A student of mine once set off on a one-hour winter cross-country with a cabin heater control that didn’t fully open.
He reasoned that he’d be fine since it was a sunny day and
a short flight. By the time he approached his destination,
he was so cold he could barely complete the pre-landing
checklist and was having trouble following air traffic
Cracked heat muffs can allow deadly carbon monoxide
to enter the cockpit. Consider putting a carbon monoxide
detector in the cockpit. The monitors that change color
are inexpensive and readily available.
For some aircraft, a special cowl plate is recommended
for cold weather operations to limit the airflow through
the engine compartment. Installing the plate will not only
help keep the engine at the proper operating temperatures,
but also may help keep the cockpit a bit warmer.
Always be sure to have warm clothes (including gloves
and a hat) close at hand while flying in the winter. If a
door or window comes ajar, even a fully functional cabin
heater may not be enough, and you may need the extra
thermal protection to keep flying the airplane.
One of the primary challenges of winter flying is slick
ground surfaces. Even at slow speeds, an aircraft has
considerable momentum, so proceed with caution while
taxiing on the ramps and taxiways, and look well ahead
to identify potential hazards. When appropriate, look
for clear areas of pavement over which to maneuver the
aircraft to maintain traction and allow braking. Watch
out for snow banks and berms as you do so.
A few extra precautions at the run-up pad can help
keep us out of the danger zone. Again, look for a clear
patch of pavement on which to position the tires for the
run-up, and pay attention to prop blast (ours and others)
to avoid loss of control…or contributing to someone
else’s loss of it.
Some of the same strategies apply to runway operations.
While it’s generally a good habit to always depart and land
on the centerline, there are times when it’s appropriate to
keep to one side or the other to take advantage of better
traction. Even hard-packed snow can significantly reduce
tire friction and braking action, and combined with
crosswind conditions, it may play havoc on maintaining
Soft-field takeoff and landing techniques can be helpful
in some winter conditions, especially on snow-covered
surfaces. Touching down softly with a bit of power can
help maintain control during the transition onto a slick
Finally, keep in mind that surfaces that are wet in
daytime sunshine can quickly turn to ice as the sun sets
and the temperature plummets. Look for a telltale sheen
that warns of slick surfaces, and test the brakes gingerly to
Once in the air, a number of our normal procedures
can benefit from an attitude adjustment. Some pilots
who fly retractable gear aircraft like to cycle the landing
gear down and up an extra time after departure to help
prevent the mechanisms from freezing. This can be
especially important when the runway is wet or slushy,
as the moisture and slush can quickly freeze when the
aircraft climbs to altitude, jamming the mechanisms and
preventing gear extension.
Remember too that the air can be considerably colder
at altitude, and the icy blast over the airframe can cause
surprises. One day, not long after departure, I realized
that one of the prop controls was no longer operable.
Although it had worked perfectly on the ground, cold air
blasting through the cowl caused moisture in the prop
control cable to freeze, thus jamming the prop control
in a high-pitch (low rpm) setting. The pilot of a seaplane
once suffered a similar—though more alarming—
problem when freezing water in the empennage froze
the control cables in place during cruise. Always be
prepared for the unexpected.
Many pilots adjust cowl flaps strictly by rote.
When taxiing in cold weather, it might be advisable
to operate with the cowl flaps closed to maintain the
desired temperature. In particularly cold conditions,
pilots will sometimes keep the cowl flaps closed during
climb, while closely monitoring the cylinder head
temperatures. If you’re uncertain about the proper
procedures, check your pilot’s operating handbook or
consult a knowledgeable mechanic.
In particularly cold regions, some pilots prefer to add
flaps early and fly a power-on landing approach rather
than pulling the throttle to idle on final. This prevents
the engine from shock cooling and ensures it is ready for
go-around power if it’s needed.
Perhaps the most important aspect of safe winter flying
is to exercise sound judgment. Mixing get-home-itis with
challenging conditions can be a sure recipe for disaster,
as the pilots of an MU- 2 departing Jefferson County
Airport (BJC), in Broomfield, Colorado, learned one
wintry morning. It was still snowing, and the runway
had yet to be plowed when the eager pilots attempted
a departure from Runway 29. As the airplane neared
rotation speed, the pilot in command lost control and
the aircraft plowed off the runway, across the taxiway,
and into a snow bank, causing substantial damage. To
most it was a no-brainer: wait until ground conditions
improve before taking to the sky.
Winter flying poses some special challenges, but
through careful planning and adjustment of our
attitudes and techniques, we can continue to fly safely
Robert N. Rossier has been flying for more than 30 years.
A former aerospace engineer and flight school manager in
Colorado, he spent 12 years flying for a small airline/charter
service in the Northeast, serving as chief pilot and check
airman. He has been writing for the aviation industry for
nearly 20 years and was the recipient of a 2001 Aerospace
Journalist of the Year Award.