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Winter is a Great Time

So many aviators in general and open cockpit flyers (like us trikers) in particular, pack our wings away as soon as Old Man Winter arrives. What a shame. Winter can provide some of the most rewarding flights for hardy souls willing to brave the cold. For those living in the Mid-Atlantic region Old Man Winter is a pussy cat – do not let him scare you away. Let’s look at some of the great reasons for taking to the skies on those chilly days, good places to do it, and some tips on making yourself more comfortable.

So, Why Fly in the Winter?

Performance tops the list. Those of you who have flown during the colder months recognize immediately the difference in the way your aircraft handles – the wing is crisp and precise while the engine operates at peak efficiency; a great combination. Our trikes leap off the ground, climb like rockets, and turn on a dime during the frosty, dry winter days. The fuel flow goes from 3.3 gph down to 2.5 or less, making a cheap ride even cheaper. Ground School 101 teaches us that denser air is better– winter flying gives us the best air – cold and dry versus hot and humid.

A very close second is Visibility. Because the air is so much dryer than the humid summer days the visibility enhances visibility. While the countryside is still quite green, the foliage is much less dense and casts a familiar landscape in an entirely new light. In many ways, it is like having two different locations to explore – a summer and winter one.

Reduced thermal and thunderstorm activity is the third benefit of the cooler, drier air. The Virginia summers can produce afternoon thunderstorms and the thermals can kick pretty hard through the middle of the day. Consequently, flying is best in the morning and evening. But in the winter the thermals are much less active and thunderstorms almost non-existent, so light aircraft can comfortably fly during the afternoon. Additionally, it is easier to climb above the bumps.

Instead of climbing 5500+ AGL required to clear the chop in the summer, 2500 AGL is usually sufficient.

And with the winter performance boost the climb to smoother air is much faster. While flying out of our home airport, Lynchburg Regional (KLYH), we reach pattern altitude by mid-field and frequently climb out of the turbulence by the time we get to the end of the 5800’ runway.

I guess we need to be careful how hard we blow the winter flying horn because one of the pleasures of flying during the cooler months is less traffic. Virginia is a very aviation friendly part of the world and when the fair weather hits the airports can get pretty busy. It is a nice change of pace when the pace slows down. For this reason those of you who have not explored flying into tower controlled fields, winter is the time. Since the traffic flow is lighter take advantage of winter to stretch your skills to include Class D airspace. Our local Class D, Lynchburg Regional, is graced with very friendly and helpful controllers.

Being comfortable flying into these fields opens up a lot of additional airspace that is otherwise closed to you.

It will also make you a better pilot.

A big plus for flying into the towered fields is the opportunity to introduce GA pilots to our amazing sport. Many of them have not had the occasion to view ultralights and light sport aircraft up close. You could be the one that introduces them. We recently took a Falcon 2000 jet jockey for his first trike ride. In 30 years of flying he said this was the most fun he’d had in the air. You could be someone’s best flight too.

One other advantage to towered fields in the winter is that they are the first cleared of any snowfall. We recently had our first snow and two days later the non-towered fields were still closed – no one to plow them. But Lynchburg Regional was open for business throughout – very nice.

Obviously, to fly into tower controlled fields you need to have a radio and know how to use it. A good radio is even more important than a BRS — the radio may keep you from ever having to deploy your BRS. Most midairs happen near airports. The radio makes you more “visible” via position reports (yours and theirs). If you feel your radio skills are weak, get some training from an instructor or computer aided software (check our website for products that we’ve tried) until you feel comfortable.

So, where are we in our “why you should fly in the winter” list? We’ve talked about improved performance, better visibility, reduced thermal and thunderstorm activity, and less airport traffic.

So what’s left? How about maintenance of your flying skills and equipment? Both you and your aircraft atrophy when idle for long periods of time. Your engine, especially if it is a two-stroke, should be run once a week or a couple times a month, unless you’ve prepared it for storage. Likewise, you need to get a couple of flights a month to keep you from rusting up. Believe me, those few flights will make a big difference in your skill and confidence when spring rolls in. These one or two flying days will also make you feel GREAT! You will have bested Old Man Winter, tuned up your flying, and gotten the juices fl owing through your aircraft’s engine again.

Flying in Virginia

Now I can just hear the naysayers –“Virginia flyers don’t know anything about winter flying.” I guess to some extent they’re right – Virginia winters are pretty mild compared to the frozen north. Virginia trikers rarely fl y if the temperature falls below 40 – we can afford to be picky because Virginia has lots of above 40˚ days. In fact, as I write this it is mid-January and the temp outside is a record 71˚! But some of our most memorable flights have been in freezing weather in the Northwest and in Upstate New York (on one particular day we waited until it warmed up to 6˚ before launching into the wild blue – that was memorable but it wasn’t fun).

Even so, you have to love the Mid-Atlantic for flying in the winter for all the reasons stated above along with mild temperatures, beautiful scenery, and an aviation friendly community. For those of you on the lookout for lovely flying sites you should keep Virginia in mind.

What About Gear?

Gear is very important in making winter flying pleasant. After all, this is a recreational sport – if you are not having fun what’s the point. In fact, without the right gear, cold weather flying can be downright hazardous. For temperatures below 45˚ or flying at higher altitudes our gear consists of:

  • One piece flight suit or two piece ski outfit (windproof is the key here) that is roomy enough to allow layering beneath.
  • Thin balaclava under the helmet that protects the neck and chin as well as providing added insulation to the head (you lose a significant percentage of your body heat through your head). For additional protection around your neck you can wear a turtle or high necked shirt, vest, or a scarf. The key here is eliminating gaps the wind can penetrate.
  • Helmet with a face shield and air dam. All trikers should be wearing helmets but many don’t have air dams attached to their face shields. The air dam does a wonderful job of reducing the amount of air sneaking in under your face shield. This not only keeps your face from freezing off, but it also improves the quality of your communications.
  • Gloves (or control bar mitts) with glove liners (inner gloves you wear inside the outer gloves). The glove liners allow you to keep your hands warm when you need more dexterity, such radio tuning or GPS adjustment chores. The hands are the first parts of your anatomy to freeze up, and you need them to get down safely – take good care of them.
  • For those flying in really cold weather, or for extended periods of time you can outfit yourself with electric warming gear: gloves, vest, and socks. But your aircraft needs a 12v system to supply the juice to these hot numbers. A cheaper option for hands and feet are chemical hand or foot warmers commonly used by winter outdoor enthusiasts.

Above we mentioned radio and GPS tuning. Here is a tip for making adjustments with gloves on – use a “poker.” Heat shrinkable tubing is great for creating a custom “poking” tool out of a pencil. Shrinkable tubing allows you to cover the lead end of the pencil, attach a string (to secure it to the aircraft), and make it look like a professional “poker” instead of a pencil. For radios with knobs instead of buttons you can apply heat shrink tubing over the knobs to make them easier to tune them as well.

By the way, this is the same gear you will need for high altitude flying. We spent many great hours last fall flying in the northwest well above the freezing level outfitted as described. It was a little toasty on the ground but comfortable up high (frequently 2000-3000 feet above the freezing level when flying the mountains – check out our website if you want to see some of the beautiful places we flew such as Cody, WY; the Washington Cascades, and the Grand Circle area of Utah and Arizona). Unlike summer flying in the mountains, where we were hot on the ground but comfortable higher up, during winter flying the dress is the same on the ground and the air.

So challenge yourself to get out this winter. If people can ski and snowmobile in the cold you can certainly fly in it. Dress right and spread your wings. You won’t be sorry.

Terri and Beth Sipantzi of Precision Windsports, Inc. ( are AirBorne Australia dealers centrally located in Lynchburg, VA. They have two XT S-912 AirBorne trikes and fl y with their two boys (Jeremy 12 and Nathan 9) as a family throughout the country – when they are not teaching others how to fly in beautiful south central Virginia. You can meet them at the AirBorne tent at Sun ‘N Fun and/or Oshkosh.


Light Aviation Edition September 2009

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