Cold Weather Flying Tips for Pilots
Preparing your aircraft for cold weather flying
Oil: While the rule of thumb is to change the oil in your aircraft engine every four months (or 50 hours if you fly more frequently), it is imperative to do that before winter arrives. Check your aircraft manual to make sure you are using the correct weight for cold weather flying.
Batteries: Cold weather drains batteries by about 20 percent and extreme cold even more. Be sure to check your main battery and the others in your aircraft, including that flashlight in your emergency kit. Also, keep in mind that the cold can drain your cell phone battery, so that a portable charger may become in handy.
Engine preheating: One of the biggest concerns with winter flying is wear and tear on your engine. Even if you can start your engine cold, there are many reasons you shouldn’t in severe temperatures. Preheating the engine helps with premature engine wear since engine parts are made of different metals, which expand and contract differently when it gets cold. Also, preheating will help oil lubricate better, including the benefits to battery health, cylinder wear, and overall engine stress.
Most mechanics and pilots agree that in temps below 32°F, and definitely in temperatures below 20°F, you should preheat your engine. There are two options, a portable preheater or an installed preheater. You’ll need to weigh these two options regarding whether or not your aircraft is inside a hangar with electricity. You might also consider the climate in which you live and how often you will use a preheater. Cold in Texas is different than cold in Minnesota.
The first type, portable engine preheaters, sends a blast of warm air, usually through the front of the cowl, to heat the engine. This option is more cost-effective and but typically uses electricity or propane to run.
The more common type, installed engine preheaters, are more expensive, but they are convenient, easy to use, and can heat your engine more evenly. Both Tanis Aircraft and Reiff Preheat Systems produce quality block heaters that can be installed directly on your engine. Varying levels range from a sump heater pad to a complete system. Sump heaters are one way to preheat but have an increased chance of causing condensation as you are heating the oil but not the rest of the engine. That warm air above the oil can condense on your other engine parts. Installing a complete system with an insulated cowl cover produces results with less humidity and, therefore, less chance of corrosion.
Preflighting in the cold
Your airplane is warming up but are you? Don’t forget to take as much time, if not more, during your winter preflight. Be sure to dress appropriately, so you don’t rush the job, especially if you don’t have a heated hangar and are out in the elements. Take advantage of cold-weather gear such as down jackets, heated jackets, and gloves. Like any outdoor activity, if you are dressed in the proper gear, it is more tolerable.
Check your aircraft for any frost, snow, or ice, and be incredibly diligent of vents clogged by ice or snow. Look at your engine breather tube. As noted, moisture can be a bad thing, and this little tube that extends out of the cowling gets rid of water vapor from the engine. In cold weather, you need to make sure it is not blocked by ice to do its job.
If you want to experience comfort immediately after your exterior preflight, and maybe you have a few passengers in tow, Tanis also offers a cabin and avionics heater that can be turned on remotely before arriving at the airport.
Stocking your aircraft
Also, remember to double-check your survival gear. You can assemble your own kit or purchase a prepackaged one and add to it. You’ll want to make sure you have the basics such as water, food (think granola bars or things you can leave in the airplane), a fire starter, and an emergency signal.
You might want to add extra clothing for cold weather months, such as a down jacket, snow pants, gloves, scarf, and a hat. Consider hand warmers, a snow shovel, an axe to cut wood for a fire, and a large pot to melt snow. Putting a sleeping bag and small tent in the back is a safe bet too. You aren’t aiming to camp overnight, but the main goal is to be able to survive a night out in the elements.