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Winter Flying Tips

Michael T Vivion | Published on 10/12/2020

Winter Flying Tips

Copyright 2011, Michael Vivion

Winter is as inevitable as aging, and if you live in or fly to the northern latitudes, winter will present significant challenges to even the most prepared aviator.  That said-some of my most enjoyable and memorable flights have taken place in the depths of winter.

Let’s consider some tips to make your winter flying safer and more enjoyable:

  1. Dress for the environment that you’ll be flying over.This may seem intuitive, but more than one pilot has departed from an airport in relatively balmy weather, only to arrive at an airport that is locked up after hours, and where the weather is substantially colder/windier/raining/snowing.And, of course, the worse scenario would be an enroute engine failure, resulting in an off-airport landing.Flying in winter should dictate wearing clothing appropriate to walk around in the weather and terrain you’re expecting to fly over.
  2. Pre-Heat your engine.When temperatures drop below about 32 F, I apply pre-heat to my engine prior to start.While the engine manufacturers place the minimum temperature for start without pre-heat somewhat lower, I’m a firm believer in proper pre-heat any time the ambient temperature (or the overnight temperature if a morning launch) is below about 32 degrees, F. After all, the engine manufacturers are selling engines....
  3. To make that pre-heat really effective on an overnight stay or for parking your airplane outdoors for a few hours on a stopover, you really need to wrap that expensive engine in an insulated engine cover.If your temperatures aren’t really THAT cold you may be able to get by with something as simple as a sleeping bag or quilt wrapped around the cowling, but a good quality engine cover is both efficient and easy to keep in place in even the windiest of conditions.
  4. If you’re going to park outdoors in temperatures that may dip below the freezing point, you need to acquire a good set of wing covers.These aren’t intended to protect the paint from oxidation, but rather they prevent the buildup of frost or ice on the flying surfaces.And, don’t forget that the horizontal tail is also an aerodynamic surface, and should also be covered in frosty weather.
  5. Are you night current?The days are much shorter during winter, and in the fall it’s especially easy to forget just how much shorter the daylight is as we lose 3 to 4 minutes a day.Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of departing in daylight on a cross country flight home, only to realize mid flight that your arrival will be more than one hour after sunset…ie: Night.Spend a little time re-acquainting yourself with night operations BEFORE you find yourself on that late cross-country flight.
  6. Does your airplane have a winterization kit?Some manufacturers provide an oil cooler cover, some provide “winter fronts” to block off part of the air inlets.Be careful doing the Maguyver thing though, ie: creating your own “custom made” winterization kit.First, check for factory provided products.Modifying the air inlets to your engine can cause major damage to your engine and neither the airframe manufacturer nor the FAA will look kindly on such unapproved modifications.
  7. Is your airplane equipped with wheel fairings?Slush covered runways and temperatures hovering close to the freezing point can fill those wheel fairings with ice.Climbing into freezing temperatures will freeze this slush.Consider this factor when flying a retractable as well, and let those wheels/tires spin and hang out there in the breeze a bit longer in cold and slush covered runways to dry them off a bit prior to retraction.
  8. When was the last time you checked the lights on your airplane?How about the batteries in your flashlight (s)?See number 5 above.Checking the function of ALL the lights on your plane should be a pre-flight item, especially during these short winter days.
  9. Even morning and afternoon lighting isn’t as good in winter as during the summer.Often, we perform pre-flight inspections and secure our airplanes in marginal lighting during winter.Having a good strong flashlight is a great plan, even if flying solely in daylight hours.And, don't forget spare batteries for those flashlights.An old saying goes: "A flashlight is a storage container for dead batteries”.
  10. Speaking of pre-flight inspections, it’s really easy to conduct a slightly more “concise” pre-flight inspection when the temperature hovers well below the freezing point.Again, proper dress including good gloves permits us to maintain a modicum of comfort during the pre-flight inspection.And, the irony is that good pre-flight inspections are even more important during winter months.If you're blessed with a heated hangar, good on you.I found that my pre-flights were much more effective when we moved our airplanes from outside tiedowns in Fairbanks, AK to a heated hangar.And, they didn't take as wing/engine covers to remove/re-install.
  11. Is your airplane equipped with a carbon monoxide detector?If not, install one.Inexpensive replaceable CO detectors are available, or install a panel mounted electronic CO detector, with warning alarm.As temperatures cool, we use the cabin heat more and if cracks have developed in the muffler system over the summer, your first indication of this potentially deadly threat might be a screaming headache or worse.CO is colorless, odorless and deadly.I’ve been exposed to CO once courtesy of a cracked muffler, and I can attest that you really don’t want to go there.I was very fortunate to have survived that encounter with this colorless odorless killer.
  12. Do you carry survival gear in your airplane?You should-even if you never have to land off airport.Carrying some survival gear can offer alternatives when you weather divert to a small field with no services and everything is locked up.In the fall, I go over my survival gear and replace summer sleeping bags with cold weather sleeping bags.At the same time, I verify that my survival kit is up to date, change out a few "summer " items for "winter" items and ensure that everything is in good condition. Consider attending Montana Aeronautics Winter Survival training, which is offered each winter.
  13. I carry a Portable Locator Beacon on my person, along with a few items of personal survival gear, any time I fly.The latest generation of PLBs weighs practically nothing, and costs less than $300.In an emergency, one of these little devices can send a signal to the Rescue Coordination Center and get help on the way.The poor man’s PLB:Cell phone.That said, cellular coverage is very spotty outside towns.If you crash in town, you probably won’t need either a PLB or a cell phone.
  14. Consider equipping with an In Reach, or a SPOT personal tracker, a Spidertracks unit or one of the other flight tracking devices now available.The capability to communicate with loved ones and friends of your status, and to provide a data track in the event of an unforeseen diversion or accident can be even more important in cold weather than during summer months.Time can be of the essence with injuries and hypothermia in cold weather.
  15. When was the last time you checked your tire inflation?Aircraft tires are relatively low volume, and cold temperatures decrease the pressure in your tires substantially.Tires are the Rodney Dangerfield of the airplane world:They don't get any respect.I find frequently that tires are under-inflated, and it's hard to detect that visually, particularly if the airplane is equipped with wheel fairings.If your tire pressure is low to start with, flight into colder temperatures will lower the pressure even further.Very low tire pressure upon landing may cause a tire to slip on the rim and shear a valve stem.The result:flat tire and immobile airplane in the middle of a runway.If this happens at an uncontrolled airport near dark, you’ve created a real hazard, and in any case, it’s not going to be much fun getting this thing fixed in the cold and dark.
  16. Fall is a good time to check your battery.Frequently, a weak battery will limp along, right up till the temperatures drop a bit, then…."click"--nothing.A simple check of electrolyte levels and battery voltage is easy and is considered preventive (as in owner performed) maintenance.If your airplane is flown infrequently in winter, consider having a low voltage battery maintainer (trickle charger) installed to keep it charged between flights.All batteries will lose some of their charge between cycles.
  17. The end of summer is a good time to change your engine oil to remove contaminants and moisture from the engine.If you run straight weight oil in summer, you may want to switch to multi viscosity oil in winter months.The multi viscosity oil might just pay for itself in reduced engine wear and the ability to start that one time when your engine got a LITTLE cooler than you prefer prior to a start.
  18. This may sound silly, but sometime between the first hard frost and the onset of really cold weather; take the opportunity to thoroughly clean your windshield and windows.If you park in an unheated hangar or worse yet, outdoors, this might be your last chance to thoroughly clean that collection of bugs off the windows before spring.Also, your airplane will benefit from a thorough airframe cleaning before winter.
  19. We need to recalibrate our thinking about flying weather as we go into winter.While our biggest concerns in summer may be convective activity and low ceilings, winter weather presents very different challenges to flight safety.Icing is a very real threat; winds are often stronger and frequently gusty.And, winter weather systems often move faster and are more "energetic" than summer systems.As a consequence, we need to shift our weather THINKING to more of a strategic mind set, as opposed to the more tactical approach we may be able to get away with in summer flying.Planning a cross country flight of any significant distance in winter should include a good bit of planning well before the planned trip, and if at all possible, dates should be flexible.Remember the winter aviator's mantra:"If you’ve got time to spare, go by air".
  20. Finally, all that “survival gear” you carry in the back of the airplane is great, but only if you know how to use it, and you’ve verified that it’s really useful.I highly recommend taking your survival gear from the airplane, go out in your back yard in winter, and try it out. Worst case, if some of your gear isn’t as advertised, or your skills aren’t up to par, it’s a short walk to a warm spot.Much better to test this stuff in a safe, controlled environment than in the wilds.And, you can start a fire--every time, right?Practice is essential with some of these vital survival skills.





Some Sources:


Wing and engine covers:     

Alaska Wing Covers     

Aviation Covers, Inc.        

Kennon Covers


Engine Pre-Heaters:

Reiff Preheat Systems

Tanis  Aircraft Products

E Z Heat Aircraft Products

Red Dragon Propane Heaters

AeroTherm Engine Heaters


Carbon Monoxide Detectors:


Portable Locator Beacons:

McMurdo Fast Find

Kannad XS            

Artex Resq Link   


Tracking Devices: 

InReach Tracker       

SPOT Personal Tracker



Sunset/Sunrise, Civil Twilight Tables:

US Naval Observatory