Winterization

With Halloween and the end of Daylight Savings Time closing in, it’s time to start getting my plane, my house, and myself ready for the winter. A lot of pilots put their planes away until spring but I like to keep mine up in the air year-round — after all, that’s one thing we pilots can lord over the boaters, who get maybe 3-4 months of use. Still, winter flying is a challenge in Ottawa, a city where it’s not unusual for winter temperatures to dip below -30 degC, especially since my plane is tied-down outside year round.

Winterizing the House

Winterizing a house in central Canada means disconnecting the hose and turning off the outside water tap (otherwise the pipe can freeze and rupture), putting up storm windows, adding new weather stripping under the doors, changing the furnace air filter, getting out the shovels and sand and salt, putting away the lawn and porch furniture, and making sure all the fire and CO detectors work. It’s really the first of the pre-Christmas rituals: when I’m putting up the storms, I find myself starting to think about what presents I’m going to buy people, and I start deciding that maybe it won’t be so bad hearing tinny, piped-in mall Christmas muzak after all.

Winterizing Myself

Winterizing a person is a bit of a different kind of challenge. Of course, you start by putting away all the summer clothes, the thin pants and shirts, the shorts, and so on, and pulling out the sweaters and thick chinos. The thick winter coats, boots, hats and mittens come out of the basement and up into the coat closet, replacing the rain coats, rain boots, and umbrellas of the summer. For the last couple of years, however, winterization has also meant spending 10-15 minutes every morning in front of a home light therapy lamp, to help my body and brain get going with the shorter, dimmer daylight that we have to live with until spring: I decided that I don’t want to drag myself through any more winters with a fuzzy brain and heavy limbs.

This year, however, I’m adding something new: I managed to start running again last spring, and this time, I don’t want to have to give it up for the winter. I’m still running in the early morning, before sunrise, but plan on switching to early afternoon in November to take advantage of the extra warmth. To help me through the cold temperatures, I paid a visit to the Running Room and spent way too much money on layers of winter running clothing. So far, I have not had to deal with temperatures below 0 degC, but I really want to make it all the way through to spring this time. I find myself running shorter distances, slower, than I was in the summer, but as long as I keep moving, I’ll be happy.

Winterizing the Plane

Tomorrow I’ll bring the plane into the shop for some winter preparations. With multigrade oils, it’s no longer necessary to change to a different oil type for winter flying, and my muffler shroud has already been inspected for potential carbon monoxide leaks into the cabin heater (an annual inspection is mandatory in Canada), but I have two big problems that will make winter flying more than a bit unpleasant: my heater is jammed off, and my pilot-side floor vent is jammed open. I have flown with outside air temperatures as low as -37 degC; at full blast my heater can just barely keep the plane warm under those conditions; I don’t want to imagine it with the heater off and cold air blowing on my feet.

Most pilots also remove their wheel fairings for the winter. The official reason for doing so is to avoid having hidden ice build up inside, adding weight and throwing off the plane’s balance, but I think the main justification is that it’s just too hard to keep the tires inflated with the fairings in the way when it’s so cold out: who wants to take off mittens and fiddle with the valve underneath the fairing? I’ll probably take my fairings off again this winter and learn to live without the extra 7 knots that they provide.

Winter flying can be fun. The air is often brilliantly clear (compared to the soupy muck we get in the other three seasons), takeoff and climb performance is awe-inspiring, and airports are not crowded: sometimes you can fly into a largish airport like North Bay and find out that you’re their first 100LL fuel sale in three or four days. One big advantage of the cold up here is that it’s often too cold for aircraft icing, so it becomes reasonably safe to fly in cloud again: the most dangerous times for aircraft icing are October and April, not January or February. And sitting snug in a warm cockpit looking out at the brilliant frozen winter landscape underneath is awe-inspiring.

On the other hand, like winter running, winter flying means spending more time to do less. Taking covers off the wings, stabilator, cowling, and canopy before every flight and then putting them back on afterwards adds at least 15 minutes to every trip (more in a strong wind). Once the temperature is below about -5 degC, I have to remember to call the night before to have my engine heater plugged in, or else wait for 20 minutes while the Hermann Nelson kerosene heater blows hot air under my cowling. Sometimes, especially when I’m planning a family trip, I’ll have the plane towed into the club’s heater hangar overnight so that we can preflight and load up inside, but that often means an extra half hour before planes can be rearranged and the door opened. There are also other unexpected surprises, like finding out that the snow hasn’t been plowed off the apron.

Winter flying also means winterizing the pilot. I always dress so that I’ll be comfortable making a two-hour walk through the woods, and still alive after a night out there: in addition to a thermal base layer, extra socks, waterproof overpants, thick boots, hat, mitts, scarf, etc. I carry a solar blanket, and can also use my cowling cover as an insulated blanket. There’s a small hatchet (CAD 5.00 at Canadian Tire) for cutting firewood or smashing a window to get out of the plane, and a waterproof package full of matches, since my flint-striking and stick-spinning skills are…well, non existant. A big advantage of dressing that way is that I’m comfortably warm outside while preflighting the plane, except when I have to remove a mitten to check the fuel or oil. When I’m warm, I’m not tempted to rush the preflight even with a temperature of -25 or -30 degC and a wind whipping across the airport. Unfortunately, all those layers leave me feeling like a Malaria sufferer about 5 minutes after I enter a heated building, so I have the extra hassle of changing back and forth to remove the thermal underlayers.

Still, with all of that, I will be flying again for this, my third winter in the air, hopefully with the floor vent closed and the heater running nice and hot.

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About David Megginson

Scholar, tech guy, Canuck, open-source/data/information zealot, urban pedestrian, language geek, tea drinker, pater familias, red tory, amateur musician, private pilot.
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