Why Summer Flying Isn’t So Hot and Winter Is

One of the greatest aspects of being a pilot is the weather. Every season has its own particular bugaboos and some more than others. I love our short summers to death, but near the end of it, I am kind of glad to be saying goodbye. Being in a training aircraft 10 hours a day can wear a little thin after a while especially with 30 degree temperatures and humidity to go with it.  Sometimes it’s just plain uncomfortable. I really enjoy wearing shorts and a t-shirt but when students start dripping perspiration on you while in a steep turn it gets downright gross.

Another aspect of summer flying that I don’t find particularly agreeable with is poor aircraft performance. Because of the high temperatures and humidity and occasional low pressure days, aircraft performance can be brutal. I remember a few summers ago, when I weighed a svelte 190 pounds and could fit into a Cessna 150 reasonably comfortably that I was quite sure the makers of the 150 were a bunch of sadistic engineers trying to torture me. On that particular day, we had to do some Forced Approaches and needed to climb to 3000 feet AGL about 4 times. I knew after takeoff that this was going to be a tough exercise to practice under the existing weather conditions when it took us 5 miles just to clear circuit height, which is only a 1000 feet AGL. We continued with our climb and as we flew over unplanted black fields I looked at our VSI and noticed we were climbing at about 1500 feet per minute.  Needless to say, we took full advantage of the thermals that day.

Thermals though can be a royal pain in the butt as well. Try teaching straight and level while flying over a chess board set pattern of black and green fields. It’s very difficult for a student to gain a positive feel for flying level when they are doing everything correctly from a pitch and power perspective and are still climbing at 1000 feet per minute. On another forced approach training session, I had pulled the power signifying an engine failure, the student chose a field to land on, found his key points, had done his cause check and mayday call and passenger briefing and still hadn’t lost a foot of height. The student did everything he possibly could to make his field but on short final hit another thermal rocketing up and over his simulated landing area. Very frustrating.

Probably the most spectacular aspect of summer flying is the thunderstorms that pop up out of nowhere. Sometimes they are only individual cells that roll over the landscape, reminding me of Portuguese-Man-Of-War with their deadly tendrils cascading down from their bloated black bodies.  Other times squall lines due to the passing of a cold front are the cause. The former are relatively easy to avoid but bring all forms of hell if you find yourself in one.  Winds gusts up to 50 knots per hour, surface winds changing direction by 180 degrees, vertical downdrafts up to 6000 feet per minute, hail, lightning, icing and crazy turbulence. As an instructor with students out in the training area practicing their exercises this is a constant concern.

Last summer, a CB (Cumulo-Nimbus) popped up out of nowhere and was closing fast on the Morden Airport. I had a student practicing to the east, who hadn’t seen it and who seemed a bit disgruntled that I was demanding his return for no apparent reason.  As soon as he had landed however he had enough time to tie down the aircraft and run for cover before the big black monster hit us with all its might. If he had been a couple of minutes late or slow in returning, he would have been landing through this. See photo below.  

I guess the final disadvantage to summer flying is the mosquitoes. They are fine during the day but come evening and my last flight of the day, they can be absolutely brutal. It’s very difficult to do a walk around when you’re jumping up and down and slapping yourself silly doing the hokie-pokie. Thankfully, most days my students do the walk around and I watch. Haha. As much as I don’t mind killing them on take offs and landings, we still have to clean up the mess and find ourselves cleaning the leading edges and windows most days. We’ve even found them in our stall horn and pitot tube which causes further problems.

Once the summer has concluded and autumn has mellowed, we find ourselves discussing plowing and snow shoveling schedules once again. Winter is never truly looked forward to by yours truly, but it does have its advantages. If you can stay warm in the aircraft and have a relatively painless walkaround, winter flying is awesome. There are, however, certain cold weather limitations that we abide by. We halt all power-off exercises at -20C and below, we discourage cross country flying at -25C and stop flying altogether at -30C. The best advice I can give for winter flying is don’t fly in icing conditions and dress in layers and warm enough as if you had to walk for 5 miles on open ground.  

Temperatures and icing aside, imagine having twice the climb performance as compared to the summer. Air exercises such as the forced approach become less of a chore if you can be back at altitude in a few minutes. There are also no thermals to deal with which makes for a nice smooth ride most days. The landscape is all white, except for towns and roads, which to some may be boring, but I find beautiful and serene.

Dealing with other aircraft traffic can be looked at as a challenge and a good learning exercise, but I welcome the break from the summertime weekend fly boys and crop dusters with their defunct radios and straight-in approaches. Thanks to Old Man Winter, we have the skies to ourselves and I can get down to the business of instructing!  

-Lance Appleford, CFI


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