Winter Flying Preparation for Float Plane Pilots

Aircraft crashed into ice

You’re flying at 2,000 feet on a sunny day in January, and then, for no obvious reason, your engine quits. After investigating and trying to restart, you realize that you have no choice but to land on the frozen lake below. Luckily, the landing is perfect; you even manage to get close to shore near the woods. Were you well prepared? Let's see. In this article, you'll learn more about winter flying preparation, including essential survival gear you should have on board, how to stay warm, and how to be found during an emergency.

Make sure someone knows where you are

Naturally, you did file a flight plan, right? Do you have a “spot“ or equivalent?

No Flight plan. Does your neighbour or friend know that you were to be back by 16:00? Naturally, they are well versed in who to call for search and rescue, correct? The difference between having backup and not having one could lead to an extended outdoor experience. Sleeping in the bush one night or more can be fun if you're prepared for the occasion. So now, first try to establish radio contact to get help or activate SPOT on emergency or turn on your ELT if you never acquired a“Spot”. Or another emergency locator.

In this case, it was a perfect landing.

There is no injury to take care of, but if the landing had been hard or in a bush area with rocks, then injuries may have become the priority.

Winter Flying Preparation: Essential survival gear

It is now time to do an inventory. In your pockets, do you have matches or a lighter of some sort? Before leaving, did you gather up a couple of space blankets? How about a knife or multi-tool, whistle, compass, water, purifying tablets, heat pads, zip-lock bags or possibly energy bars?

You are lucky because you were dressed to spend the day/night in the bush if required.

In your gear, are there breathable long johns, insulated snow pants, good/warm winter boots, a dry T-shirt (not cotton*), an insulating sweater (wool or fleece) or a sleeveless fleece vest? You should be aware that cotton clothing keeps you warm by trapping warm air near your skin, and wet cotton ceases to insulate you because the air pockets in the fabric fill up with water. When you perspire, any cotton clothing touching your skin will absorb your sweat like a sponge, but air is colder than your body temperature, so saturated cotton does not provide any insulation, which may lead to hypothermia.

Know that nothing beats a good winter jacket with a hood made of breathable material and then later a heavier one for when you stop moving (or to sleep in). You also should have a pair of winter gloves plus some really thick heavy mittens in your pocket and a balaclava and sunglasses.

Once you are secured, it’s time to do an inventory of what survival equipment you have in the plane/helicopter.

Possibly an 8X10 plastic tarp for shelter and a tin cup to carry water and melt snow in or to boil water. How about some 16 gauge wire to build your shelter? A hatchet, and orange garbage bags have many uses, such as a raincoat or a pillow filled with leaves or pine needles or to put on the ground as insulation or for search and rescue. Maybe some good old duct tape and rope, like 4 sections of 35 feet, a small shovel and, of course, your snowshoes. Is that some of the equipment that you would normally find in your winter-equipped plane?

Winter Flying Preparation: Staying warm

Inventory is done…now it’s time to get to work building a shelter and, of course, starting a fire.

You have to pace yourself; otherwise, you will get wet, then chilled, and become hypothermic. The shelter will vary depending on the local terrain and what you have to work with. With an 8X10 tarp, you could build a lean-to or an “A“ frame; if not, maybe a snow house or quinshee made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow in contrast to an igloo that is made from blocks of hard ice. You might simply dig a hole in the snow the size of your body, put some spruce branches in the bottom as a mattress, then spruce branches on top as a roof, and then you would cover yourself completely with snow.

SNOW is your FRIEND as it will act as an insulator and a wind barrier.

Now, getting back to the fire, again pace yourself. How much wood do you really need to last the night? A pyramid-shaped pile of wood approximately as high as your hip should be good. Gather all the materials that you need, kindling small branches and logs before starting the fire. Lighting a fire with kindling and a few branches can play tricks on you, providing a quick fire with flames, and then by the time you turn around to gather more wood, the fire will die, and you will have to start all over again. When your fire is hot with a strong flame, you will build a backing to reflect heat inwards towards the shelter.

Luck might be on your side, and there is a big rock where you can build the shelter as a rock backing will help to reflect the heat, then, in time, get warm and keep the heat longer. Should we be unlucky enough to crash a plane in tree tops or a vast wilderness, what will stop an incident from turning into an accident is simply how well prepared and trained we are for winter survival while we are waiting for

Taking this information to your world now, first off, is your aircraft type resembling a multi-seat DeHavilland Beaver capable of hauling around eight beefy passengers or a Cessna 120 with two of you crammed in like sardines wrapped in snow gear? This will make the difference as to what would be required on board for any trip but also what is pertinent and practical given your gross weight.

I always personally am certain I have a lot more fuel in the tanks than required for any journey when the OAT shows the mercury in the bottom of the glass tube.

Want to learn more about surviving a plane crash? Register for one of our Egress Training Courses, where we go over everything you need to know to survive when the unexpected happens.

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Aircraft crashed into ice
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An Aviation Egress Student Story
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