Winter Flying Fun
By Dan Grunloh, Editor, Light Plane World
Welcome to 2011 and another season of winter flying for some of us. The photo for this column was taken after my last landing of 2010. With a temperature of only 15 degrees, my limit in an open cockpit without artificial heat was a mere 15 minutes. The calculated wind chill at my flying speed was minus 11 degrees. With the right equipment and attention to safety, winter flying can be a lot of fun.
It doesn’t take any special technology to fly in the cold. Everything needed is available from the snowmobile industry. Pilots flying enclosed with cabin heat are lucky and don’t need a special flight suit and gloves. The suit can last 10 years and the gloves might also if you don’t drop them while fiddling with the radio. I had to fly home with one hand inside my suit. Of course there are all manner of heated suits, socks, and gloves powered by 12-volt direct current or battery power. There’s no need to be cold while flying in the winter. I manage on a cheapskate budget by using the chemical hand warmer heat packs in my gloves and shoes. The little packs contain iron filings and charcoal to produce heat for 4 to 6 hours when exposed to air. If you fly only a short time they can be zipped into a plastic bag with the air excluded and reused at a later date.
Some additional care about safety is needed when flying at very low temperatures. Fly with a buddy if possible and take care to always be within gliding distance of a road. A low-level winter flight near sunset that ends with a forced landing away from any roads could lead to a very cold night if you can’t walk out. It’s the worst time to be using alcohol-blended fuel because of the threat of phase separation and ice crystals forming in the fuel lines. Find alcohol-free fuel at the website Pure-Gas.org, or burn 100LL if possible. I wouldn’t use E10 blend at cold temperatures unless it was absolutely fresh from the filling station.
Those of you that hangar at an airport with paved runway are lucky because most of us flying from grass runways are grounded when the snow arrives. It’s not practical to plow the snow on a grass runway. At such times, we can do our annual maintenance or build a set of skis for our plane. I have yet to experience flying on skis or landing on a frozen lake.
It’s difficult for me to avoid feeling a little envious of two groups of pilots. First are my flying friends who have installed cabin heat by ducting warm air into the cockpit from the output of their fan-cooled Rotax. Second are those lucky enough to be attending the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo later this month in warm, sunny Sebring, Florida. If you’re in the first group, please have patience while I zip all my zippers and get ready for takeoff. If you’re going to Florida, please send some of that warmth up here to the north for all of us trying to chip the ice and snow away from our hangar door.