Face Winter And Spit In Its Eye


In Peter Mayle’s 1989 memoir, A Year In Provence, a naïve British couple purchased a bargain home in France, unaware that it was cheap, because it faced north, away from the sun. That winter they learned how unwise their relationship with the Earth’s furnace 93 million miles away was. I have a similar history with my north-facing Iowa hangar at 41 degrees north of the equator.

Lakeland, Florida, by comparison, is 27.6 degrees north of the planet’s sweat band and smugly claims to be the apogee of sun and/or fun. Proof being, if you glaze over the upper Midwest and apply a northerly breeze, everything not anchored slides into Florida or Texas. A gentle riddance, those of us with our hangar doors frozen to the heaved ground, say, although no one can hear us, because our faces are swathed in wool, and potential listeners with any sense have flown south until April for opening day of tornado season.

Hope springs pathetic during the dark months with coping mechanisms for successful flight that vary depending on how maniacally north one goes. Flying in winter is not, by itself, dangerous; in fact, once airborne, it can be nearly acceptable, assuming the cabin heater works without asphyxiating everyone on board with invisible CO gas. It’s the ground portion that stinks, beginning with preflight inspections on icy ramps or refueling with a nozzle that sticks to exposed flesh (FAASTeam Safety Tip: Never press your tongue to a fuel nozzle at temps below 0°C).

Iowa, where I shiver in resignation between December and March, is cold in winter. Often stupid cold. Anticipating righteous “Harrumphs” from readers, I’ll admit that stupid is in the frosted eyes of the beholder. In Vermont, Wisconsin or states ending in “ota,” cold is worshiped—or at least rationalized—whereas Iowa, being located further south, offers the illusion of slightly warmer days, imbuing residents with guilt for not appreciating winter’s wonder whatevers.

I’ve tried flying on skis but failed miserably when I forgot that skis don’t have brakes. I’ve flown in unheated cockpits to Winterfest Chili Feeds where pilots tuck into Hormel unknowns in Styrofoam bowls and fly away contented. Unable to adapt, I’ve questioned my winter choices since leaving California 36 years ago. But I refuse to regret the move, despite fond memories of the Winteresque Zinfandel Fly-In at San Luis Obispo airport, which averages 287 sunny days per year and (be still my heart) no snow. Perhaps, I merely dreamt that in a near-death freezing experience.

I reflected upon my choices recently after dropping my hangar key into the snow. Even when numbed fingers manage to select and insert the correct key into a lock, the tumblers might not tumble, because it’s too bloody cold. Smarter pilots divert south, but some of us carry our CAP cigarette lighters to warm the key before inserting into the lock, which is why I’d dropped the key after overheating it. Despite minor setbacks, we take comfort in the plusses that frigid temps bring, such as fewer insects on the windshield and climb rates approximating numbers found only in sales brochures. Advantages noted, I’ll suffer bug guts and doggy performance if winter would simply die and with its last wintry gasp, know that I conspired in its demise.

Winter won’t die, but technology may yet save us. I recently saw an ad for a lock that requires no key. Simply pressing your finger to a pad, allows a cyber thing to scan and transmit fingerprints to a satellite, which flashes your digitized ID to a committee of North Korean unlockers, and after determining your worthiness to enter—Click! —all doors open. Whereupon UGG-booted TSA troopers swoop in astride black snowmobiles to haul you to winter reeducation at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Intriguing, except the ad said the lock was tested to -4°F, which I guess means it decides when I fly. I admit that’s genius, because operating an unheated Champ at five-below (F or C; really doesn’t matter) is just silly so being locked away from my own insane desire to fly regardless of temp seems wise … below the 44th parallel, anyhow.

Sanity was tested recently on a clear day after freezing drizzle had welded my hangar door to the ramp, and yet I was determined to fly. The three hours it took to chisel the north-facing door free allowed time to preheat the airplane and to glance with envy at my neighbor’s hangar door across the taxiway. It faces Dixie so was ice-free, a mocking reminder of how ignorant I was decades ago when I blithely accepted the northern exposure slot.

When finally, my hangar door broke free of the ice grip, I felt like Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose ship, Endurance, became locked in the ice at the bottom of the world 100 years ago, but through his determination to press on despite the cold, he … um, actually, the ship was crushed by the ice, leaving Sir Ernie and crew to walk out, so perhaps not a good analogy here.

Still, determined as I was to fly in defiance of nature, I cranked high the hangar door, only to reveal an expanse of untreated ice on the ramp, where I would stand to hand-prop the airplane, unassisted. About as safe as juggling machetes atop a Zamboni spinning doughnuts across a hockey rink.

Defeat was imminent when my hangar neighbor from the sunny side of the taxiway appeared and, sipping an iced tea, called, “Face it, old boy, if you want a south-facing hangar, build one on the North Pole.” Then, effortlessly opened his south-exposed door, rolled his Cessna onto sun-dried concrete and taxied away as though winter adversely affected only those of us doomed to the eternal shade of ignorance about how sunshine works. Little does he know.

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  1. Over the decades, I’ve had hangars that faced in all four cardinal directions. One problem with the south-facers, was their enormous ridge-lines of solid ice – a consequence of snow melting off of the roof, then landing and re-freezing in front of the door. If combined with an insufficient roof overhang, the accumulated ice could be near enough to encase the bottoms of the doors in an uncooperative glacier.

    A simple rain gutter would have been marvelous. If only……

  2. I once had my plane in a private hangar and had to deal with all the joys of owning a private hangar. That was a long time ago. I now have my plane in the fbo’s heated hangar where my plane gets to hang-ar (pun intended) out with all the big boy jets and turboprops. My plane is pulled out on a nice clean ramp regardless of weather and when I arrive after a trip my truck is driven right up in front of my plane where I unload everything into it from my plane as the line guys promptly put my plane back in the hangar. I don’t miss private ownership of a hangar at all.

  3. I have owned two box hangars at Mohave, CA and another in Wisconsin near Oshkosh. Plus, a bevy of leased T-hangars in various other places.

    Another thing that you have to worry about in some places is the prevailing wind. My Mojave hangar faced south. The warmth was great about half of the year because it gets cold and even snows in the desert. Without humidity, it feels even colder still in the incessant high daily SW winds. There were times when I didn’t dare open the door for fear that everything inside would wind up in Barstow. One time, a horrible sand storm blew for days and deposited about 3 inches of blow sand INSIDE the closed hangar. Anyone who knows what blow sand is knows it could find it’s way into a coffin 6′ down. Getting it out took weeks because a subsequent HD thunderstorm literally washed a wall of water over the entire airport and turned the blow sand into a hard caliche mess that could only be washed out with water hoses. On another occasion, I was inside a small RV inside the hangar overnight when 100mph winds blew. The RV was actually shaking INSIDE the closed up hangar surrounded by other hangars. In the end, happiness was Kalyfornya in my rear view mirror at Blythe after 17 years in MHV. Even Burt Rutan gave up on the place and moved away in retirement. And that’s why thousands of windmills are located nearby that airport.

    At Phoenix Deer Valley it doesn’t matter which way the hangar is pointed. You have basically leased a very large autoclave in summer time. Interior temps of 150 deg are possible.

    In Wisconsin, the problem — as you describe — is cold. Not just cold but … cccCCCOLD! Last winter, wind chills were below -50 deg F. I think that’s pretty close to absolute zero. After the first winter, I learned that it was wise to make multiple sweeps of the hangar to remove any liquids that could freeze. I returned to find the gooeyest mess of Coke on the floor being devoured by several divisions of Army ants that had come out of hibernation. Mice can’t get in because the building gets hermetically sealed by snow which melts, freezes and repeats until spring. Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with it because I winter in Florida. I have access to the security cameras and an AWOS is located close by … so I can see what I’m missing. Nothing. Summertime, however, is spectacular.

    Florida ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be, either. For a long time, I kept an airplane down here and left it behind. Every November when I’d return, the airplane always had problems with corrosion of one sort or another. I tried everything. Heaters, fans, windows open, windows closed, dessicant … nothing worked. In the end, I decided you can’t leave an airplane locked up in a hangar in Florida without being taken out and aired out and exercised frequently. In some ways, it’s worse inside a hangar because the relative humidity is higher than outside. I have actually had a problem with mold. Now, that airplane spends the winter freezing in Wisconsin … those problems don’t exist up there. Just don’t try flying until about April … as you say. And have I mentioned worrying about the airplane during hurricane season?

    These locality based issues notwithstanding, I consider having a hangar almost as much fun and surely more practical than owning an airplane. In fact, if you own an airplane, it’s my position that you must have some sort of hangar. Besides, every problem known to man can be solved after aviating by a committee of beer swilling senior citizen pilots sitting in somebody’s hangar while watching airplanes go by.

  4. Good post Larry. I’ve not had the privledge of ownership, but having lived in ME, PA, CA, and currently WI, I am one winning Powerball ticket away from a triumphant return to the people’s republic.

    Here in WI, if it’s not the cold and wind, it’s the ice above the perpetual 900′ blanket. No wonder the low and slow types (not a bad thing) are so prevalent here.

    • Well, Anthony … wouldn’t it be mind boggling to buy a PB ticket and suddenly discover you’re a mega millionaire. IF that happened to me, I’d likely buy a Vision Jet. “People’s Republic”? Are you referring to Madison?

      I grew up in the midwest and have very fond memories of the ‘nortwoods’ as a child. For a long time I wanted a summer time log cabin up there but realized that the good seasons are substantially shorter and the services are mighty thin. That plus 40 years of attending Oshkosh is how I picked central WI. Lots better by comparison. AND … a lot less FIB’s and FISH. I bet YOU know what I just said but the other readers don’t. 🙂 Having a modest second home and a great oversized hangar is one of the greatest joys of my life. I actually built my hangar before deciding to establish a second home. The people up in the rural environs are great. They think I’m nuts for heading south in winter time, too.

      • I had to look up FIB… I am merely an interloper, settled 2 years and I just found out about supper clubs… but the term is exactly analogous to what the Mainers fondly call massholes. Yeah, we’re just as polite in the Northeast.

        You may have seen this map, but get a load of the relations between MN/WI/IL. Hopefully the link works, can’t recall if they filter them out here.


        As for the people’s republic, I meant SoCal. I’m ready to have more food choices than brats and curds. However I would miss the broasted chicken and JoJo’s.

        • That’s pretty much it. And FISH are similar to FIBs except it involved ‘heads.’ I never heard that one before this past year.

          Depending upon where you are, find a Portillo’s. One of my favorite stops headed north.

  5. Man, I’m cold just reading about the ice and snow and -50 degree wind chills. At first, I thought, this must be some kind of spoof that some people actually like it that extreme…

    Then I realized that there are some people living here in Phoenix who actually love the summers – so I suppose it’s true. Mark Twain remarked once that ‘A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval’, so there you have it.

    Larry, I’ve seen the temp in my hangar at DVT at 132 degrees F, and a thorough check of liquids and cans and pressure limits is always in order. It’s too late by then to check your sanity. As a homebuilder, at first when I was assigned my south facing hangar I thought WTFun this will be! But I discovered that the shade line extends about 5 feet beyond the door in summer and moves into the hangar in winter – just how I like it.

    The first 35 years of my life were spent in and around Chicago so I know a bit about the cold. I also know that storms, snow, miserable conditions invariably occurred on the weekends – it’s a cruel derivative of Murphy’s Law – so Sunday paper delivery usually took me all day and dates, concerts and mischief at the dunes were consistently cancelled.

    I have a very supportive wife who is nearing retirement from the full-time workforce and would love a hangar home where we live upstairs in our minimalist lifestyle and the plane, bikes, car and camper are on the hangar floor. Maybe a big barn on a grass/dirt strip, she’s very determined!

    We used to camp and hike at the Boundary Waters in north WI, ice skate for miles down the Little Calumet river and from the Indiana dunes scan for O’Hare traffic, the Chicago skyline and girls. Sometimes all three were successes, despite punishment from the usual weekend weather conditions.

    • And here in FL the other night when it was 33, people were frantic trying to come in out of the “cold” and dressed like eskimos. In Wisconsin, that’s a heat wave worthy of breaking out the BBQ grill. The news programs in Miami were showing iguanas freezing and falling out of palm trees unconscious. It was horrible! 🙂

      At my summer home in WI, I have to leave the heat on low and — just in case that fails — I have backup electric heat to keep the water pipes from freezing. It’s just the price one has to pay for living in “paradise.” In my hangar, I have a recording thermometer which laughs at me when I ask it how cold it got over the winter period. It can’t go that low so it just laughs. Conversely and as you say, try living in Phoenix without air conditioning in the summer time. It’s all relative.

        • Daytona area. It IS colder in winter but it’s also cooler in summer. The ocean breezes help to ameliorate things, too. That said, when I worked for an aerospace company, they directed employees to take micro breaks every hour and to ensure they hydrated themselves. I remember coming out of the air conditioned area of flight test operations to see the poor ramp rats totally soaked in sweat. THAT is why I escape to WI in the summer time. You actually have to wear a watch up there because you can’t set your body clock time by the afternoon thunderstorms.

  6. Michigan. Howling winds from the west dump mounds of snow on the east side of the hangar. I have managed, after years of struggle, to procure a west facing hangar, with bifold, with heat, with insulation, with lighting. Only took me 40-50 years to stop fighting it. I have lived in Hawaii in the past as well as Florida. All things considered, I wish I had stayed in one or the other!

  7. Paul–another great article!

    “Up here” in Minnesota, we take pride in the cold. (That’s the problem with Iowa–it’s COLD, but not cold enough for “bragging rights!”)

    We all have airplanes for different reasons. After more than 50 years of flying in Minnesota, I’ve come to the realization that one of the BEST reasons to own an airplane is to let it TAKE YOU SOMEWHERE ELSE!

    From an “almost cold” state like IOWA, the snow line usually doesn’t go much further south than that neighboring state to the South–Missouri (hardly “bragging rights” when the end of the snow line is only one state away! Why, we’ve been known to go right from ice fishing in Minnesota to go across the line to Northern Arkansas the very next week to go fishing on the White River–where the water still flows!

    “COLD! FEEL THE BURN!” (especially on your fingers, toes, nose………)

    • “FEEL THE BURN.”
      Oy. Here in the Peoples Republik, I’m surrounded by bumper stickers that read “Feel the Bern.” And “Obama 2008.” Really.

  8. I was 12 years old when, delivering the Gazette at 5 am in Schenectady New york, I told myself that as soon as I could make decisions, I would move to Fort Lauderdale. I was 18 and I never looked back (luck had it my parents moved and I was there for the ride…). Now my hangar door faces east and therefore has no issues with ice. I know that because I flew today. It was 78 degrees f. To be fair, I did not look at my neighbor’s hangars that faced in other directions so I cannot comment on their hangars… ; )