Winter Flying Tips from an Alaskan Pilot

By Michael S. “Scott” Christy, CFI, 3,500-hour pilot

January 2019

My key tips for winter flying. The tips provided are mostly for flying some distance from one’s home base. I move my plane locally in low weather, but do not go into the mountains. And safety first is paramount and my motto.

Tip 1 - Have an in-depth understanding of the weather conditions and trends before you decide to fly into mountainous terrain or the wilderness. Only depart for far off places if the weather in the winter is either stable or is moving towards an improving trend. Never depart into descending weather. Know the odds of fog forming where you are planning to fly. Fog typically forms first along marine shorelines and in low areas such as lake basins. Be picky about the winter weather you will fly in. It is best to select only mellow winter days to fly far from the home airport.

I call the National Weather Service Aviation desk and talk directly to the meteorologist who makes the forecasts that Flight Service uses. The difference is that they are able to give me much more information and will confirm whether the weather computer models agree (they use about three different ones) or not. Since what we discuss is not an official briefing, they are free to tell me how much confidence they have in a forecast and the odds things could be different. I also try to check with them over a couple of days before I fly off into the wilds, so I have an idea of the weather trend. This option is only available in Alaska.

In the Lower 48, pilots need to use the short version that Flight Service provides or other weather services. In Alaska, with few weather reporting stations, vast distances, many mountain ranges, and proximity to lots of marine water, where low pressure systems are born, the weather is more difficult to forecast. I have encountered freezing rain falling out of a 6,000-foot overcast that wasn’t in any weather forecasts along the outer coast. Fog will also form along the coast that is not even forecast, even in the summer. So, weather here is a Number One, Number Two and Number Three safety factor.

Tip 2 - Take more survival gear than you think you would need. Things happen, and you might have an unplanned overnight event. Obviously pack extra clothes, (arctic parka, down pants, extra-large mittens and socks) along with a sleeping bag, boots, cross country-ski boots with toe heaters (I have bad feet for the cold) and back country skis and poles. One Alaskan pilot told me you should almost take a Motel 6 with you for winter flights here. If there is room, an arctic sleeping bag, small two-person tent, collapsible avalanche shovel. Throw in an engine cover, spinner cover and blade cover – these can be used to keep you or your occupants warm, as well as to protect the plane.

Tip 3 - Have a satellite telephone, tracking device, and backup handheld aviation radio. Anything reliable that would allow you to call for help if you are in trouble. Have more than one as a backup in case the first one doesn't work. (Note a cell phone will not work once you are in the mountains or away from populated areas in Alaska). A satellite phone would allow you to update weather conditions BEFORE you depart from the wilderness if you have been there any length of time. lt could save your life.

Tip 4 - Have a good flight plan with either Flight Service or a reliable friend. I have found the reliable friend less likely to make a mistake. When I use a friend to make a flight plan, I send them a written one in an email. Better than just a verbal one.

Tip 5 - Have enough support equipment to take care of you and your airplane. To help prevent getting stuck in deep snow (if on skis off airport) or on the ground long enough for the engine to go cold. Have a way to preheat your engine, snow shoes to pack a runway in deep snow, shovel, ice screws and ropes to tie the plane down.

Tip 6 - Have good luck or good karma. The last item is for humor, but it would be helpful to have a positive attitude – always.

Note: The Alaskan Flying Tips I have provided, which are my personal recommendations, have assumed you are flying in core winter, when the lakes are well frozen. However, if it is early winter or towards spring when lake ice thickness or quality is a concern, I use a somewhat common Alaskan method to test lake thickness. I didn’t invent the technique and it has been around in Alaska for years. It is commonplace in Alaska among winter flyers to use a bowling ball to test the lake ice strength. You may click here to read about it. If you would like to correspond with me about this technique, you may reach me when I am not flying at

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Scott Christy flies his Maule M-6 on wheels, wheel skis, and straight floats during the year, depending on the season. In addition to flying around Alaska, he has taken a number of extensive cross-country flying trips, visiting 49 states and 11 Canadian provinces. He earned his private pilot’s license in 1983 and completed his commercial, instrument and certified flight instructor’s ratings soon thereafter. He has been a policyholder with Avemco Insurance Company since 2014.

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