be given to several areas before "Old Man Winter" actually arrives. Installation of winter baffles, removal of wheel pants, grade of oil, condition of hoses, clamps, fittings and seals, condition of batteries, and tension of control cables are all items to review before the cold temperatures of winter cause difficulties. The route of flight itself may prove to be the most important consideration. Do you plan to fly through a valley or over mountains? Can you follow a well-traveled road or will you chance flying across wilderness territory? The difference may only be minutes, but may prove life saving if you have to make an off-airport landing.


If you have or can use a heated hangar, your preflight will not be much different than in the summer months. If your airplane is out in the cold, you may have a tendency to rush your preflight. DON'T! If you park a warm airplane outside with less than full tanks, condensation of water may occur. Be sure to carefully sump each tank.

Preheat is a good idea not only for the engine, but also for the cockpit. If you use a heater be watchful for the danger of fire; have a fire extinguisher handy. Don't tune your radios before they have had a chance to warn up. Cold temperatures have been known to cause instruments, buttons, and knobs to stick or break.

Be sure to remove all snow, frost, and ice. If you cannot blow it off yourself, don't count on the takeoff roll to do it for you. If the aircraft surface is warm and you let it sit in falling snow, the snow may melt and refreeze and then this ice is covered with new-fallen snow. Always check.

During engine starting, there is a tendency to over-prime which results in washed-down cylinder walls. This can also result in fires under the engine cowling. This is not a pleasant way to start a skiing vacation. Read and follow the manufacturer's suggestions for cold weather starting. It's always a good idea to ask pilots who live and fly in the cold climate for ideas. After the engine starts, the use of carburetor heat may assist in proper fuel vaporization until the engine develops sufficient heat.


The need for braking and/or sharp turns while taxiing should be minimized. Taxi speeds should be slow enough to allow for every contingency. Skiing into a ditch is not only embarrassing but can also bend metal. Cold weather can cause "below sea level" density altitudes. You should be aware of engine power, particularly with turbo or supercharged engines. Don't over-boost. During climb-out, be aware of cylinder head temperatures. Because of winter baffling, you may need to climb at a faster airspeed.


Winter weather is very changeable. Always obtain a weather briefing and always file a flight plan. You should keep your radios on and listen on a commonly used frequency for your area. Flight Watch on 122.0 is always a good one. Flight following with center is also a good idea.

Carburetor ice generally forms in temperatures between 32 and 80 degrees F, if humidity is 50% or more. If visible moisture is present, ice will form at temperatures between 15 and 32 degrees F. Winter flying also involves the use of cabin heaters; be watchful for the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. And last, but not least, do not continue VFR flight into adverse weather conditions. The aviation statistics are full of pilots who thought they could. Don't become a statistic.


During descent be watchful for signs of carburetor ice. It is better to carry a little power during the descent. You may need to use flaps and/or gear to keep speeds reasonable. Be careful you don't descend into low visibility conditions, such as fog or low clouds.


Landing at a busy airport is generally safer because the landing conditions can be passed from pilot-to-pilot. Again, be aware that braking may be minimal or non-existent.


Some items to consider are: top off the tanks to forestall water condensation and install engine and pitot covers, wing covers (if you have them), and control locks.


Always file a flight plan and keep it updated. Don't file a round robin flight plan; it covers too much territory. Experts say that survival is 80% mental, 10% equipment, and 10% skills. Plan ahead. File a flight plan. Expect to be found. Stay dry, don't eat snow, and stay warm. Carry a blanket, a sleeping bag, a first aid kit, matches and a copy of your filed flight plan. Do all this and you'll have an excellent chance of greeting your rescuers with a smile.

Bryan Neville is an Aviation Safety Inspector at the Salt Lake City FSDO. This article is reprinted from Plane Talk, the FAA Northwest Mountain Region's Safety Program newsletter.

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