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Always be Prepared: Ways to Stay Safe During a Winter Flight

Do you dream of jetting off to the Rockies for some amazing skiing, or taking off to Alaska to view glaciers from above, but the fear of winter flying is holding you back? Flying in colder weather can be intimidating for pilots who may be newer, or simply live in an area where they don’t have to encounter snow and ice regularly. But flying in the colder climes isn’t any less safe, as long as you take the proper precautions and steps. Review the following ideas for some tips on how to stay safe during a winter flight.

Preflight Precautions

As with any flight in any season, a thorough preflight inspection is crucial. But being extra thorough in colder months is vital. Be sure to brush up on your aircraft manual’s requirements for operating in cold weather, which can help you identify any specific needs or considerations – like a special lubricant – for the aircraft’s equipment and operation. Also make sure you have the proper grade of oil for the temperature’s you’ll be flying in. Improper management of oil can lead to corrosion and rust, and fuel condensation can lead to contamination.

Deicing is a critical step for improving the safety of winter flying. Any residual frost or ice can be detrimental to the airflow around the aircraft, and can create serious safety concerns. If you’re deicing the aircraft manually, it can be time consuming, but you’ll want to make sure you are thorough – even when cold temperatures might make you want to hurry. If you’re using a deicing chemical, do some research to find out which substance is appropriate for your aircraft. You’ll also want to make sure you are thorough in applying it, and careful to not let the substance set into areas it shouldn’t.

It’s also wise to let your engine heat up for an extended period of time before taking off – particularly if you don’t have the luxury of storing your plane in a heated hangar. You can do this through either a forced-air heater, or an electric heating system, which you’d need to have installed beforehand. You can also talk with your local maintenance personnel at the airfield about tips for preparing your aircraft for colder months.

In the Air

Taking off in snow and ice can impact your run-up to takeoff, so make sure the runway is clear and adjust accordingly. While you should always be paying close attention to weather forecasts ahead of your scheduled flight, it is important to stay apprised of winter weather changes even in the air as it may affect your route or landing.  In the air, carburetor icing is a key consideration. This happens when fuel vaporization occurs and the air pressure drops in the venturi, which in turn causes a temperature drop in the carburetor. The vapor then freezes and can build up, restricting air intake to the engine, and reducing the engine’s power.  While this condition can happen in almost any weather, the risk of carburetor ice is higher in colder months when there is humidity in the air. You can attempt to head off this condition by using carburetor heat whenever conditions are likely for icing.

Landing and post-flight

Take extra precautions when landing on icy, slushy or snowy runways. You’ll want to try to rely on your brakes as little as possible, as the heat may melt any ice and cause issues if it re-freezes, and of course the potential for slippery conditions. Plan on a longer rollout to minimize the use of brakes. If you have a plane with low wings, you’ll also want to watch out for snow banks on the sides of the runaway. If you’re just making a quick stop before taking off again, be sure to cover your aircraft, as ice and frost can form quickly. Park inside a hangar if possible, otherwise utilize wing covers.

Other Safety Tips

A good pilot knows that they should always be prepared, and that includes packing a survival kit. This will look a little different for winter flying. Some items to pack include: a warm jacket, hat, gloves, good winter boots, sleeping bag, flashlight, compass, fire-starting material and matches, first aid kit, food and water. This is just a starting point, and should be tailored based on the region you are flying through. It’s also wise to do some research on winter survival, or even take an emergency survival course so you can pick up additional skills in case you need to battle the winter elements.  Another excellent source of knowledge is a certified flight instructor. They may have additional tips and recommendations for cold weather hazards, and their experience may shed some light on considerations or winter flight conditions that may have not even crossed your mind.  The bottom line is that flying in the winter months doesn’t have to be intimidating. Planes were meant to be able to handle the cold, but it’s imperative you as the pilot have the knowledge and skills necessary to help make winter flying safe.

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