The seasons

During the Second World War, President Roosevelt referred to Canada as the Aerodrome of Democracy, training over 50 000 pilots over 5 years under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It is perhaps a small privilege to be able to follow in the footsteps of this Canadian pilot-training history. Canada offered vast spaces, safety from Axis forces, and variety of weather.

Weather and flying are intimately connected but for now I’m just going to talk about when it’s hot, and when it’s cold.

In the summer, the plane (Diamond DA20) is hot. Uncomfortably hot. If I were to guess I’d say the cabin temperature is about 30 degrees Celsius. It has a massive plexiglas canopy and poor ventilation. It’s pretty much a flying solar oven. After a couple hours of flight time my co-workers were convinced I’d gone on a Caribbean vacation from my tan. I got used to sweating through my clothes and keeping hydrated. Linen pants were a lifesaver.

The temperatures also remind the pilot that the modern general aviation (GA) airplane still requires a lot of attention. It is not a car. In fact, while I was originally surprised to learn that you can get a pilot licence before you can get a driver’s licence, driving actually induces several bad habits that must be unlearned in order to be a good pilot. Chief among these is the lack of instant response. Terrestrial vehicles have the benefit of pushing against solid ground, so inputs – throttle, brake, steering, usually produces instant responses. Airplanes, and I suspect boats, do not have this benefit. As a driver first and pilot second I am constantly overcorrecting because I am adding inputs until I see the response I want, instead of adding a little input and waiting for the response I want. This is an ongoing battle.

Back to the temperatures. Cars have robust cooling systems that rarely require attention. Training aircraft, when asked to climb at full power on hot days, may overheat, so its occasionally necessary to level off during a climb to cool the engine.

Somewhat inexplicably, some planes (Of the same type!) have better ventilation than others. On one plane the vent was basically useless. This makes hot weather flying extra taxing, and doesn’t help at all with the motion sickness.

Cold weather flying is more pleasant. With denser air the engine produces more power, and the wings produce more lift. The air is calmer in the winter as the sun doesn’t produce as many thermals. The terrain looks different in white. With the exception of a draft emitted from the throttle opening that chills the right hand, it’s not uncomfortable, although I did go through different types of gloves. You can’t fly with ski gloves because you can’t write, and you can’t operate the buttons. I tried liner gloves but they didn’t insulate at all. Most of my winter flying was done with woollen gloves with sticky grips on them, although late in the season I got some new types of gloves I’m eager to try. I also learned to wear proper footwear after trying to push a plane across glassy ice on the ramp. But who complains about excuses to buy gear?

In addition, the airplanes need to be kept warm in the winter. They have an internal electric engine heater but they also wear a blanket out on the ramp to keep the heat in. On trips to the practise area we take the engine blanket with us to keep us warm in case of an off-field landing.

In the winter planes also need to be de-iced. When you fly scheduled passenger routes there is an enormous truck with a boom-mounted nozzle that sprays the plane down. At a flight school it is a ramp employee that with a hand-pumped pressure sprayer full of glycol. If you wonder why they are so generous with the de-icing fluid its because it’s actually illegal to take off with contamination on the critical surfaces of the aircraft.¹ The walk-around check includes an inspection of all the surfaces of the aircraft to make sure there’s no contamination. If there’s doubt as to whether there’s anything on the surface, a swipe of the finger is usually good enough. If the swipe catches frost, its contaminated.

The only major downside to winter is the shorter days, so weekday flights are out so as long as I’m cube farming. Perhaps fall – September and October – are the best for flying. The temperatures are nice and the fall scenery from the sky is very eye-pleasing.

¹Canadian Aviation Regulations – 602.11 (2) No person shall conduct or attempt to conduct a take-off in an aircraft that has frost, ice or snow adhering to any of its critical surfaces.

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