It’s October [edit: Actually November now– I really slacked off on blogging this fall] in New England, and the leaves are changing color. Days are getting noticeably shorter, sometimes almost 3 minutes shorter per day! The Northwest wind is blowing from the Canadian shield, bringing with it colder temperatures and high winds aloft. What’s a pilot to do?
It’s flyable, but not as often as it was in the summer.
If you can stand the cold, and your wing is fast enough, you can fly some winter days. The days are are shorter though, so with the sun setting before the workday ends, you may find yourself limited to only weekend flying. A strobe light is a helpful piece of equipment to have. Per FAR 103, if you wear a strobe light that is visible for 3 miles in all directions, you can fly up to 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset, which might make the difference between driving home after work or flying for a few sweet (cold!) minutes.
Just in time for winter 2017-2018, I started importing the brightest strobe lights I could find that still held up to the vibration of our motors. I have a long history with strobe lights, but that’s a story for another post. See my HsCOM STR1 Strobe Lights if you want that extra hour of flying time per day.
What’s with the wind?
In the winter months, the Jet Stream descends from its summer home around the North Pole to cripple flying in the Northeast. OK, so that’s anthropomorphizing the weather a bit , but basically, we have the polar vortex to blame for our speedy winds. Today for example, as I write this, winds are 59mph at 3000 feet. Generally whatever is happening at 3000 feet is happening almost as fast just about the trees; What’s to stop it? Fortunately, the Jet Stream, like all air and water currents, snakes back and forth– sometimes whipping us, and sometimes giving us a break from the breeze.
How do I stay warm?
With your hands high above your heart and thrust out into the fast-moving air sucking past your propeller, your hands WILL be the thing that will make you want to land (and maybe cry a little).
Gloves are a must. Some of us launch while wearing gloves, but beware that it may be hard to hit your kill switch with thick, soft gloves. Also, you won’t be able to feel the lines and brakes quite as well as you could with no gloves. You can launch without gloves, climb to altitude, and put them on in the air. As a middle ground, try buying gloves that come with removable liners. You can launch with the liners on your hands (giving you some protection from the cold) then put the outer gloves on in flight.
Many of us fly with heated gloves. I don’t personally wear them, but that’s because I’m a bit of a weight snob, and my machismo doesn’t allow me to wear warm clothes in the winter. I’m working on that personal issue, as it’s clear that heated gloves are the way to go. Those pilots who wear heated gloves swear they are incredibly comfortable, and make all the difference for winter flying. Don’t leave them on and heated for too long on the ground– sweaty hands are miserable if they get cold again!
I’ve tried heatpacks. On moderately cold days (above freezing), they seem to work. On really cold days, hand heatpacks aren’t adequate. I use foot heatpacks in my gloves, but they just create a hot spot on my hands, and my fingers still freeze. Heatpacks in your boots are recommended, though.
With it being cold, there’ll be no thermals, right?
Not so, I’m afraid. You’ll still want to avoid flying midday most days if you want to avoid thermals. It is indeed still possible to thermal in the winter, as thermals are pumped by differences in temperature.
Thermals aren’t causing most of that turbulence, though. If it’s windy out, that wind is spilling over the terrain, trees and buildings. 15mph wind causes rotor turbulence during the summer, but when the wind just about the trees is approaching 30mph on an otherwise warm winter day, you can expect the turbulence to be 4 times stronger. Sometimes though, wind is much faster than that for days, and it should be pretty obvious that you shouldn’t be flying a craft that only flies around 25mph.