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CHI Staff Takes: Winter Flying

Daylight savings has officially come to a close, and with nights beginning to dip below freezing and darkness arriving before 5 o’clock pm, the upcoming months come with a variety of adjustments for everyone. This is especially true for pilots as the winter season requires aviators to adopt an elevated level of diligence throughout each and every step of flying.

CHI's dispatcher, Elora, interviewed a few members of the CHI Staff and asked about their takes on flying in the New England winter. See what their responses were to questions such as, "what is the most important consideration to make when flying in the winter?", "what advice would you give to students about flying in the winter?", "what is the most difficult winter flying situation you have been in?", and more.

Question #1: What, in your experience, are some misconceptions students or pilots have about flying in the winter? 

CFI, Mikey: “They think they can’t fly. You [typically] see a huge downtick in the amount of students and the amount of lessons because of winter, and it doesn’t need to be like that. If you take the necessary precautions- you’re not flying into known icing conditions- then winter is good for flying. Pease; we’re kind of blessed here to have such an on-it facility because we’ve got the guard, we have Allegiant coming in all the time, jets. They keep this runway clear, super clear. People just don’t think that [the plane] will operate in the cold weather, but flying is really good in the winter.”

Chief Flight Instructor, John: “A common misconception is that winter in general is bad weather, but it’s not. Winter has a lot of really nice days like we did in the summer, just like solid VFR (Visual Flight Rules) days. Just like any other month, you have fronts that come through that bring poor weather and then after the front passes, you get a lot of wind. You still get plenty of nice days of flying. Some of the best flying I’ve had has been in the winter.”

General Manager and Pilot, Tad: “A lack of understanding about the improved performance. It’s a good thing; it’s not detrimental, it’s just that the airplane performs a lot better because of the denser air. And then I would say the different weather pattern and its effect on whether it’s a VFR day or not; it can be a perfectly clear day but not be flyable because the wind is just howling. It’s that effect of crosswinds in the winter and those stronger, gustier winds that need to be factored into that go no-go decision. The other piece is, being a large airport, snow removal can take a good portion of the day to get done after a heavy snowfall. It might be a bright and sunny day after 6 inches or snow, but you’ve got to check, ‘are we plowed out yet?’. First thing that gets plowed is the runway. The last thing that gets plowed is the GA ramps. So just be cognizant of that.“

CFI, Dan: “They just think we can’t. [They think] the plane is limited by it. The plane can still fly in the winter. It’s still just a basis of individual weather conditions, so we can still fly in a lot of scenarios. We can even fly in the snow if the conditions are right, but there’s no reduction from us in terms of ‘the plane can’t fly’ or ‘we can’t fly’ or anything. It’s actually pretty good weather to fly in usually.”

Question #2: What is one thing you enjoy, or look forward to, in terms of flying in the colder months? 

General Manager and Pilot, Tad: “Aircraft performance is much better in the winter, so it is a lot of fun to be able to climb at really fast rates and so forth. In winter weather, the clarity on a good winter day is incredible.”

CFI, Dan: “Less people tend to fly so there’re less planes up in the air so it makes it pretty enjoyable. Less recreational flyers. I flew with my buddy from Beverly, and we were flying around Maine for a while last year and… there were no clouds in the sky and visibility was unlimited. The air tends to be a little clearer. Depending on the day, it can be pretty smooth. And it’s just really fun to just kinda look out and all you see is white. So all the snow on the ground usually means there’re no thermals, so if the wind’s cooperating with you it’s like really smooth all the time.”

Chief Flight Instructor, John: “Fresh snow; flying right after fresh snow is beautiful, especially when it sticks to the trees. Everything is just white.”

Dispatcher and Pilot, Joe: “The days where it’s really smooth in the winter. Those are the days that I value more than the smooth days in the summer because in the summer it just happens all the time and then when you’re up there you kind of get surprised and you’re like, ‘awe it’s incredible’. The scenery is great but I like the aircraft performance the best; if you’re solo and you’re getting like 1,200, 1,300 feet a minute… flying is just better. I felt like I flew better in the winter months than I did in the summer months as a student and it will be interesting to see how far I’ve come flying in winter now, seeing how I see it now. This will be my first winter as a private pilot.”

CFI, Jack: “Something I look forward to is the increased performance of the aircraft. In the cooler months, because the air is denser, the airfoils have a much better performance. As well as airfoil performance increase, there is also powerplant increase of performance. I have not flown in the winter yet, but I’m excited to see everything snow covered… flying over a winter wonderland.”

CFI, Mikey: “One thing I enjoy is the stellar performance. Thing rips.”

Question #3: What do you think is the most important consideration to make when flying in the winter? 

Chief Flight Instructor, John: “To avoid icing. [That and the] sudden increase in winds after a front passes through. It’s caught me off guard a couple times. The weather doesn’t necessarily always follow what the forecast says so snow squalls and stuff like that move through pretty quick. Weather in general in the winter moves pretty fast.”

CFI, Mikey: “Being careful of icing conditions. Always look at your AIRMETs or SIGMETs before you go to fly; if it’s going to be a cloudy day you want to look at those airmets and really make sure that you’re not going to be flying into any icing conditions at any point. That’s definitely the biggest thing to consider. [Ice] reduces your lift by a crazy amount; you can’t climb or you’re descending like crazy and you can’t stop it. It always goes back to your preflight checklist, like, ‘what’s the environment looking like? What am I going to go get myself into?’ so always do your preflight for weather and make sure that your aircraft is capable and you’re capable to deal with what you’re going into.”

Dispatcher and Pilot, Joe: “How fast the weather can change and also icing conditions; understanding how much moisture is in the air and how when you go into icing conditions everything can just change up incredibly fast. ‘You won’t realize how bad icing is until you’ve experienced it for the first time,’ is what people have told me. The way that I kind of think about it is, ‘how close is the weather nearby? What was it forecasted? What was the predicted time that the weather would move in?’, and you could shoot the gap all you want and think, ‘oh, it’s not going to come here for another hour,’ but if you don’t know that for sure, you probably shouldn’t go up. I always just play it safe.”

CFI, Dan: “Icing conditions. You really have to conduct a good pre-flight and then also plan ahead. Look at weather systems that are coming in. Sometimes they can come in fast. Just the other day, down in Texas, a guy was flying a Cessna 210 and he was flying in icing conditions and he crashed and [the weather] happened fast.”

General Manager and Pilot, Tad: “It’s all about, ‘where’s there ice? Is there ice in the clouds? Where is it? Can I safely conduct this flight? And what are my outs? What are my plan Bs and Cs if I were to encounter icing?’. The alternatives are, ‘can I stay in the clear below it?’, in other words, ‘it may be IFR, but can I fly in clear air below it or above it? Can I climb above it before I get to it and fly over it and get to the other side where there isn’t any? Can I descend into warmer temperatures?'. In VFR, you’re generally not dealing with ice because you’re not getting into the clouds. So the understanding of where ice is, from an instrument standpoint, is critical to your flight plan. I’ve cancelled IFR flights because of icing, but I’ve also done quite a few where I went over the top. Forecast is one thing; when you get there and you’re in it, that’s what you get.”

Question #4: What advice would you give to students about flying in the winter?

Operations Manager, Tina: “[Wear] sneakers. Don’t wear big bulky boots. So, actually, last year there was a period where my landings were NOT good and I had no clue why and we couldn’t figure it out. As soon as I changed back into my sneakers from my Bogs, I was like, ‘I can feel the rudder pedals,’ and it instantly changed. It absolutely makes a difference, especially if you’re used to flying in sneakers, you should keep flying in sneakers. The other thing is sunglasses because it’s super bright, especially if it’s super sunny out and there’s fresh snow on the ground.”

General Manager and Pilot, Tad: “[If you see ice] do something and do something now. As your lift gets destroyed because of ice, the first thing you’ve got to be concerned about is the effects on the tail in the horizontal stabilizer and the effects there because if [that small airfoil] gets messed up, all of a sudden the control of the airplane... it gets dicey. [Also,] pay attention to runway conditions. Here they will give you a runway report, you know 555, 333. Understand what the runway condition report is; what 555 means versus 333. What does that mean? Beginning, middle, and end of the runway is the number and the number says what is the condition. 555 is basically ‘it’s wet beginning, middle, and end’, 111 means it’s pretty [unfavorable] beginning to end., and we can even get a 131 saying that ‘the middle is better by the ends [are not good]’.”

CFI, Mikey: “Being careful about icing. Dress warm. It’s not pleasant flying in a cold plane so dress for it. Stray away from [puffy jackets]. At least have a nice fleece and a sweatshirt on top of it. We were flying a piper when I was doing my Private in the winter and I had to wear gloves because the yolk would be so cold. You want to be having a good time and actually learning. If you're worrying about your toes being frost-nipped then, you know… I would say if you do wear gloves, or get toe or hand warmers, that’s good as well. [For shoes], wear something that will allow you to flex because you will need to be on the brakes and the rudder pedals.”

Chief Flight Instructor, John: “Be conservative with the forecasts that are available so if it says that the winds are going to be picking up 20 knots at 10 o’clock, plan for it to actually happen at 9 o’clock. End flights earlier than expected; earlier than forecasted times. Anticipate last minute cancellations due to weather.”

CFI, Dan: “[Icing] completely changes the stall characteristics of the plane so if you experience yourself in icing conditions and the wings are beginning to ice over, it starts at the leading edge and then it will go back, but you can’t use flaps. They advise, ‘don’t decrease your speed’. I know this was in the Cessna too, they said, ‘if you put your flaps down and all of a sudden you notice some changes, put your flaps back up and just land as fast as you can’. Literally and figuratively, get on the ground as soon as you can and then land at a higher airspeed because you’ll still have some lift, it's just at lower airspeeds. The stall speed will increase. In addition to that, just personal comfort; add layers.”

Question #5: What is your favorite airport to visit in the winter?

Chief Flight Instructor, John: “Duh... Alton Bay. You know Alton Bay on Winnipesaukee? So once it gets like18 inches of thickness of ice, they open it up and you can land on it. I went there a whole bunch a couple of years ago; brought pretty much every student I could get to go out there and land on the runway. You get out, walk around, they give you a poker chip that says, ‘I landed on the ice runway at Alton Bay,’ and the restaurant is open and stuff. It’s pretty awesome.” 

CFI, Jack: “I look forward to the ice runway at Alton Bay; getting in there with John.”

Dispatcher and Pilot, Joe: “I would say going to Hampton in the winter is pretty fun.” 

General Manager and Pilot, Tad: “Landing on the ice up at Alton Bay is really fun; super fun. You’ve got to pick your days, though. You’re on an ice runway, so your crosswinds are not good. I pick days where the wind is right down the runway or [there’s] no wind. You’ve got nothing in terms of steering control at landing and takeoff. They plow it but I’ve been there on days when it’s even difficult just to walk it’s so slippery. Rollout was okay, [but] it was taxiing that was hard to do because you had very little steering control. But it’s very fun.”

Question #6: When was a time that you were most scared when flying in the winter? 

General Manager and Pilot, Tad: “The worst I had was flying into Denver in a Cherokee Arrow. Icing wasn’t forecasted but icing happened; it happened quick and it happened a lot. So as I was approaching Denver, back in the days when Stapleton was still there, I took on about ¾ of an inch of ice on the leading edge of the wings and everything else. It was scary; it was one of the scariest flights I was ever on. [My dad was] sitting right seat and I was sitting left seat, thank god, because he worked the radios and I flew the airplane as we went into Denver Stapleton and the airplane became, you know... 1. Stapleton was at 1,500’, you know, you’re already compromised and the airplane was going to go down, one way or another. We shot the approach and one of the things you don’t do is lower the flaps in icing conditions because the dynamics of lowering the flaps and a compromised lifting capability in the tail can cause a stall, right? So if you land and you’ve really got bad ice, you don’t drop the flaps. So the airplane becomes very loosey-goosey in and out; you just don’t have the elevator control that you’re used to. You’re going to land a bit faster because you’re not landing with flaps and in this case you’ve got one shot at it. I had to do an ILS approach into Denver and it was tight. Shot the approach and got her down and made it off the runway, thank god. It was at night, too. We used a fuel stop in eastern Colorado and we knew it was IFR from the weather report, but in lieu, it developed over the front range very quickly and we were originally going to Jefferson county airport. The controller told us that Jeferson County had closed and we thought [it was] because of weather and so our alternative was south of there, Centennial Airport. A few minutes later, Centennial was closed. So ‘okay, we’re coming to Stapleton’. We shoot the approach in and then found out that night on the news that the reason those two airports had closed was an airplane had crashed at each one of them; loaded up with ice and didn’t make it and there was us. Little planes like ours had crashed because of ice. Scariest flight ever.”

Question #7: What is a winter/holiday family-flying fun fact you have?

CFI, Jack: “Around the Christmas months on Foreflight, there will be PIREPs, pilot reports, of sightings of the reindeer and Santa’s sleigh.”

General Manager and Pilot, Tad: “When I was a kid, we would get my dad’s airplane and we would go out looking for [Santa]. The airplane was 835Romeo [but] on those flights we were 835Rudolf. He would talk to Flynn approach, and Flynn approach would play along and tell us where Santa was, and we would go up flying looking for Santa Claus. It was pretty fun.”

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