(N)ice Flight

(Posted 2 January 1997)

Moonraker sitting on the ramp at Puyallup. Note the icicles hanging from the Agwagon behind the Fly Baby. Yes, that's Mount Rainier in the background. I call this location "The Sweet Spot", because on summer afternoons one can take gorgeous photos of your plane with the mountain in the background. Doesn't work bad in winter, either...

I haven't flown my Fly Baby much this fall...the Seattle weather has pretty much restricted me to just short trips to nearby fields or a half-hour's set of touch-and-goes.

Last week, the skies finally cleared for two days. One small drawback, though: Temperatures had dropped below freezing after a rather intense combination ice and snow storm. Rain had fallen, then about three inches or more of snow.

The ice and snow crunched under the tires of my car as I pulled up to Moonraker's open hangar. The wetness had blown in, covering about half the hangar floor and much of the Fly Baby's wings. A gentle slap of the palm cracked the ice on the wings and let me sweep it off.

In the unbroken snow under the engine lay a couple of odd ice sculptures, like long combs with fine teeth. Sleet had blown in the front of the engine and frozen on the cylinders. A slight thaw had allowed the cylinder ice-molds to slide off, leaving perfect impressions of the cooling fins.

One additional task during during preflight was to secure the wiring harness and antenna cables for the Comm radio. I had installed an Escort II that decided to quit working, and I had pulled it to send to Narco for repairs. I, of course, had no objections to flying NORDO again. I'll post the entire sad tale when things are finally working again.

Preflight complete, it was time to roll the plane onto the ramp. With the ice and snow, footing was a bit tough. In addition, several cars had driven through the area already, leaving ice ruts that the plane had to cross.

The last step was to prepare myself for cold-weather flight. I had flown N500F on a colder day, but since this Saturday was 10-15 degrees warmer, I figured less bundling would be necessary. Like the earlier flight, I had donned a pair of long johns, a flannel shirt, and a thick, long, wool sweater. However, I skipped the wool scarf in favor of my regular silk one, just like I wore my regular leather jacket instead of a down-filled coat. I somewhat regretted not wearing boots, but Moonraker has a bit less leg room so I stuck with thick socks and ordinary running shoes. Besides, the new 'Baby has a heater.

On the previous flight, I wore a thick knitted ski mask. On a goggle-hunting trip a couple months ago, though, I'd come across another type of mask. This one was of thin spandex...it had been tough pulling my leather flying helmet over the knitted one. This would be its first trial.

Usually, I donned the helmet once I had climbed into the cockpit, but with the face mask, I decided to put them all one first. With the face mask, helmet, and goggles on, the only bare skin showing was the tip of my nose. I waddled to the airplane and climbed in. The headrest has a bit of overlap at the top, which often catches my coat and sweater and pulls them up as I drop. I was a bit more careful squirming by it this time... I wanted all the insulation I could get. By the time I was situated, with the seat belt and harness buckled, I was actually a bit sweaty.

Three shots of prime, and the 85-horse Continental started right up. The plane rode poorly when taxiing across the ice ruts. The tailwheel took them worst, due to its much smaller diameter. The plane waddled as the mains passed across the ruts, then the tail would jerk up and slam down. I slowed to a near crawl. The G-meter peaked at 1.75Gs.

The taxiway was much smoother, even though some airplane tracks showed. I suspect the airplanes were ligher than cars, and the cars probably had driven in the ramp area while the snow was still freezing.

It was, though, a bit nerve-wracking to taxi. The Fly Baby's taildragger stance won't let me see directly forward, and the normal blacktop/grass interface visible out the side was obscured by the snow. The only way to gauge my position was from the taxi-light housings sticking up every fifty feet or so. In an odd way, it was reminicient of my night flight four months back. Sort of a negative image...my peripheral vision a blank white instead of a blank black.

Pretakeoff checks went normally until engine runup. When the tach hit 1500 RPM or so, the plane started to slide. I ruddered to aim towards the hold line as I flicked the key back and forth. Mags and carb heat were working fine, so I idled back as we reached the line and scanned the pattern. Nothing around, so off with the brakes and onto the runway.

During the takeoff roll, I had trouble telling whether I was headed straight, just like on the taxiway. The light beige nose ahead of me was no help; it seemed to blend in. The runway edge markers were further off, since the runway was four times wider than the taxiway. I raised the tail a bit earlier than normal, and things seemed to snap into place.

One improvement: The ride. The roll itself was eerily smooth. No jiggle from cracks and expansion joints, no swaying from my rudder inputs. Practically like a simulator.

The 'Baby quickly broke ground. It clawed its way skyward, as if eager to get away from the hangar where it'd been cooped up. The air hung still and crystal clear. The Cascades lay dusted with white; roads stretched darkly across farmland like pencil lines on typing paper.

In Moonraker's cockpit...well, it wasn't bad at all. The spandex mask worked to perfection, just momentary coolness across my mouth whenever I exhaled. The heater seemed to be keeping my legs and feet comfortable, if not toasty warm.

I have a couple of friends at various small private strips around the area, so I swung over to check out the activity. A friend of mine once landed a homebuilt similar to a Fly Baby at one of these strips after a snowfall twenty years ago. His wheels dug in and flipped him upside down, so I contented myself with just a low pass.

I did land at Thun Field in Puyallup, a municipal airport about fifteen miles from home. I taxied in front of the restaurant, and parked next to a Cessna Agwagon that must have sat outside through the whole storm. Long icicles hung from its trailing edges. I climbed out for a hot chocolate, pulling off the helmet and face mask on the way to the cafe.

The place was pretty busy. Quite a few grins were turned my way as I walked in. I felt like pretty hot stuff, 'til I saw my reflection. The spandex mask had managed to swirl my salt-n-ketchup hair into a combination Gorgon and Ed Grimley style. I slunk into a booth, fruitlessly mashing down the tangled mess with my free hand.

One hot chocolate later and I headed back out to the airplane. Now conscious of the watching audience, I pulled on the mask and helmet, climbed onto the wing, and jauntily dropped into the cockpit.

Unfortunately, I forgot about the overlap on the headrest. It not only caught my coat and sweater, but my shirt as well. The face mask showed its best feature then, hiding the grimace as my bare back slid onto the 25 degree canvas seatback. A minute of wiggling got insulation back in place, and I fired up and taxied out.

Runup and takeoff were normal, although the plane slid again with the brakes locked. Ten minutes later I was entering right downwind at my home field again.

As I turned base, I realized I couldn't quite make out the boundaries of the runway. The ends had strobes, so they were no problem, but the edges were obscured by the snow. I hadn't had the same problem at Puyallup, but by now the sun had gone behind a cloud and the contrast was lower.

As I turned final, I couldn't really even tell where the center was. The situation cleared somewhat as I got closer. I planted the wheels close to the probable centerline. But when the tail dropped and the nose lifted, most of the direction references disappeared. I got what can only be described as VFR Vertigo; a strong feeling that the plane was veering to the left even though what visual clues I had seemed to indicate were were tracking straight.

My feet were twitching to do the Desperation Tango on the rudder pedals, but I managed to hold off. My heels, though, seemed under different management. They scrabbled inward to hit the brakes and get this thing slowed down in a hurry.

A rather futile gesture, really...Moonraker has *toe* brakes. Funny how long-lost instincts resurrect themselves in times of stress....

All came out well, though. The 'Baby slowed of its own accord and we made the center turnoff. A carefull taxi back to the hangar, spin the tail around, and cut the mags.

It had been a beautiful flight. I flew for about 50 minutes total, and other than one or two spots of exposed skin, didn't really feel the cold at all. One common objection to open-cockpit airplanes is that one must stop flying in the winter. If I still lived in North Dakota, I admit my enthusiasm level would be much lower...but then, I didn't fly that much in winter there *anyway*.

Some advice for prospective open-cockpit winter aviators:

1. Elimination of drafts is critical. Both Moonraker and N500F were well-sealed forward, which helped keep me warmer. I've flown in the front seat of a Stearman on a 40-degree day. The wind blast through the cockpit made the ride more uncomfortable than my 25-degree ride last weekend. If you build a two-seater like a Pietenpol or Murphy Renegade, build a cover for the front pit to cut down the drafts when flying solo.

2. Heaters help, even in open cockpit planes. At no time last Saturday did I feel warm air hitting my legs from the full-on heater. But at one point, I pulled my glove off and stuck my hand down into the tunnel. Definite warmth. But keep in mind that unless the drafts are elminated, you lose a lot of heater efficiency.

3. Proper clothing is a must, but don't go overboard. I have a friend who dons a snowmobile suit for all flying below 40 degrees. Maybe his airplane has a draftier cockpit, but any sweat you raise is going to reduce the efficiency of your cold-weather gear. If flying a truly open airplane like a Breezy or similar ultralights, a snowmobile suit (or equivalent) is a must. But those with tighter cockpits and the drafts elminated won't need the bulky suits. My heater did well enough that I could forgo the long underwear next time, but then, I'd probably freeze during the preflight.

4. *Windproofing* is just as important as warmth. Your typical leather jacket, on its own, isn't all that warm. But they cut the wind perfectly. When buying your jacket, make sure you have enough room underneath for a sweater. I prefer the Commando-style "Wooly Pully" sweaters. They're thick, durable, long in the body, and the sleeves are designed to fold back at the cuff, which means that unfolded they reach to your palm. Get the crew-neck type instead of a V-neck.

5. Biggest goal, clothes-wise, is the reduction/elmination of bare skin. Too many people don't consider the need for a face mask. It may look stupid, but your face is the most-exposed item on the airplane. The mask makes a surprising difference...When I redonned the mask at Puyallup, I inadvertently left a gap. That spot got very cold, just on the taxi out.

Not only is discomfort and frostbite a factor, but when your face gets stiff, it gets harder to talk. It's important when flying from a controlled field needing communications with the tower.

The second item people forget is neck protection. The traditional silk scarf had a lot of purposes, warmth included. Silk's biggest advantage is comfort...it doesn't scrape your neck when scanning for traffic.

Whichever type of scarf you use, make sure it's knotted tight and the ends are securely held down. I tuck the ends down the front of my sweater, and tie a genuine square-knot at my neck. Otherwise, the slipstream seems to unknot the silk, and I end up with a loop or two dancing in front of my face.

I'll admit that there's a lot of the country where open-cockpit flying has to shut down. But flying in temperatures down to freezing doesn't take that excessive of preparation, and one can enjoy short local flights even cooler than that.

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