For some pilots, that’s as simple as heading south to a warmer climate for a few months. For those who are stuck in place, cold weather prep requires more effort, but the dividends are exquisite. Any pilot who’s dragged herself out of bed too early on a winter morning knows that the still, frigid air provides a level of aircraft performance not found at any other time of year.
Before you fly
Some steps should be taken before cold temperatures settle in. Pilots living north of the Mason-Dixon Line change from a straight-weight oil to a multi-grade or multi-weight oil, typically 20/50. This is a thinner oil that is helpful in cold-weather engine starts and easier, faster spinning of the propeller.
Does your airplane have a winterization kit? Now’s the time to install the oil radiator cover that blocks airflow to the oil cooler so that oil temperatures can be maintained as you fly.
During the airplane’s annual, check the integrity of the exhaust pipe under and around the heater muff. Your airplane probably receives hot air for cabin heating and defrosting from a shroud wrapped around a section of exhaust pipe. Cracks or leaks could blow noxious fumes into the cockpit when you turn on the airplane’s cabin heat. Inspect the scat tube that connects the muffler shroud to the cockpit. It may collapse over time and prevent you from recieving all the heat you’re expecting.
Also, replace carbon monoxide detection stickers in the cockpit, and consider adding a digital carbon monoxide detector/warning device to your flight bag. A drafty cockpit is uncomfortable when temperatures dip, so during the annual inspect door and window seals for possible repair or replacement.
Does your airplane wear speed pants? If you anticipate operating on snowy or slushy surfaces, consider removing the pants for the winter. You’ll lose a few knots of speed—true—but you’ll avoid situations in which slush or snow collects in the pants during taxi and then possibly freezes during flight. That could cause braking problems when you land.
Warm and snug
Before any flight, you’ll need to warm the engine and oil prior to cranking. Trying to start the engine before the oil has been properly warmed could damage the cylinders. Preheating the engine should not be a hurried process. The more time you can take, the better—so if there’s a need to be somewhere right out of the gate, pay an FBO to pull it into a heated hangar for the night. Otherwise, be prepared to spend some time.
To that end, a hangar is the optimum home for an airplane during cold weather. It protects the airplane from snow and ice accumulation and, if you’re fortunate to have access to a power source, you can plug in an oil sump heater and cockpit heater to keep the engine and cabin from cold soaking between flights. Also, you can plug your airplane’s battery to a trickle charger every few weeks.
You say you have a hangar but no power? Bring the airplane battery home and charge it there. An FBO can perform a preheat of your airplane’s engine, but at a cost—and they might not preheat it as long as you’d like. A propane heater attached to a good-size length of dryer duct can make a serviceable, if not perfect, oil heater. Such rigs should not be left unattended.
Alaska pilots, who have sporadic access to hangars and FBOs, are known to drain the oil out of an engine and bring it inside overnight.
No hangar? We feel your pain. Few things are sadder than the sight of your airplane parked on a snow-covered taxiway with icicles hanging off the trailing edges. And few things are more aggravating than having to dig out your airplane from its parking space after the airport authority has plowed. But hey, at least they plowed.
Covers—as many as you can afford—can help. Wing, tail, and fuselage covers will protect your airplane and keep water from collecting (and freezing) on control surfaces.
While you’re paying all this attention to your airplane, do not skimp on your own preparations for cold-weather flying (see “Warming Up,” sidebar).
If all of this seems like too much trouble, remember that your airplane was designed to be flown regularly—cold weather, hot weather, and everything in between. The engine needs to be started and operated for an extended period. Climbing in, starting up, and taxiing around are not enough. Plan for your frigid flights and you’ll extend your flying proficiency. Why should we let Alaska pilots have all the fun?
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