Winter weather makes a lot of us consider hibernating until spring, but winter flights have many benefits including beautiful views and improved performance for your aircraft. Before taking off in severely cold weather, however, you’ll need to put in a little extra preparation to protect your aircraft and ensure a safe flight.
**Disclaimer: We’re covering the high points of flying in cold weather, but this article isn’t an exclusive list, but rather a few points to consider as you plan your flights this winter. Different aircraft, unknown conditions, and pilots with varying degrees of experience may require additional or different preparation. If you’re uncertain about flying in cold or freezing weather, it’s better to wait it out than take unnecessary risks.**
First the Fuel
Colder air is denser than warm air which improves an engine’s performance and airlift. This improved performance brings with it more power, and more power means more fuel usage. Before taking off, remember to take more fuel than you expect to need. Additional fuel allows you more options in flight such as climbing above clouds or steering around a storm.
Frost, Snow, and Ice
Frost, snow, or ice on your plane’s wings or surface areas or on the runway pose the most hazards to cold weather flight. While denser cold air may increase your plane’s performance, surface contamination can increase stall speed and reduce lift on take-off. Use covers for your wings and cowling if your craft isn’t in a hanger. You can also use a brush to remove loose snow and ice or park your plane facing the sunrise to increase the speed at which the ice and snowmelt. Many chemical de-icers on the market can eliminate snow and ice on your aircraft as well.
Before starting your flight, check the weather for your flight plan. In-flight icing offers more serious dangers. Most importantly, don’t fly into known conditions where in-flight icing is known to occur. If you experience unexpected in-flight icing, descent to a lower altitude with a warmer air temperature or turn around.
Pre-Heat and Warm-Up
Cold weather reduces the speed at which your oil moves through the engine after it starts. It also affects how different parts of your engine work. Wrap your cowling with heavy blankets to help with preheating. Allow for extra time in your flight preparation to warm up your plane.
Like our vehicles, our aircraft needs some TLC when the temperature drops. Before your first cold weather flight this year (and before additional flights) make a few checks first:
Test and/or change your battery
Change your oil to a less viscous oil
Add air to tires and struts
Inspect hoses and seals
For a more comprehensive list of cold weather operations, check out this article from AOPA. And never be afraid to ask questions from other pilots, the AOPA’s pilot information center, or your local or destination general aviation airport.