Winter Preflight – Be Prepared!

Today is the first official start to the winter season according to the calendar… Though I’d argue that “winter” has been here for a while in New England with the snow and well-below freezing temperatures we saw back in mid-November! Either way, the sky is always up there and our desire as pilots to go flying remains the same during the winter, though sometimes we fly less frequently due to the “hassles” of winter flying…

During the summer, it’s easy to cruise over to the airport, preflight the airplane and go, if anything some sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun out of your eyes is really all you need. During the winter though the process is much more cumbersome. First, as the pilot you need to dress appropriately which requires more, then the preflight is completed in the (sometimes) staggeringly cold, there could be wing covers to remove or frost to scrape and finally the aircraft may need to be preheated, or a block heater connected to heat the engine before attempting to start.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the very foundation of human need is physiological. The below diagram from Simply Psychology illustrates just that…


One of the items you can see listed in that foundation layer of physiological needs is “warmth”. As Maslow explained without satisfying the lower layers of the pyramid, humans struggle to fully move up the pyramid and enjoy life, meaning that until these needs are met humans cannot function at peak performance and focus of higher needs (ie- enjoying flying).

So what can we take away form Maslow when it comes to winter season preflights?

What a great question, I’m so glad you asked! When planning a winter flight, ensure you are adequately prepared. A pilot would not attempt to perform a preflight inspection of an aircraft for a night flight, in the dark without a flash light… Similarly a pilot should not attempt to preflight an aircraft during a winter day without the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The PPE utilized may vary of individual to individual, but I recommend you consider the following:

  • A preflight inspection takes some time, ensure you have adequate layers on to ensure you remain warm. Similarly, you shouldn’t overdress to the point where you are too hot and begin to perpetrate. There is a delicate balance here, you must be adequately dressed for the preflight then climb into the aircraft and go flying. I typically wear a hoodie sweatshirt (if it’s very cold so I have the hood if necessary) and a winter jacket as an outer layer. Once the preflight inspection is complete I shed the winter jacket and place it in the backseat of the aircraft, where it is readily reachable in an emergency situation and I wear the hoodie for the duration of the flight. There is nothing worse than flying with someone in a small plane during the winter when that person wears a giant puffy ski jacket for the duration of the flight and cranks up the heat. But I digress… Your individual approach may vary, but this layering technique works well for me.
  • Body heat is very rapidly lost from our heads during cold weather. Wearing a hat provides protection from the sun (next point) and will help to maintain our body temperature. During the summer I typically wear a wide-brimmed Tilly “safari-style” hat, but during the winter I will utilize a baseball cap, typically of one featuring the logo of one of my favorite Boston-based sports teams, and a wool cap that I can layer over the ball cap to cover my ears if I will be outside for an extended period. Thanks to the hoodie I usually have a third layer of head protection. This may seem a little over-the-top, but this is a well-thought-out approach that has worked very well for me to ensure frostbite doesn’t have an opportunity to set in on my ears (the likely place) during extended times outside at the airport.
  • The next point is sunlight, while the sun isn’t as strong during the winter as it is during the summer because it’s physically further away thanks to the tilt of the Earth, sun is still a consideration. I recommend a brimmed cap to keep sun out of the eyes, but I also highly encourage the use of sunglasses, especially if there is a snowpack on the ground. The ground is typically black (pavement), brown (soil), grey (gravel) or green (grass). But, during the winter once the snow has started to fall and accumulate, the surface of the ground is white, and very reflective of the sunlight, so during the winter your eyes are exposed to the direct sunlight and the reflecting sunlight off of the snow. The use of sunglasses will help to temper the often overlooked fatigue from light exposure.
  • Lastly, and likely the most important is the use of gloves. This is one that always boggles my mind, I don’t understand how anyone, regardless of age of skill level could show up to an airport to preflight an aircraft during the winter without gloves. The protection of our hands is vitally important, a good thorough preflight takes more than 10 minutes, and ranging higher for a more complex/ complicated aircraft. Gloves provide the very base warmth included in Maslow’s pyramid. Focus shifted to rubbing one’s hands, and blowing into clenched fists takes away from attention given to the preflight inspection. Similarly, I’ve never seen an effective preflight when the inspector spent the entirety of the inspection with their hands in their pockets… The use gloves allows for a pilot to complete a normal preflight inspection and check each of the same items in the same manner as a preflight would be completed during the summer without risking cold temperature exposure to the pilot’s hands.

The use of PPE is critically important, there is no reason to “suffer” through a preflight inspection, some simple planning is all it takes to ensure you’re protected. Not to mention, what if something happens and you end up in a farmer’s field or on the side of a highway. Having a good set of protective clothing and equipment will keep you warm while sorting everything out. Or, if you’re a flight instructor, what if you have to hop out and let your student go solo… You need to ensure you’re bundled up, it’s no fun standing on the edge of the runway watching your student in the nice warm plane while you aren’t adequately prepared to be outside, and you know, deep winter is when the day will be perfect and your student will be ready… Helpful hint: keep you headset on, they make great ear warmers! Plus if you have a handheld and an adapter you can plug the headset in and have it work too!

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9


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