By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This story ran in the December 2019 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.
I can only imagine the scene right now at the North Pole. The elves are busy with the annual inspection of Santa’s sleigh, poring through lists of squawks, service bulletins, and airworthiness directives and hurriedly spinning wrenches in preparation for the upcoming cold-weather endurance run on December 24. Mrs. Claus is likely making repairs to Santa’s suit, ensuring there are no rips or tears that might inappropriately ventilate ol’ St. Nick. And Santa himself is poring over his navigational charts, making careful note of any temporary flight restrictions and drone activity that could pose a hazard on a busy night flight.
As the Earth tilts us into the winter season, we also need to prepare for the coming chill. That means making sure we’re proficient and mentally armed for any surprises that can pop out of nowhere.
As the days grow shorter, it’s time to think about our night currency. According to the regulations, that means three takeoffs and landings to a complete stop within the preceding 90 days. If we fly more than one category of aircraft (e.g., single and twin), we need to establish currency in each category. In other words, currency in one category doesn’t translate to another category.
Although those three takeoffs and full-stop landings may make us legally current, a bit more plays into our true proficiency. We need to be acclimated to the night environment and comfortable with night operations, so a review of various night flight topics is in order.
Pilot-controlled lighting has got to be one of the greatest resources we have as pilots. It is such a joy to click the mic button (three, five, or seven times for low, medium, and high intensity, respectively) and have an airport suddenly and seemingly magically appear out of the darkness. For the most part, pilot-controlled lighting is activated on an airport’s UNICOM frequency, but not always. In some obscure cases — and likely because of the same frequency being used nearby — the pilot-controlled lighting will be on a different frequency entirely. Our GPS might alert us to that fact, or we might need to check the Chart Supplement (formerly the Airport/Facility Directory, or AFD) or another aviation resource to find the right frequency. This is best done while flight planning and not while flying in circles looking for an airport on a dark and moonless night.
Night illusions are another consideration with which we need to be familiar. Oftentimes a row of lights along a highway can create the illusion of looking at a horizon. Stationary lights we stare at can appear to suddenly move, creating the illusion of another aircraft — an illusion we call autokinesis. The lights of a runway surrounded by darkened terrain and viewed from a distance can create the illusion that we are much closer to the airport than we really are — the black hole approach illusion. The twinkling of the runway lights on final approach might not be an illusion at all, but may rather be caused by treetops located between us and the runway — a clear indication that we’re way too low.
Since night can bring some surprises in terms of visual references and visibility, it’s also good to sharpen our skills in the flight by reference to instruments. Even for those non-instrument-rated pilots, having the ability to comfortably fly by reference to instruments can be a lifesaver when night surprises overtake us.
Winter can pack a punch even in daylight conditions, and that means some additional skill polishing is in order. Along with winter conditions come frequent high winds and turbulence, which means we should be proficient with crosswinds and wind shear for landings. An hour or so of practice on a windy day, perhaps with our favorite instructor, is not a bad way to scrape off the rust and hone those skills.
Other skills to consider are those needed for soft takeoffs and landings, which might be helpful in snowy or slushy runway conditions. Here again, a bit of practice goes a long way in renewing the skills if we haven’t used them for a while.
Trouble in Mind
As the icy winter winds begin to blow across the polar ice cap, it’s time to recalibrate our situational awareness to the shorter days, cold conditions, and the trouble they can cause us if we’re not tuned in and paying attention.
The first place to start is with taxi procedures. Winter conditions often don’t mix well with excess taxi speed and can result in an unplanned departure from the pavement if it happens to be coated with an icy glaze or hard-packed snow. We also need to be aware of snowbanks while taxiing, especially if we’re in a low-wing aircraft. At night, we can easily see the snow-packed portions of the taxiway, and the sheen of ice-glazed tarmac can also be readily identified. Both are worthy of our full attention.
When it comes to the runup, we again need to pay attention to the surface conditions. I once saw a Cessna 182 end up stuck in a snowbank when it started to slide during the runup. Picking the right spot — hopefully a clear piece of pavement — can be essential if we want to remain stationary during the runup. Another time, I watched a Piper Cherokee get blown off the taxiway by an aircraft performing a runup. Caution is due for everyone when operating on slick winter surfaces.
Clearly, the cautionary warnings of slick surfaces translate to the runway itself. Many pilots have been unable to remain on the runway during takeoff or landing due to icy or snow-packed conditions. The maximum demonstrated crosswind capabilities we find in the pilot’s operating handbook were not determined by a pilot negotiating slick runway conditions, so we need an added measure of caution when such conditions prevail.
We also need to recognize that conditions can vary dramatically between day and night. Bright sun on pavement can cause snowmelt that suddenly turns to black ice when temperatures drop after sunset. Likewise, slushy conditions can turn to icy ruts that pull us in unplanned directions after dark.
In the winter, we need to be ready for just about anything. A fellow flight instructor with a student in a Cessna 152 ended up with a couple of flat tires one day when the wet snow and slush became packed in the wheel skirts and froze solid when at altitude, locking the tires in place. Another pilot experienced a loss of elevator control when the control cables froze in a block of ice that formed in the empennage during cruise flight. Then there was the pilot who didn’t realize ice had melted and flowed into the aileron, refreezing into a solid block that unbalanced the flight control. The result was the onset of flutter, which nearly turned deadly. While flying a light twin on a particularly cold day, I had the prop control freeze in place due to moisture that had accumulated in the cable.
I’m sure that the elves have seen and heard it all and that their preparations will serve Santa well. But I’m going to check for TFRs as well as any pilot reports of unusual activities and sightings. I sure wouldn’t want to get hit by a falling box of frozen Legos. Merry Christmas and safe flying to all.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.