[Title Bar]

Winter Weather Flying in the Northeast

[Frank and the Mooney in Ithaca in the Winter]
Frank and the Mooney in Ithaca after a winter flight


I should mention that in preparation for the trip, beyond fanatically watching the weather, forecasts, prognostic charts, and computer model output, I did some flying. I got my night currency back (going up with an instructor, doing some stop and goes, getting lost and then figuring out where I was without using the GPS, as well as regaining my night currency in the Mooney.

The next step was to get instrument current (or proficient). Again, this involved flying with an instructor. It was a really crappy, cloudy day. Great practice. In addition, while it was cold on the ground, there was a temperature inversion in the air, so it got warmer as we climbed and remained above freezing. Nevertheless, since it was 37°F on the ground (~3°C), we paid a lot of attention to the temperature aloft and watched for ice. The weather was in flux, the reference headings kept changing, and below 3000' MSL, it was a bit of a choppy ride. In other words, a good day to brush up on skills (especially since there was a CFII there).

Finally, I took some time doing simulator work to practice holds, more approaches, and stuff like that, so I'll be comfortable with things as well as fully up to date in the FAA's eyes.

The trip out

I flew from Ithaca, NY to North Kingston/Quonset State airport in Rhode Island. I left Friday, December 17, 2004, around 4pm. I don't think I've ever started a flight in which I don't have to run back to the hangar to get something. Perhaps it's a chart. Perhaps I haven't checked out the plane. Perhaps I don't have any keys to the plane. Well, I had all that set this time. I turned on a cell phone I had borroed from work to tell my friend I was about to leave, only to realize the phone wasn't working, displaying some cryptic image of a phone and a computer hooked together. My theory on it now is that the cold weather made it go batty.

Oh yeah, I could see my breath when I called ground control to taxi. I was hoping that the heater would do a decent job once I was airborne as I had taken off my winter jacket (it was on the seat, I just wasn't in it). The Mooney has a good heater, although I did elect to just wear my jacket on the way back.

So, I had to run back to the club and call my friend. While there, someone walked in and wanted to get the scoop on learning how to fly here, and no one else was around. So I gave him a quick explanation of how our club works, the costs, fees, deposits, etc. I think I only left a half hour late.

It got dark maybe 30 minutes later, but it was a clear night with good weather the whole way. Pretty much an uneventful flight. I had filed the flight plan as direct to a nearby VOR (Hancock (HNK)), then along the V167 airway, to Providence, then direct to Quonset State (KOQU). After HNK, ATC quickly amended my clearance to fly direct to KOQU.

They gave me vectors for a visual approach. Quonset doesn't have any weather reporting (ATIS), so ATC gave me the winds, runway, and altimeter. The approach took me over Narragansett Bay. The final approach for Runway 34 is over the bay. There was a flashing buoy that served as a good visual reference point for where to turn onto final approach. The runway is 7500 feet long and has a PAPI (visual indicator for the approach path), so that makes it a bit more comfortable flying over the water. The half mile, I was getting low enough to see texture on the water, before that it was just black. But the landing was uneventful, and I managed to stop at the first main taxiway, which I later discovered meant I used around 2000' of runway. Not bad for a Mooney.

The trip back

There were two weather systems I was watching. One was a storm moving up the east coast. The other was moving in over the great lakes from Canada, down into New York. Both were supposed to move in around Sunday-ish, more or less, give or take, plus or minus. The coastal system was supposed to affect the area late Saturday/early Sunday and move out of the area, off the coast by mid-Sunday. The low moving in from Canada was supposed to be coming in around mid to late Sunday, and would hang around on Monday.

If possible, I wanted to spend all of Saturday with my friends and then return on Sunday. My biggest concern would be low IFR weather and icing en-route.

I had a number of fall-back plans, some more well-formulated than others. They were:

Other factors involved were that I did not want to fly this leg at night (I didn't want to deal with weather and dark), and that the weather didn't look terribly good on Monday. Since the weather was decent in New England, my preference would be to fly somewhere that would get me closer, rather than just wait it out in Rhode Island.

When I called up Flight Serive on Saturday, they said the weather didn't look like it would be all that bad on Sunday. So I decided I could go forward with Plan A.

Plan A

So, I called up for a weather briefing Sunday morning and learned that Ithaca was getting hammered with snow. Great. The forecast was for improving conditions, though it was amended for it not to improve as quickly. So much for Plan A, and I had already missed the chance for Plan B. Still, the forecast was for flyable IFR weather. And the plan was to head into Providence in the morning with my friends. I filed a flight plan, bumping the proposed departure time to 1pm. In other words, Plan C.

I did need to formalize Plan G and because the forecast conditions were semi-crappy, I needed a good alternate. (Legally, for an airport to be filed as an alternate, the weather must be forecast to be 2 miles visibility and 600' ceilings within +/- 1 hour of the arrival time, for a precision (ILS) approach; for a non-precision approach, the minimum ceiling requirement increases to 800'.) The two mile visibility was the thing that was problematic. Every airport in the area had the phrase "occasional visibility 1 mile in light snow" during my planned arrival time. This included Binghamton, Elmira, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Albany was possible, but it was really backtracking a lot, and the storm would be heading its way. After talking to the briefer a bit, the best "out" looked to be to the south. Williamsport, PA had a decent forecast. I flew there once, for my student "long cross-country" flight. I figured if I had to take that option, I'd probably want to go to a big airport, with long runways, and good facilities, like rental cars, a place to sleep, etc. So I picked Wilkes-Barre, PA as the alternate. Probably an hour or hour and a quarter flight. I had 5 hours of fuel on board and it would take 2 to get to Ithaca, so that left me with a comfortable reserve for appraoches.

Plan C

I got to the airport around 1pm. The radar showed Ithaca was still getting hit. The current conditions had improved from 200' indefinite ceiling and low visibility to about 3/4 of a mile and 1000'. It looked like there wasn't much behind the storm, like it would pass. Not great weather, but definitely viable for an ILS approach. The minimums for the ILS 32 approach require 250' ceiling and 3/4 of a mile visibility. And the wind was almost aligned right with the runway, though a little gusty (10 knots, gusting to 20).

The ice question

The big question on my mind was ice. There were some pilot reports (PIREPs) in the state reporting ice, but none were in the area, most were near the great lakes (Buffalo, Rochester); so there was ice out there. But the radar (as well as the briefer earlier) indicated that there wasn't a lot of moisture in the system; so the ice would, most likely, be localized. To me, this means that if I took action, changing altitude, turning around, landing, etc., there'd be a good chance of minimizing the encounter.

So the question then became, where would I most likely see it and what would my options be at that point. There are a lot of airports in New England and along the Hudson River in New York. And in western New York, there are a lot of options. The part that I needed to think through was the big stretch in the middle, near the Catskill Mountains. There weren't a lot of airports there. If I needed to divert to an airport, how far would I have to go, how long would I have to wait? I did not want to turn around at the first sign of ice, if there were other viable, safe options. Albany might be an out, as I'd be probably 15 minutes from them. The weather was moving in towards them, but they are big and have radar. And I could also deviate way south if needed. The freezing level was above the surface in New England (in the mid 40s F (5s C) when I left) and heading south would take me into warmer air, but it'd have to be a good bit south.

After thinking things over, I decided it was worth a try. I would have to pay attention, but I didn't feel like it was just "get-home-itis" driving me. I thought about whether I would take this flight if I had passengers. I think the best answer I could come up with was "it depends." Also, the visibility at Ithaca had increased to a mile. Also, Rochester was reporting way over their minimums, and I have friends that live there, so that looked like a viable alternate too.


I launched around 2:30pm. They had me depart on Runway 23. I had forgotten the airport had two runways, so I had to double check the taxi-diagram first. And this time, the engine started without any problems -- starting it in Ithaca took some effort, since it was considerably colder. The New England weather was decent. Some scattered lower clouds, but the ceiling was pretty high. I climbed to 8000' and the temperature was around -5°C. I was hoping for a colder temperature, as that's in the prime ice risk range.

The lower layer changed to broken and eventually a solid undercast. And I started getting into the cloud bases. This continued for a half hour, uneventfully. Bradely approach passed me to Albany approach. Knowing that there'd be a good bit of time before I got passed on to the next sector, I decided it would be a good time to check up on the weather. I requested a frequency change to contact flight service.

Weather update

Flight service told me that Ithaca was now up to 2 miles visibility. 1 inch of patchy thin snow on the runway. No further amendments to the forecast. I gave him a pilot report. He said that the radar was showing precipitation in my area and I should be hitting it soon. He gave me a few PIREPS for icing in the state too. At that point, I realized I couldn't see out the windscreen. Sure, I was in the clouds, but I couldn't see the cowling anymore. Crap. I looked at the wing and sure enough, there was a thin line of ice starting to form. I told him that I needed to ammend my PIREP and add icing. It didn't appear to be growing that fast. No matter, it was time for a new plan.

Plan D

I went back to Albany approach. I must admit, I did spent a little bit of time staring at the wings. I also turned the heat on full and redirected it to the windscreen. A small hole of visibilty appeared. I could see the cowling through it. I did have some thoughts about how I could land if I couldn't see out the front and recall reading about various options. But I also knew I had an hour of flying left and if I could stop the build-up of ice, I could let the heat and sublimation clear things up.

My plan was to change altitudes. Descending wouldn't get me into significantly warmer air. And the temperature at that point was -10°C. A bit lower temperature would reduce the chance of icing a good bit, and most of the icing reports were below 10,000'. I called Albany and requested a climb to 10,000'. I would see what happened and how the plane performed. I could climb up to 12,000' if needed. Above that, I'd need to use oxygen, and the plane isn't equipped for that. In addition, the headwind increased with altitude, and I wasn't fond of fighting a 50 knot headwind, if I didn't have to.

Albany approved the request. The other thing I recalled was that when climbing, it's best not to just haul back on the yoke and climb as fast as you can. The plane has ice, so it may stall at a higher speed, and you lose airspeed as you climb. The second is that a really high angle of attack exposes (more of) the underside of the wing to the ice, and while ice build-up on the leading edge of the wing is bad, building up ice on the entire bottom of the wing is worse. So I started a gentle climb at 500 feet per minute and kept the airspeed at or above 120. The plane performed normally. It hadn't been losing airspeed, and the ice strips across the leading edge of the wings was probably around 1/2 inch. It climbed through 9,000 feet without a problem and continued to up to 10.

Leveling off at 10, the temperature was now 12 to 14 degrees C below zero. That was good. I was still in the clouds, but now I could see the sun dimly through them. A climb to 12 might take me on top, but it also might put me right in the tops of the clouds. Typically, icing is the worst right in the tops. I decided to wait a bit and see if things were better or worse. By now a lot more of the windscreen had been cleared by the heater. And looking at the wings, it appeared that there was no more ice accretion. After a few minutes, it looked like it was barely, almost imperceptibly, starting to decay away (i.e., sublimate). Sublimation is slow, even when you've got a 150 mile an hour wind blasting at it. So it was more a matter of checking for changes, seeing if it was improving or getting worse. In addition, I had the windscreen as another tell-tale. It seemed like Plan D was working.

I was on an airway and requested direct Binghamton (the end-point on the airway). They offered me direct Ithaca. Even better. According to the GPS, I was around 100 miles out from Ithaca. The ice no longer seemed to be a factor. The question now turned to where I would land. If ice became a problem again, I would soon be close enough to Binghamton to land there. And if this altitude remained clear of ice, I would not be spending much time in the descent. Also, Ithaca was reporting -9°C on the surface, so it was only getting colder, which was a good thing.

From 10,000 feet, I could receive Ithaca's ATIS (weather recording) at 80 miles out and start planning for the approach. No significant changes in the weather. As I got closer, Boston center gave me a descent to 9000' and passed me to Binghamton approach. Again, no more ice. Binghamton gave me a descent to 6000' and gave me a vector to the final approach. Then they handed me off to Elmira, and they had me continue the descent to 4000' and continued the vector.

The GPS provided nice situational awareness for me to know how far out I was and "the big picture." I had already started slowing the plane down to approach speed during the descent from 6000'. I wanted to make sure I was below landing gear extension speed. The headwind was still pretty strong, so my ground track was pretty slow (for a Mooney). I intercepted the localizer and then performed the landing check-list. Upon intercepting the glide-slope, I dropped the landing gear, and started the descent. Even at 4000', I could see glimpses of the ground straight down. The ceiling wouldn't be a problem, only the visibility.

Elmira approach handing me off to Ithaca tower, who cleared me to land. I was still 8 miles out. So it was a matter of just flying a normal ILS approach. I broke out 800-1000', but didn't have the field in sight yet. I stayed on the glideslope. Then, a couple miles out, I saw the approach lights, with the happy, flashing lead-in lights. A very nice sight. I was still 500' up and decided to not do anything until I got to the minimums, as that was how I was used to flying an IFR approach in this plane.


At 250 feet, 3/4 of a mile out, the middle marker light came on along with the appropriate beeping. I was at 90 knots. I reduced the power almost to idle, and simultaneously raised the nose, added full flaps, and retrimmed. Yes, I know about stabilized approaches and changing things at the last minute, but I don't like flying an approach in the Mooney with flaps, and the destabilization is relatively brief, and the airspeed changes only by 10 knots. The plane slowed to 80 knots, I verified the gear was down and propeller control full forward, and added a little power to stay on the VASI (visual approach slope indicator). The touch down was fairly decent. The headwind reduced my groundspeed and the nose came down without the typical thud, and no embarrassing bounce.

It's been a while since I've landing on snow. The plane immediately started to slide. I was smart enough not to touch the brakes at all. It felt like a car sliding. I added aileron to correct for the cross-wind (only 10 degrees) and the nose pointed down the runway. I dumped the flaps, since I wanted the wheels to keep the weight. Once I was sure it was going straight, I started to apply the brakes. It responded. The tower had me exit at the center taxiway, which allowed me to roll for a while without having to brake. From then on, I had directional control, and there was no sliding. The tower asked me me for a braking report, I said it was "fair."

I taxied in and shut down far enough away from the fuel pump to make sure I could stop. It was pretty snowy on the ground. I found it rather difficult to pull the plane to the pump. So I got some help from two people at the club who were still around. While I refueled the plane, they shoveled a path from the hangar to the fuel pump, and we pushed the plane in.

It was a good trip. It required planning, and vigiliance in checking to see how the weather was changing and if the plans were working, and prompt action to change the plan when necessary. The next day the temperature never got above 0°F (-18°C) and it was snowing and blowing all day.

It's nice when things work out as planned, even if it's not Plan A.

This page last modified Jun 28, 2009.
RSS Feed