The profoundly concerned TV meteorologist warned of dangerously cold temperatures sweeping across the Midwest, conjuring Dr. Zhivago images of Cossacks on horseback and Lara Guishar in her Ice Palace with Omar Sharif to keep her warm and free from reality. A nice try to glam up winter, but it failed. I despise the season. Hate the snow, ice and reporters feigning shock that it gets cold in Iowa in January. Except for Bing Crosby music a few days in December when single-malt flows freely at any temperature, winter holds no appeal for me. Bah!
Pilots further north pretend to enjoy the cold, strutting about as they do in their EAA lederhosen when it’s 15 below, before climbing into Cubs, Champs and T-crates to skitter across concrete-hard lakes, dodging ice-fishing houses and reporters taping breathless exclusives about winter wonderland whadda-whadda-whadda, back to you, Kimberly.
“Do you put your Aeronca Champ on skis?” I’ve been asked every year for more than 35 since that fateful day I left California, and where I used to reply, “Not yet,” I now answer, “Right after I install the Polar Vortex Generators.” I’ve flown on skis. It’s fun in a FAA-approved way that requires no additional certification or training (kinda) but explores new dimensions to Loss of directional control (LODC), mainly because taxiing on boards without brakes across packed snow instead of wheels on dry pavement means you need to plan turns—and stops—way ahead. Much like seaplane ops. Although usually colder, and it’s that cold factor that fosters defiance and creativity.
Preheating air-cooled engines on stupidly cold days is mandatory, and homespun methods abound for nearly achieving success. Most involve electric heaters that suck more energy for one flight than your house uses in a year1… but you can’t fly your house so don’t feel guilty. Propane heaters are popular alternatives and have torched more than a few airplanes when left unattended, as the pilot steps away for a cup of hot Postum, only to return and find the smoldering outline of the club’s Skyhawk. Acceptable losses if we’re to remain free to fly.
I take advantage of preheating to embrace the winter-aviation experience by chiseling the frozen earth beneath my north-facing hangar door where it’s heaved up, sealing the frame to the ground with an epoxy-like bead meant to keep sane pilots indoors and binge-watching Ice Pilots. But for decades, I’ve shoveled and scraped while muttering oaths with no literal English translations that adequately express my contempt for anything frozen. Including that stupid Disney movie by the same name. I mean, c’mon! Frozen? Why not a movie called, Miserable? The tale of a Midwest flight instructor determined to ignore reality and fly in winter while his smarter neighbors head south until Sun ‘n Fun announces the official opening of Pancake Breakfast Season.
Hand-propping an engine on frozen ground could be a whole article unto itself, but eventually it starts, and once inside the airplane I always fall for the gag of pulling the decorative cabin heat knob. The Champ’s 65-HP engine doesn’t produce enough heat to warm its own oil, let alone transmit excess through serpentine SCAT tubing to the uninsulated cabin. Anyone who’s driven a 1966 VW bus in winter knows the futility of gleaning heat from an underpowered air-cooled engine.
Still, if you fly in the unreasonably cold latitudes, you learn to adapt, rationalize and long for the return of mud and bugs. Yeah, I know the air is super dense at 10 below. Oh, yah, Lena, the Luscombe sure gets offa da ice in a hurry, you betchya. Also, when it’s silly cold, thunderstorms are a low risk, but frankly, this time of year I kinda miss them, even though a microburst once ripped my hangar door to ribbons and shivved the Champ’s skin with fiberglass shrapnel. But at least it wasn’t snowing.
Despite my seasonable gripes, I continue to fly in winter and—this is weird—not because I need to, unless you consider a lifelong compulsion to fly for fun a need and not merely a disorder. On some days, though, I just have to rethink the way of things. It’s 19 below zero (Fahrenheit … possibly Kelvin) here this morning2with a wind chill factor that makes it feel like living north of Key West was a huge mistake. Dawn has reluctantly cleared the tree line with accompanying sun dogs shivering in the airborne ice crystals. The snow is smooth and bright, while somewhere my love hibernates amidst the gauzy strands of Lara’s Theme inside her ice hangar, patiently awaiting winter’s slow but inevitable, and welcomed, demise. Indeed, now is the winter of my discontent, made glorious summer by this noble sun … that needs to get on with melting the damn snow ….
Someone toss another elf on the fire.
1Actual unverified scientific fact
229 Jan 2019