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Flying Below Zero: 11 Tips to Prepare for a Winter Flight

With fewer planes in the sky, greater visibility (when the weather is cooperative) and boosted aircraft performance, wintertime is one of the best seasons to fly throughout the year. Of course, to have a safe, fun experience flying this winter, you should start planning early.

With so many variables to consider, from equipment maintenance to sudden weather changes and beyond, many general aviation pilots decide to forego the winter season. However, with these 11 tips, you can take the necessary steps to fly all winter long.


1) Know Your Weather Patterns

Whether it’s lake effect snow in the Eastern Great Lakes or dense valley fog on the West Coast, pay attention to the patterns your local area experiences. If you’re flying cross country, take a look at the weather trends for your destination several days ahead of time. The more you understand how the weather acts within your common flying zones, the better prepared you’ll be for any issues that arise during flight.


2) Always Conduct a Thorough Preflight Check

When wintertime rolls around, running through your preflight checklist becomes even more crucial. Always take this process seriously — inspect everything thoroughly as though an examiner is sitting there inspecting along with you. Things such as tire pressure, which tends to drop in cold weather, snow and ice removal and the engine cowling should be checked for any debris or small animals.


3) Watch the Plane’s Openings

Pay special attention to the aircraft openings where snow can enter, freeze solid, and obstruct operation, especially if an aircraft is parked in an area of blowing snow. These openings should be free of snow and ice before flight. Some of these areas include:

  • Pitot Tubes
  • Heater intakes
  • Carburetor intakes
  • Anti-torque and elevator controls
  • Main wheel and tail wheel wells, where snow can freeze around elevator and rudder controls.

4) Warm Up the Aircraft

It’s crucial to warm up the aircraft in cold weather, especially if it’s not being stored in a hangar. Watch for potential fire hazards due to faulty heaters and/or cords and do not leave your airplane unattended during the preheating process. Take care that the heat ducting is not blowing on flammable parts of the airplane such as upholstery, canvas engine covers, and flexible fuel, oil, and hydraulic lines. Ensure you always have a fire extinguisher at the ready during the preheating process to protect from fire.


5) Double Check Deicing Equipment

Before take off, always double check your deicing boots for cracks and cuts. We recommend applying a compound such as Age Master No. 1 to boots to protect the rubber from deterioration problems. Pilots can also use an ice-shedding product like ICEX, which prevents ice from gathering and sticking on boots.


6) Check Fuel Vents

Fuel tank vents should always be inspected before each take-off. A vent plugged by ice or snow can cause the engine to stop, tank to collapse and potentially other expensive damages that you won’t want to deal with in the middle of a flight.


7) Prepare to Operate on Contaminated Runways

Slick, snowy runways are the norm rather than the exception during the winter, so you should always be prepared to take-off and land in adverse conditions. Once a winter storm passes, airport crews will clear as much snow and ice from the runway as possible. Braking action information can then be found in A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) or from airport officials, which will be described as Good, Fair, Poor or Nil. When taxiing on a contaminated runway, it’s recommended to stay under normal speeds and to keep away from any tall snow banks that could clip the wings.

8) Prepare for Night Flying

Since the sun sets much earlier in winter, you should always take extra precautions when planning a daytime flight. When flying in the winter, it’s best to have experience piloting an aircraft at night, since it’s easier to run out of daylight. Sunsets and darkness can be detrimental to your safety if you’re not prepared, so make sure you have a plan in place for night operations before take-off.


9) Call Ahead for Cold-Weather Airport Services

Whenever you’re undergoing a winter flight, especially any cross-country trips, you should call ahead to the FBOs on your route to verify that their services will be available. Gas, hangar space, engine pre-heat and other cold-weather services can be crucial to a successful flight. But don’t assume that just because there’s an FBO on your route, they will be open and ready to service your aircraft.


10) Fill Up Fuel Tanks Upon Landing

if your aircraft has been warm and then is parked with half-empty tanks in the cold, the possibility of condensation of water in the tanks exists. When that happens, your aircraft could be subject to fuel contamination. While most modern fuel pumping facilities provide good filtration equipment and oil companies attempt to deliver pure fuel to your aircraft, contamination can happen, so be prepared.


11) Have an Emergency Plan

If you have to make an emergency landing in the middle of summer, it’s pretty easy to just sit around and wait until help arrives. However, when it’s the middle of winter, waiting for help in an unheated airplane on a cold, snowy night can spell disaster. Even the most cautious pilots experience emergencies, so always pack necessary survival equipment, including extra winter clothing, a fully charged phone and charged batteries for your flashlight.


Have Fun Flying this Winter!


Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you have to cancel your flight. In fact, with the right preparation, it can be more enjoyable to fly in the cold climates thanks to fewer planes in the sky, higher-performing aircraft and greater visibility. Plus — you don’t have to wait around for months to get back in the sky!


Do you want to learn how to fly? It’s never been a better time to start. Inflight Pilot Training can help.


We are a leading flight instruction company serving the Twin Cities and the surrounding areas. With a reputable training program and an extensive roster of highly skilled, certified flight instructors, we can give you the freedom to fly to the greatest destinations in the country.


For additional information on Inflight training programs, contact us today or call (952) 698-3000.