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Winter Cometh

by H. Dean Chamberlain

Reprinted with permission of FAA Aviation News

As you read this last issue of 2002, FAA Aviation News wants to remind those of you who have not prepared yourselves and your aircraft for winter flight ops, time is running out. For some, time has run out. For those of you and your aircraft basking in the sunshine and warm temperatures of the Sunbelt or the islands, please bear with us.

At the beginning of this year, January 10, there was an interesting search and rescue story that highlighted why each year we remind everyone about preparing for cold weather operations. According to CNN's datelined story from Purgatory, Colorado, 'A sightseeing plane pilot survived two crashes in the snowy Colorado Rocky Mountains after his plane crashed with two passengers aboard; he went to get help, and returned in a rescue helicopter that also crashed. All passengers on each flight survived.'

According to the news story, the two injured survivors of the Cessna 172 (C-172) spent a freezing night waiting for their pilot to return with help. The pilot had walked six hours through snow until his cell phone worked so he could call for help. Then while helping the U.S. Air Force rescue helicopter find the C-172 crash site, the rescue helicopter crashed. This was crash number two for the Cessna pilot in two days. The Cessna had crashed on the ninth. The helicopter crashed on the 10th.

As a safety magazine, we are commenting on this story because it highlights the importance of being prepared for winter survival, or in this case, the risks of not being prepared. CNN reported neither passenger was wearing winter clothing. One was wearing shorts. The aircraft did not have survival gear or blankets onboard. The reported temperatures the night of the Cessna crash were teens to low 20s. A member of the sheriff's department was quoted as saying any time anyone survives a plane crash, it's remarkable, but it's even more remarkable in the Rocky Mountains in the winter.

Like many accidents, the flight reportedly started out as a short sightseeing flight. We are using this story to show that no matter where you live and fly, even a short sightseeing flight can have dangerous consequences.

FAA Aviation News has repeatedly said that pilots and passengers should dress to be able to walk home from any flight. Since by definition, an accident is an unplanned event, this means every flight should include the possibility of a walk home. It may be a remote chance, but the chance exists as this case proves.

Some areas of the U.S., such as Alaska, have specific survival equipment requirements. Most areas leave it up to the pilot to determine what, if anything, to carry. Just like when driving your vehicle down an isolated snow-covered country road late on a cold winter night, it is better to wear your winter coat than to throw it in the back seat and depend entirely on your vehicle's heater to keep you warm. The reason is if you skid off the road and into a ditch injuring yourself, how will you keep warm when the engine dies? What will you do until help can find you? The same is true in an aircraft. If you can't reach your survival gear or winter clothing because of injury or you are trapped in your seat and can't reach the items, you are out of luck. As we noted in our article on desert survival this summer, you need to keep important survival items within reach. This is not to say you shouldn't properly secure them. The last thing you want in a crash is a loose object flying around the cabin.

One of the best ways to avoid landing out in the boonies or on a remote mountaintop is to make sure your aircraft is properly prepared for winter. Your aircraft's operating manual lists those things you need to do to prepare the aircraft for winter ops. From making sure the proper weight oil is installed to checking the battery to checking the fuel system for water'read potential ice cubes in your tanks and fuel lines when the temperature goes below freezing'to checking your control cables for proper tension to checking your oil cooler's cold weather operating requirements, you have a lot to check before the thermometer takes its annual nose dive. If you live in areas where the temperature has already headed south for the winter, you should have already completed your winter checklist. You did winterize your aircraft? If you have any questions about what has to be done to prepare your aircraft for cold weather ops, your first stop should be your pilot operating handbook. Your aircraft service manual also outlines the steps to take. If you have more questions, you should ask the maintenance professional who works on your aircraft. FAA also publishes information on winter procedures. An Internet web search can provide a wealth of information. Your local Flight Standards District Office's Safety Program Manager is also a valuable resource. Obviously, if your aircraft is relatively new, your aircraft manufacturer is your best resource. If you have an older aircraft, the type club for your specific brand and model of aircraft is another important resource. If you don't know how to contact your respective type club, most clubs, such as the Cessna and Piper clubs, are listed on the Internet. Another important resource is your local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter. Most smaller airport fixed-based operators have some type of bulletin board with local chapter information. If not, again check the web.


It goes without saying that frost and ice on your aircraft can ruin your whole day. You should never take off with frost on your wings. Aircraft wings don't fly well with frost on them. The same is true of ice. If your aircraft is not certificated for flight in known icing conditions, it is important to stay out of such conditions. Any time there is visible moisture and below freezing conditions, there is the possibility of icing if you penetrate the moisture. Although frost can reduce or destroy lift, ice's danger is twofold. Ice build up not only can reduce or destroy lift, but it also adds weight. Combined, both can make it difficult or impossible to maintain altitude or continued flight in aircraft not approved for such operations. Even those aircraft approved for flight in known icing conditions have limitations. In severe icing conditions, ice can build up so fast that the aircraft's deicing or anti-icing systems can't keep up with the buildup.

This is why all pilots should have an escape plan if they inadvertently start to pick up ice or the build up is greater than their aircraft can safely handle. Whether it knows the altitude of warmer air or where they can fly out of the icing conditions, pilots should have a plan. Part of that plan knows when to ask air traffic control (ATC) for help. Declaring an emergency is always an option. In reviewing accident reports, it is always better to ask ATC for help before the situation becomes critical, than it is to wait until it is beyond ATC's ability to help. It goes without saying; you need to know how and when to use your aircraft's anti-icing and deicing systems. In case of ice buildup en route, follow your aircraft's operating manual's recommendations about landing speeds. You may want to carry extra speed during landing if the field length permits.


Not only is it important to make sure your aircraft is prepared to operate in winter flight conditions, but a recent National Transportation Safety Board report noted pilots flying in mountainous terrain before official sundown may experience night conditions in the valleys because of terrain masking of the sun. This condition highlights the importance of being night current when flying near sundown in mountainous areas. Although sun masking is not a problem in the flatlands of the Midwest, pilots in those areas need to be just as night current because of the limited amount of daylight hours during the winter months.

Nighttime can be a very enjoyable time to fly for those who are prepared. Current charts, airport data including airport operating hours, knowledge of minimum altitudes, and a spare flashlight are a few of the important tools to have onboard for a winter night flight.

Instrument pilots who are current and proficient have an inherent safety advantage when flying at night if they are operating on an IFR flight plan. Their charts provide them safe operating altitudes and guidance as long as they follow the published procedures.


In addition to limited hours of daylight, another human factor element you need to think about is how are you going to do a thorough aircraft preflight. For those pilots with heated hangars this is not as critical an element, but for those pilots whose aircraft are tied-down outside, it takes a disciplined pilot to do a complete and thorough preflight when the temperature is below freezing and the wind and snow are blowing. The urge to kick the tires and jump into the aircraft must be controlled. Add in some darkness and the urge to just fire up the engine can become overwhelming.

Adding to this risk of trying to get out of the cold is trying to avoid a complete aircraft preheating which includes the engine and cockpit area. Failure to properly preheat an aircraft can result in additional wear on the engine, a chance to rundown the battery, and cockpit instruments not operating properly. In addition, some pilots may try to reduce their cold exposure by taking shortcuts when preflighting their aircraft. They may even decide not to properly de-ice their aircraft or remove all of the frost, snow, or ice contamination on it.

Although heated hangars are great in the winter, remember that moving a warm aircraft out of a heated hangar in near or below freezing conditions can cause any falling snow to melt which later might freeze if the temperature is below freezing at altitude. Controls may freeze or wheels may freeze up in the wheel wells. The same can happen if rain, water, or slush is encountered on the ramp or runway before takeoff in near freezing conditions.

The following are some things that pilots should be aware of when preflighting their aircraft in freezing temperatures. Pitot heat should be checked before every flight. Then there is the chance water may have frozen at some point in the aircraft's pitot system. You should have a plan in case the pitot becomes blocked. Although aircraft will fly with a blocked pitot system, pilots have had accidents when a blocked pitot system caused a loss of indicated airspeed. The old formula of power plus attitude equals performance will keep an aircraft flying when indicated airspeed is lost. The loss of airspeed readout is no reason to have an accident. In addition to possible pitot system blockage, pilots should check for possible induction air cleaner blockage. The air cleaner may have collected some moisture, which could freeze, and block the system. Carburetor heat, if applicable, and windshield defrost should be checked for proper operation. For those aircraft with embedded electrical wiring window heating, you need to follow the operating instructions to avoid damaging the window. As the temperature drops, you may want to give your gyro instruments extra time to come up to speed. This is why it is helpful to preheat the cockpit in addition to the engine. Finally, if your aircraft has liquid crystal instruments, you need to follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure proper cold weather operation.


If you are one of those pilots who fly between cold to hot or hot to cold areas of the country, you need to pay special attention to your aircraft. If you are planning on flying say from North Dakota to Arizona or Maine to Florida in January and you have winterized your aircraft, you need to remember to review your operating conditions before your flight to make sure your aircraft will not let you down. If you have installed a winterization kit, you may have to remove it. If you have an oil cooler baffle installed, remember to remove it to keep your oil temperature within the approved range. If you are flying from a warm area to a cold are you may have to install a winterization kit at some point. You may have to change oil depending upon the temperature operating range of the oil you have installed. These are only some of the things to consider when making a long cross-country trip out of your local flight area. You're departure, en route, and your destination conditions all need to be considered to make sure your aircraft is operated within its limitations.


Quickly recapping, you and your aircraft need to be prepared for winter flight operations if you live and operate in snow country. That means winterizing your aircraft, knowing how to properly start the aircraft in low temperatures, and updating your flying skills.

Although we could continue outlining things to do, we want to end this short article by reminding everyone of the need to be careful when landing on snow-covered runways or where braking is suspect. More than one aircraft has ended up off the runway when the aircraft hit a patch of ice while landing. Recently, in a discussion about how airports report runway braking, it was brought out how different types of aircraft and braking systems can handle different runway conditions. Just as in reporting turbulence, what may be light turbulence to one type aircraft may be moderate or severe to a smaller aircraft. The same is true of reported runway conditions. You need to be able to translate the reported conditions to your aircraft and its braking system. You need to have a plan in mind in case you can't stop on the runway. Knowing when a situation is starting to get out of control is the first steps in initiating a successful go around. The old adage, when in doubt goes around, applies.

Finally, if you get stopped on a snow-covered runway, be careful taxiing to the ramp. More than one aircraft has missed a turnoff and ended up in the grass or hit a snow-covered light fixture or snow bank along a plowed runway or taxiway. Another danger of snow-covered runways and taxiways is the fact snow can cover critical markings. In one case, a pilot was involved in a runway incursion incident because a hold-short line was covered by snow. The flight's not over until the aircraft is secured and your flight plan is closed. You did file a flight plan? An activated flight plan is your best friend in case you need help. Flight plans are free: Please use them.

It is a long winter. Have fun and fly safely.

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