Winter Flying? Really, Must We?


There’s a parable I learned as an ATC cadet at the FAA Academy. It poses a child, furiously digging through a pile of horse manure. When asked why, the kid replies, “There’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere!” And that encapsulates humanity’s collective enthusiasm to seek reward in times redolent of deep poop. Lab results for the year 2020 are pending but likely will verify the wheezy human condition, without unmasking those of us cruising above reality in search of elusive ponies, ever since Genesis[1] proclaimed: “Let there be flight.” 

Without optimism, human flight could never exist. The opening newsreel in “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines “(1965) shows historical over-actor Red Skelton, historically coming to doom in various failed aeronautical attempts, all without losing hope or gaining enlightenment. The point being, if at first you don’t succeed, join EAA and try, try … and try, try, again. I’m still trying … on many levels.

Annually, since emigrating from Monterey, California, to Iowa in 1984, I’m caught off balance by the return of hangar-freezing winter. Not “rainy season,” as it was euphemistically called in Hawaii where I learned to fly; or “Look at the pretty snow on the Sierra mountain tops,” but, instead, stinking “winter.” I find it an abusive word with crystalline letters forged into deadly points and razor edges. “Summer,” by contrast, is composed of inviting curves with an impish attitude in its tiny “r” end, so adorable you just want to slip it into your vest pocket and take it flying.

Maybe snap a selfie of the two of you with the Husky’s clamshell door latched open above an Orbison blue bayou. Take “winter” aloft with equal trust, and the snowy badger will bite your carotid and scatter your bones across a frozen Minnesota lake, one of 10,000 I’m told are up there. In short, I loathe winter above the 34th parallel … except in Monterey (36th), but that’s not real winter. Inhabitants of Pebble Beach wouldn’t permit it. Well, maybe for a few hours around the Vegan Solstice Festival (postponed).

Yes, I admit that winter is manageable, possibly bearable and to some, embraceable. Just don’t get too smoochy, or your tongue will stick to it until spring. I had a wintertime student, named Dwayne, who’d reluctantly left northern Wisconsin—slightly above the Arctic circle—for a taxidermist training program in balmier Iowa. Having foolishly read one of my articles, boasting—without evidence—that taildragger pilots are superior human beings, he bought a Taylorcraft and asked me to be his instructor. I do like T-crafts but find the side-by-side seating uncomfortable with two modern-gauge adults on board. Comfort is so overrated, so I agreed as the first flakes of winter fell.

Each lesson, I’d be swaddled in so much down-filled Gore-Tex that I resembled a grumpy Michelin Man, clogging about in deep-sea diving boots. Dwayne, being a cheerful way-up-northerner, wore shorts. Cargo shorts. Plaid. And sneakers, also plaid, no socks. He radiated warmth. I’d register hypothermia before climbing inside the unheated cabin. I say, “cabin,” instead of, “cockpit,” because it felt like a Yukon hunting lodge with a heater knob that, like a landlord’s promise, merely registers your request for heat without delivering. During pattern work, we’d glean momentary warmth from the engine, but on downwind with power retarded, the cabin plunged back into winter. The wind hissing past the Ceconite’s duct-taped cracks only made it feel colder. Had there been an onboard Franklin stove, I wouldn’t have hesitated to build a fire with the out-of-date sectionals that provided the airframe’s only insulation.

It’s interesting how when flight instructing in winter, the instructor freezes while the student cranks out BTUs like a runaway Janitrol. The Aviation Instructor’s Handbook suggests it’s poor form for CFIs to warm their hands over radiating students.

Dwayne became a fine tailwheel pilot and subsequently returned to the frozen cheese state where he likely swapped the T-crate’s wheels for skis. Years later and one day ago, I stood outside my hangar after a three-inch snow. Not an unusual event but one that was especially cruel, since the previous week’s temps had nudged 60. Like teenagers willfully oblivious to thoughts of tomorrow, we flew off grass still green and murdered bugs foolish enough to think autumn would never end. It was glorious. But so was Europe in 1913. Well, except for the Balkan bits.

Hoping beyond reason to extend the belle epoch illusion of year-round carefree aviation, I shunned the cold and scraped and chiseled at the hangar door to rescue my airplane trapped within. Frankly, no one asked the Champ her opinion. I know that I wouldn’t want to be roused out of a preheated bed on a cold morning, but I was determined to fly for no other purpose than to put dense air between my numbed butt and endless white landscape. It’s one thing if you have a mission. Say, getting the serum through or running a flight school, where customers pay you to scrape and chisel, so they don’t have to. Upon arrival after dawn, they should be greeted with a clean ramp, a warm airplane—not just the engine—and a hearty, “Good morning, Mrs. Sanderson. Coffee’s hot, and your instructor should be thawed out momentarily. Help yourself to a day-old bagel.”

But I offer no winter mission statement, and my future aviation plans are modest. I don’t care about Mars colonies—stupid cold up there—or drone-administered home colonoscopies as seen on the channel that runs M.A.S.H. 24/7. It’s too early to fantasize about spring, but I do glimpse hope for a semblance of feigned civility in public discourse, and the FAA fulfilling its tease to raise LSA weight limits to reasonable levels (Santa, you promised at OSH!). Yeah, I’m stretching for gold rings on both counts. Meanwhile, as Don Quixote once tilted in vain at windmills, I’ll keep digging, because when facing the reality of my hangar door snow-drifted shut, I know: “There’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere!”

[1] On their third album, pre-Phil Collins, I believe.

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  1. Winter flying has its challenges, but so does summer flying. Given a choice between being too hot or too cold, I find it easier to build a fire than an ice cube. And I can always put on more clothing, but I can only take off so much.

    One of the big advantages is the density altitude. When you get high pressure and low temps, you have to climb to cruising altitude just to get above sea level. It makes the performance figures in the POH truly attainable.

    But, I must admit, my weakness is my fingers. It’s hard to find gloves that keep fingers warm without feeling like you’re wearing boxing gloves. It was worse when skydiving – hands high over head in the toggles, blood draining out of the fingers meant they were little more than frozen clubs by the time I got to the ground. At least the tricky parts of finding handles and hacky-sacks were done by then, all that was left was flaring to land and even a frozen paw could accomplish that. Or aim for a fluffy snowbank.

    Wrenching on a plane in the cold is a special form of hell – trying to fit a washer and nut on a hidden AN3 bolt requires dexterity permitted by no glove known to me. Then picking up a wrench that’s been bathing in liquid hydrogen.

    So once I find a way to keep the fingertips working at below-freezing temps I’ll have removed the last obstacle to enjoying winter ops.

    • I vividly remember trying to accomplish our annual in an unheated hangar in October, which usually bled into December and January before all the parts were available. Putting things back together with a propane heater blowing on you led to watering eyes and uneven heating of various body parts. While mechanic’s gloves helped, they sure didn’t solve the dexterity problems. One had to fight the urge to finish quickly as that tends to lead to improper connections and other nasty problems to bite you.
      However, flying in the winter was beautiful, especially with fresh snow on the ground. Luckily, our 150 had a decent heater and we solved most of the air leaks by working as a team on a cold day. One thing we quickly learned, it’s always better to have your hangar door facing south than north. It thaws quicker!

  2. And as I was reading through the pile of words and stories about strange colonoscopies I thought, ‘That sounds like a Paul Berge in there, I’m sure of it!’

    – Live from DVT where the tap water now is really cold and the steel hangar lock handle is really cold too and ‘wow’ I didn’t know my OAT could read below 50 in the hangar! 🙂

    • Maybe less turbulence, but at least here in the arctic northeast, the wind is often stronger and gustier. Good for practicing crosswind landings, but not so fun if you just want to go flying for fun. The only part about winter flying I like is that it doesn’t have to be so late to do my night currency…just so long as it’s not too cold out.

  3. I promised my airplane that everyday the weather and sky gods permitted, we would go flying. So lately, I’ve been trudging to the hangar, opening the frozen doors, rolling the machine outside, and going through our winter preflight ritual, which after usually only a one or two swings of the prop results in a running and willing Luscombe.
    Winter has a special appeal. The air is often syrupy thick; the Luscombe seems even more sprightly, and both the takeoff and landing rolls are noticeably shorter. But with the good comes the bad: soft spots in the runway that splatter mud and water across the windshield and wings, deep ruts frozen into the snow, a renewed awareness that aircraft heaters have their failings, and a general feeling that a winter’s day of drab skies and low visibility coupled with a narrowing temperature and dewpoint spread can make for a miserable day, indeed.
    But there are the days when the ground is frozen solid and blanketed in whiteness, and no mud splatters across the windshield or wings, and the sun reflecting into my eyes from snow-covered grain fields, now harvested, makes such days so worthwhile. On those days, It doesn’t matter that the Luscombe’s cabin heater really isn’t keeping me warm or that there will always be a financial burden in owning an airplane. I think today will be one of those days. I just stepped outside; the temperature is 26 degrees, and the moon is casting well-defined shadows across a frozen lawn. I’ve just checked the weather. In a few hours, I will again head toward the hangar to fulfill yet another winter day’s promise that I made to my airplane.

  4. Without a doubt my days of digging out hangar doors are over praise the lord.
    Couldn’t have articulated my winter wonderland sentiments better.
    Florida here I come this week

  5. I like that, the heat knob “merely registers your request” for heat. Perfect description for my Aeronca Chief’s heat knob. In fact, after several years of messing with all of it, I finally just tossed the two clam shells on the cabin heat side exhaust stack and pugged the hole to the cabin. Easier to see that side of the engine now at least.

  6. Winter in Iowa was one of the reasons we moved to North Carolina. We really like Iowa and still go back for the State Fair because it’s so much fun AND it’s held in August which is always plenty warm (and humid!). We never thought it seemed fair that a place that was so cold in the winter could also be so hot in the summer. Summer there is good for the corn and on a 90+ degree day with 90+ humidity, one can actually hear the corn growing (even as the humans are wilting). Winters in NC are less objectionable although there are days on end where the high temps don’t get above 50 degrees. Winter is now my second favorite flying season after fall because the weather’s fairly predictable and the wind is generally lighter. We see some snow once in a while but it’s usually gone in few days. Just saying…

    • I was born and raised here in Iowa.
      Compared to the climate north of us, say in Whapeton, MN
      Where my brother lives, The weather isn’t really that bad here.
      Inclement conditions prevent flying in summer as well as in the winter.
      Warmer climates are enticing, (med school in California)
      But, I’ll stay here in Iowa.

  7. Winter flying has it’s share of challenges. That is, if one can get the hangar door handle to unlock. Then, there’s the battery that really should have been replaced—-. What’s that congealed stuff on the floor under the engine? Tires really look half inflated—when was the last time I checked pressures?

  8. During the span of my years I’ve wintered in some chilly spots – Galena AK, -40, Wakkanai Japan, 280 inches snow, Ogden UT, just plain cold – but now in my elder years the high desert of Southern Cal is just my speed. Preheat is multi-grade oil and a more leisurely taxi to the runup. Y’all have fun up there, you hear?

  9. Great story; too funny! (I’m still looking for the poney here in Upstate NY) That cruel heating battle in the flight training environment is *so* true; even a whisper of heat and the student usually looks ill. I finally discovered those chemical heat packs for the boots (and still fly the 7AC Champ on skis).

  10. Great story; too funny! (I’m still looking for the pony here in Upstate NY) That cruel heating battle in the flight training environment is *so* true; even a whisper of heat and the student usually looks ill. I finally discovered those chemical heat packs for the boots (and still fly the 7AC Champ on skis).

  11. Just imagine after going through all the items mentioned in this article to get an airplane out of the frozen hangar, preheated and preflighted, then fly a load of skydivers with temps on ground around 20F. I did skydive once in those conditions, but as a jump pilot flew lots of loads in the cold, usually with younger/newer skydivers who did not know any better. Most C182/185 jump planes did not have very good heat along with the extra flow through ventilation of cold air around the jump door. And you had to take extra care on descent to make sure the engine stayed warm!

  12. Winter flying is a necessity in many
    parts of the world, including Alaska.
    Sport flying is a luxury that no one
    should undertake in bad weather or
    for purely recreational purposes.

    • Bill … I spend the warm half of each year at my summer home near OSH. I have neighbors who think we’re out of our mind for leaving for Florida. They actually have an ice auger and a fishing shanty on a trailer, too. No thanks. I could probably get used to the cold but the snow keeps me from staying up there … even though I’ve often said I’d like to try it, just once. I did it as a kid in Chicago … that was enough. But I agree, the first light snows in fall are a pretty dichotomy … just months after it might be in the 90’s.

  13. I can’t believe so many are complaining of their cold hangars. Try flying in Alaska without a hangar. I figure I spend at least 5 hours brushing snow, shoveling snow, getting wing and cabin covers off, etc. for every hour I spend in the air during winter. Fingers are invariably numb by the time I get the plane ready to go.

  14. Winter – UGHHHHH
    Go ahead – try proping a 65 horse T Craft when below freezing.
    Hated it!!! And 2 exhaust stacks with a heat muff around them hardly
    did anything for you.
    Of course I managed to brave it 60+ yrs ago.

  15. Another great one from Paul–but I have to wonder if Paul, being an “Iowan”–might not have something against Minnesota. He makes reference to Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes–but the real number is 11,824–but considering the paucity of ponds in Iowa, I can understand.

    Here in Minnesota, we are taught early on that “there is no sense complaining about winter, it’s coming anyway–make the best of it.” Short of moving south from Minnesota (which might be becoming an Iowan!) there is nothing to be done about it. In fact, being able to fly and do outdoor sports in Minnesota has certain “”bragging rights”–I flew a Stearman from Tennessee to Minnesota on Jan. 24, 1973–now THAT’S COLD! Bundled up in my snowmobile suit, I hunkered down in the cockpit and rationalized the there HAD to be heat coming off that radial engine SOMEWHERE. Forced lower by increasing snow squalls, I landed in Independence , Iowa to check the weather–it got worse the farther north I went. I recalled that we used to do power line patrol past Independence, and the power line ran only 24 miles from my home town, so I got on the line and continued–20′ above the line (as we used to do), all the way home.

    Winter DOES offer a chance to experience another aspect of aviation that few other states offer–SKI FLYING. The whole world becomes a landing field–those 11,824 lakes make great places to land, as well as most farm fields. I have wheel-penetration skis on my Kitfox. The other thing I like about winter in Minnesota–NO MOSQUITOES (“the State Bird of Minnesota!”

    Here in Minnesota, we have a saying–“There are only two seasons in Minnesota–‘Winter’s COMING’, and ‘Winter’s HERE!’ For those that truly embrace winter–“If you want to know just how short a Minnesota winter can be, BUY A SNOWMOBILE!” (smile)

    Paul–glad to have your commentary on flying in “The Great White North”–unlike that unfortunate OTHER Paul that has to endure Florida Flying–flying around with the door open on the Cub!

  16. Some of my favorite memories involve flying in winter in southeast Wisconsin. My late mentor and legend Tom Titley teaching me soft field takeoffs from a 1900 ft snow covered grass strip, me getting us stuck in a snow bank turning around, and him barking at me through an open window in the cockpit while my skinny 21 year old frame tries to push the thing out with ice cold prop wash blasting in my face. Years later I will be doing the same with my students.

    Nothing beats the comforting, hot metallic smell of the heater, or the glow of a snow covered landscape under the moon on a clear night. I’ll take nice crisp winter flying over hot muggy summer flying any time!

  17. Being a denizen of the Texas Gulf Coast, I look forward to winter flying when I can actually use the heater knob, assuming it hasn’t rusted shut due to inactivity. I grew up in western Canada, so I am no stranger to extreme cold, but as many have said, each season has its pluses and minuses (no temperature puns intended). If you don’t embrace winter where you are, perhaps, like Larry, dual homesteads make good sense. However, all the talk about winter flying in Luscombes, Cubs and Aeroncas makes me think about those intrepid fly boys that flew in World War One. Flying the dawn patrol through the winter in an open cockpit airplane that had NO provision for cabin heat must have been the true definition of miserable.

    Good article, Paul.