Taking flight lessons is an exciting next step, but for some student pilots, it can be frustrating to learn how to fly in cold weather.
Student pilots who begin training in such places as Buffalo, North Dakota, or Alaska, may suddenly find themselves frustrated by the weather in areas where they might have grown up. (The average monthly temperature in January in some areas of North Dakota, for example, is 2 degrees Fahrenheit.) For the first time, they may realize that severe winter weather is not just a problem on the roads, but in the air as well.
Disadvantages of Learning to Fly in Cold Weather
That is why aviation industries in Florida, Texas, and California tend to thrive. For an industry which is as dependent on the weather as any farm, students who learn to fly in warm weather climates simply tend to have an easier time of it.
Learning to fly in a warmer, sunnier climate such as California means avoiding the nuisances and even dangerous situations caused by winter weather. Here are several obstacles which northern flight students face that Californians do not.
1) Snow Storms
In a nod to the major delays, accidents, and closures caused by heavy snow, the Weather Channel recently began naming major winter storms. This helps to emphasize the fact that major snow events can cripple entire regions for days on end. While airplanes can fly in the snow, the swirling flakes can severely limit visibility, and therein is the danger, especially for pilots who are not yet authorized to fly anything but VFR (visual flight rules.)
Even pilots who may fly instrument flight rules (IFR) are usually not thrilled with blizzards along the route, if only because heavy snowfall can make landing a nightmare. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules often prohibit student or recreational pilots from flying in such conditions.
Snow and ice turn runways, which for maximum safety should be kept free of any debris, into dangerously slippery landing pads.
- When a pilot hits the brakes, the airplane can take much longer to actually slow down and stop, as in a car, except that airplanes are usually much larger an heavier than most automobiles, which means the problem is exacerbated.
- Even hardworking ground crews struggling to plow runways might not be able to keep up with accumulation. When frustrated passengers find their flights heading into or out of a northern location cancelled due to snow, a dangerous runway piled up with snow is usually the reason.
This is rarely the case in California, where the average temperature is often not lower than the sixties, even in the winter months in many areas. Some snow might fall in northern and mountainous parts of the state, but it practically unheard of for it to touch the runways, making Southern California cities as Bakersfield an ideal place to learn how to fly.
Learning to fly in cold weather brings another potential issue: ice. Flying in icing conditions is one of the most dangerous weather issues a pilot can face. It is true that a pilot can be standing on the apron in 75 degree weather with icing conditions above him or her. At the same time, it is extremely dangerous to take off in icing conditions. Not only does this make for slick, ice rink style conditions on the runway, there is the possibility of ice forming on the wings of an aircraft.
When this takes place, lift is decreased and drag is increased. That is the opposite of what a pilot wants when he or she is trying to take off safely. The buildup of ice in other delicate areas of instrumentation of the aircraft can also contribute to an emergency, including decreased thrust or even an engine failure.
Those who have flown in winter weather have probably been on an aircraft that undergoes a de-icing procedure. This takes time and costs money. Even then, if the airplane cannot take off due to congestion at the airport or unexpectedly faster precipitation, the entire de-icing procedure must begin all over again, causing further delays.
Some jets have “weeping wings” which distribute de-icing fluid in higher altitudes. Others have inflatable boots along the wings to remove ice which has already formed, or feature heated surfaces which prevent ice from forming to begin with. However, these are not always available on the smaller, lighter aircraft flight school students tend to fly, and they all come with disadvantages, such as expense, lowered aircraft performance, and the inability to keep the entire airframe ice-free.
3) Low Temperatures
In addition to making for a simply miserable pre flight walkaround, learning to fly in cold weather means that the takeoff procedure can take longer. Pilots must sit with the engine while it safely warms up. Constant airplane exposure to ice and cold weather tends to age the airplanes more quickly than those which are not.
Repeated, extremely low temperatures can make for brittle aircraft components. Airplanes simply do not like cold weather. They need more care, attention, time, and money to keep them flying than in more balmy areas such as California.
4) Freezing Rain and Sleet
Freezing rain is perhaps the most perplexing winter weather to explain to those who are not accustomed to the wonders of northern weather and is probably the most hazardous. Although this dangerous metrological phenomenon falls as regular rain, it freezes as soon as it hits objects or the ground that are any colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Freezing rain is different from snow in that it freezes after coming in contact with the ground, rather than freezing before it is released from the sky. Freezing rain is particularly dangerous where aviation is concerned because it can look exactly like rain on the surface of the ground or on an airplane. Slipping is easy, either on the runway or during a simple walk to check on the airplane. Freezing rain is usually a no-go in aviation, even for airlines, because even de-ice fluid is usually no match for it.
Sleet is another downfall of learning to fly in cold weather. Although similar to freezing rain, sleet falls from the sky already frozen. Larger than the ice crystals which form snow, sleet falls to the ground as tiny pellets of ice. It is usually not as “sneaky” as freezing rain since it makes a distinct pinging noise as it bounces off windshields and the ground.
Mr. Matthew A. Johnston has over 23 years of experience serving various roles in education and is currently serving as the President of California Aeronautical University. He maintains memberships and is a supporting participant with several aviation promoting and advocacy associations including University Aviation Association (UAA), Regional Airline Association (RAA), AOPA, NBAA, and EAA with the Young Eagles program. He is proud of his collaboration with airlines, aviation businesses and individual aviation professionals who are working with him to develop California Aeronautical University as a leader in educating aviation professionals.