Cold Weather Means Safer Skies, Or Does It?

We’re just over one month into the New Year and January 2014 has been a record breaker. Two long standing records will fall come the end of January 2014.   It could be argued that they’re connected both directly and indirectly as they certainly affect the Aviation community.  January 2014 is turning out to one of the coldest on record and conversely General Aviation’s safest month ever.

Is this the coldest January ever?

Cold weather safer skies

Cherokee Six over the Sawtooth Mountains by Chris Rose.

The coldest temperatures of the century for many cities around the country have been recorded in the first month of 2014. Subzero temperatures have been recorded from North Dakota to New York and as far south as Oklahoma and Alabama. Just this week when the country thought the cold had abated, Atlanta, Georgia received a rare snowstorm that accumulated up to 3 inches. This storm stranded people in retail stores and offices as the roads became treacherous. Three inches may not seem like much to most of the country, but in Georgia it’s a rarity. According to the weather channel, more than 50 primary weather observation sites (mostly in major’s cities) recorded record lows for the date

Cold air is dense air, when air molecules are compressed together they move slower. Increased air density is awesome for pilots when the sky is clear, but freezing conditions produce ice and ice on any airfoil or in the engine is not awesome. If it’s freezing at ground level than there’s a high probability of freezing conditions at any altitude above ground level (AGL). As a result many general aviation aircraft around the country may have been either grounded or under-utilized as the weather conditions made it a challenge to fly safely. With record breaking cold blanketing the country, are we just flying less or is the following a coincidence?

Safest Skies Ever

As snow falls from the skies in unlikely cities, aircraft are not. As we approach the end of the month, reports are indicating that January 2014 may end up as one of the safest ever recorded for General Aviation. “There have been four fatal crashes this month in the United States involving noncommercial piston-powered airplanes, resulting in six fatalities. That’s well below the monthly average.”

That’s 70 percent below the average for January’s over past five years according to the NTSB. In a category where the majority of flight training aircraft fall into, this stat is an impressive one for General Aviation and its active participants. The real question lies in whether this is a direct correlation to the cold weather or simply a contributing factor.

Flying Magazine decided to take a look and according to FlightAware.com, general aviation piston flight activity recorded by the site was down 17 percent this January compared with last January. Can a 17 percent reduction in flight activity contribute to a 70 percent reduction in major accidents? I’ll let you be the judge, but I would presume that there are more reasons than just weather that are contributing to this low number.

Flight training organizations are increasing their focus on safety by developing rigorous Safety Management Systems (SMS) while Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) are becoming increasingly prevalent in cockpits across the nation. Equipment such as the Stratus 2 are being introduced to the market and incorporated into aircraft with ADSB in/out capabilities improving situational awareness for the pilot. Apps, such as Foreflight, now include functional weather tools, sectional maps, and updated airport diagrams as they become a standard. It’s my opinion that flight training is as safe as it’s ever been due to safety awareness, improved training aids, and continuous advances in technology. Although the weather may be a contributing factor to this month’s record breaking safety, hopefully it becomes a safety trend rather than a one month anomaly.  – By Justin Landis

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