Open-Cockpit Comfort

November 2019

I've been flying open-cockpit airplanes almost exclusively since 1987.  Over the years, I've posted a number of suggestions and guides to help new open-cockpit aviators be comfortable regardless of the temperature.

Y'see, these days, most people aren't that familiar with discomfort when it gets chilly.  They go from a warm house to a soon-to-be warm car, walking in to a warm job site or store.  Typically, a light jacket over typical winter indoor wear is all they *really* need; a brief exposure to the cold outdoors only makes arrival at the destination even more welcome.

Sure, some folks work outside and have to learn how to bundle up.  But it's not the same as flying an open cockpit airplane.

What's the difference?  The slipstream.  You're probably familiar with the concept of "Wind Chill Factor."  It's basically an guide as far as how fast heat is leaving your body.

Wind Chill Factor

To understand how Wind Chill works, start with an inanimate item, like a brick.   It's a nice day, and your shop is at 70 degrees (Fahrenheit).  You put the brick in an oven, heat it up to various temperatures, and record how much time it takes for the brick to cool to ambient temperature.
Brick Starting Temperature
Time to Cool to 70 Degrees
60 minutes
90 45 minutes
80 30 minutes

Heat the brick up to 100 again, but this time, set it on the table with a fan blowing on it.  If the brick takes only 45 minutes to cool, it's just like the temperature was 90 degrees instead of 100.  So the "Wind Chill Factor" is the temperature that took 45 minutes to cool WITHOUT the fan: 90 degrees.

And, of course, the amount it time it takes the brick to cool depends on how big a fan is blowing on other words, the wind speed.  The key point to remember is that using the fan will NEVER reduce the brick's temperature to less than 70 degrees (the ambient temperature).  You need something to actually cool the air if you want a lower temperature than ambient...that's where "air conditioners" come in.

Wind Chill is not really a "Temperature"'s an indication of how fast heat is getting sucked away.  It's the reason that 70 degree air feels comfortable, but you'll die if you stay in 70 degree water too long.  The water is more efficient at taking heat from your body than air is, although wind improves the efficiency of the air.

Wind Chill and the Human Body

If the wind can't actually lower the temperature past ambient, why do we worry about wind chill?  "I'm comfortable enough with a light jacket when it's 50 degrees out there, why am I so bloody cold if I go flying with just that jacket?"

It's all because you're warm blooded.  Your body has evolved to operate the best with an internal temperature of about 96 degrees.  It burns food and fat to keep the temperature that high.  Put you on an iceberg in your skivvies, and your body will start shivering, using muscles to generate heat.  You body will try to maintain that core temperature by reducing blood flow to your extremities to try to keep your head and torso as warm as it can... and your hands and feet get cold.  Eventually, of course, you'll die.  Not by "freezing to death," but by having your core temperature reduced below 80-90 degrees.  You'll be dead, even if your brain and body are still "room temperature."

Let's examine this.  Say we want our brick in front of the fan to stay at a nice, toasty, 100 degrees.  So we wrap it with a tiny electric blanket, and connect the blanket to a battery with a rheostat that sets how much power goes into the blanket.  And, with the same fan running, we measure how much power it takes to maintain the brick at a given temperature:
Desired Brick Temperature
Electric Blanket Power
5 Watts
90 4 Watts
80 3 Watts

Your body is the "brick."  It's trying to maintain a temperature of 98.6 all the time.  It burns energy to do that (either in the form of food or your stored fat), and the colder it gets, the more energy it has to burn.  That's where the Wind Chill tables come from.  It's an indicator of how much your body has to work to maintain its core temperature, given an ambient temperature vs. the wind speed.

The Lesson About Wind Chill

OK, what does the above tell us about keeping warm in a Fly Baby.

You might say, "Hey, the windshield shields me from the wind.  So what does Wind Chill have to do with it?"

No joy, pilgrim.  Take a look at this shows the wind flow past the windshield.  It circles BACK and catches you from behind!  From there, it enters a sort of vertical eddy right behind the windshield.

I'm not kidding...the air flow in a Fly Baby cockpit is FORWARD.  Back in my early Fly Baby days, I wore cotton my ears as hearing protection (stupid...I quickly changed to rubber earplugs).  One came out in flight, once...and I saw it drift forward in the cockpit, arch up, then rejoin the slipstream above my head.

No question about it, the cockpit eddy is a gentle zephyr compared to the main slipstream.  But it IS moving air...which means you'll get wind chill effect.

And look at our steely-jawed aviator in the above drawing.  Notice how his neck is fully exposed to that tumbling draft.  Going to get a mite cold, won't it, unless the temperature is high enough that it's comfortable.

This picture of Bob Grimstead flying his "Bristol Balderdash" Fly Baby illustrates the airflow issue. What's that red thing in front of him?  His scarf.  If you want the scarf to stream out dramatically behind, you need to physically put the end of the scarf OUTSIDE the cockpit eddy.

A Warning for Non-Fly Baby Pilots

Note on a Fly Baby, the effect of the "cockpit eddy" is pretty much restricted to the upper torso.  The forward portion of the cockpit in a Fly Baby is pretty well enclosed, and there's not much of a draft in there.


Why not?  Because a second cockpit gives a place for the air to rush IN, and another place for it to rush out!

I was flying my Fly Baby a long time ago, on a moderately cool winter day (here in Seattle, that means in the mid '40s).  After I landed my friend Stan Brown offered me a ride in the front cockpit of his Stearman.  I wore my Fly Baby togs....and almost froze to death.

There was a HUGE vertical draft out of the front cockpit.  I believe the upper wing deflected the prop wash into the rear cockpit where it shot forward and came out in the front cockpit.  Look at this picture...does Stan look comfortable to you?

So the advice in this web page should be considered just a starting point for those with planes other than Fly Babies.

The First Lesson

Remember....if the air is cold, or even cool, ANY bare skin is going to be susceptible to any draft.  The pictures show how a scarf is going to be a real advantage when the temperature goes down.  But the same is true for ANY part of your body.  Your neck, your hands, your arms if you don't keep the breezes out.

Now, this doesn't mean you have to wrap up like the Michelin man for every flight.  It's just that you have to pick your open-cockpit wear with some consideration as to the expected temperature and the planned duration of your flight.  I provide some advice along these lines, included in the Graphic Guide at the tail end of this posting.

The Second Lesson

Commensurate with protecting your bare skin from direct air contact is the ability of whatever you're wearing to keep the cold out.

A number of years back, I went flying with another Fly Baby owner.  When we got to the destination, he was hunched over, shivering.  I was just fine.

The difference was our coats.  He was wearing a heavy coat.  A heavy CLOTH coat...wool, I think.  I was wearing my standard A2 flight jacket.

Insulation works by trapping air and letting your body heat warm it up.  But if you wear wool on the OUTSIDE, the air it tries to trap is continually replaced with new cold air.

The difference (again, depending on whether it's actually cold or not) is that your outer clothing must be windproof.  That's where leather excels.  The cold air may make the outside of the leather cold, but the cold air itself doesn't penetrate. doesn't HAVE to be a leather coat.  Hans Teijgeler flies his Fly Baby in Holland, where it does get nippy in the winter.  He wears an MA-1 flying jacket; the USAF's nylon-shelled flight jacket first introduced in the 1950s.  The MA-1 has several factors going for it.  Te nylon does pretty good at keeping the wind out, there's good, modern insulation, the knit bottom keeps drafts from coming from below, and the cut of the jacket makes it less likely to snag when sliding into the cockpit.  It's also less bulky that the heavy-duty leather coats like the Irwin jacket or the B-3.

I like the look of leather flying coats...but, certainly, if you've got something that'll keep the wind out, go for it.  Make sure it had knit sleeves, though.  Open sleeves can act like funnels to bring cold air inside the coat.

But don't... DO NOT...just put on a sweater or sweatshirt without anything over it and expect to be comfortable.  You need the windproof exterior.

For more information on leather flying gear, see my "Leather Jackets for the Open-Cockpit Aviator."

The Third Lesson

The third lesson comes out of the second:  Insulate as needed, under your external coat.   You can wear the warm stuff...wool, flannel, etc...under a good windproof coat.

A lot of folks don't realize that the original A-2 leather flying jacket was NOT insulated.  It had a leather exterior, and a cloth liner, and that's it.  Back when the A-2 came out, the pilots of the Army Air Corps wore wool uniforms.  They could throw on that uninsulated jacket atop their uniforms and, for the most part, be warm.  You can tell tht jackets are uninsulated from original pictures like the one below.  Notice how the jackets aren't bulky at all.

I usually throw on a sweatshirt under my leather coat on the cooler days, quite often over a flannel shirt.  I also sometimes wear a turtleneck sweater under a flannel (lumberjack) shirt.  This is very warm.


Flying helmets are used for two things:  Keeping the cold air off your head, and providing attachment points for your headset and goggles, if worn.

The Swiss have a saying:  "If your feet are cold, put on your hat."  There are a TON of blood vessels running through your scalp to keep the brain at proper temperature.  If you let your head get cold, the rest of your body will follow.

If the weather is really warm, I may not wear a helmet.  But unless it's in the 90s, I do.

Three basic options:  Cloth, Leather, and Shearing.

Leather and cloth helmets are usually the same style, except for the material.  Leather is more windproof, of course, so I recommend leather.  If you live in a warm climate, with not much opportunity to fly in cold weather, a cloth one may be the right pick.

Shearling helmets are basically the skin of a sheep, wool attached, turned inside out.  That's a shearling helmet on the right.  I'd make this a last pick; buy one if you try flying in the winter and are just too cold.  Otherwise, skip the shearling.

When you buy a helmet, you need to decide if you want the kind that works with a radio headset.  I figure a headset is worth 10-30 degrees of warmth, right there.

More information on my Helmet page.


Your face is exposed to the cockpit eddy, too.  I have a spandex balaclava that fits nicely under my flying helmets, and keeps my face comfortable.  Wool ski masks would work, too.  Fortunately, the cockpit eddy doesn't seem that strong at the face.

In the colder weather, you'll definitely need a scarf.  Not only does it protect your bare neck, it keeps drafts from shooting down the back of your jacket (yow!).  See my scarf page for more information.

Don't forget gloves!  I have a common set of leather gloves for most flying, but a set of ski gloves for when it gets cold.  Very cold-weather gloves should be long enough to go over your jacket cuffs and keep your wrists warm.

When it gets really cold, thermal underwear provides a nice extra layer.

For the most part, my flying in done in ~20 F weather and I don't worry much about my feet.  Heavy socks, but usually wear regular shoes.  Again, though, the Fly Baby is pretty sealed up forward....if you're flying something else, you might need better protection to your feet.

Other Fly Baby guys have suggested other approaches.  Drew Fidoe runs a "trunk" from the aircraft heater and tucks it into his flying suit.  He also suggests chemical hand-warmers.  Another person point out that there are electric suits for motorcycle riders that might work as well.

A Graphic Guide

Sometimes, it's easier to just look at a graphic.

This one summarizes my decision process when taking my Fly Baby for a flight.  You'll see some overlap; a lot of times, my decision depends on how cold or warm I've feeling before takeoff.

This guide is based upon what I'd need for one of my typical wintertime flights, for about 45 minutes.  If I'm actually flying somewhere, and will be aloft longer, I assume the perceived temperature will be five to ten degrees colder.

Note that YOUR TOLERANCE MAY BE DIFFERENT.  So adjust the above, based on your own experience.

A Final Note

How can you tell if you're dressed adequately for the flight?  In my case, for cold weather flights, if I'm not sweating a bit after climbing into the airplane and strapping in....well, I'm probably underdressed.

Ron Wanttaja

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