By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This story ran in the December 2019 issue of EAA
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
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.
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
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
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
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.