Be prepared for winter runway hazards


Is it snowing yet? Wait for it, it will. Runways covered in snow or recently ploughed present some challenges.

A Cessna C-172 pilot departed a northern Ontario airport for a short sightseeing flight. He returned for landing 20 minutes later and shortly after touchdown, the right wheel hit some snow that had drifted partially across the runway. The aircraft veered right and impacted the snow bank on the right side of the runway.

A PA28-140 Cherokee was landing at Birch Hills, Sask. when the left wheel encountered some snow, causing it to veer off the runway. It struck a snow bank and overturned.

An instructor and student in a C-172 decided to practice a touch-and-go at a nearby airport. As they accelerated during the “go” part of the procedure, they noticed a snow windrow across the runway. The instructor took control and tried to clear the windrow. Unfortunately, the main wheels clipped the windrow. He maintained control of the aircraft with difficulty and proceeded back to the home airport to have the main gear checked.

A Beech 24R pilot was attempting to land on a runway that was 100 per cent covered with glare ice and compact snow. The pilot believed the ice was bare pavement. On touchdown, the aircraft slid off the left side of the runway and hit a snow bank. The nose gear broke off and the propeller was damaged.

The Bellanca BL17 pilot reported hitting a patch of ice on landing and slid into a snow bank. There were no injuries. Damage to the aircraft is unknown.

The pilot of a Cessna C-180K over flew a 2,400 foot private strip and judged it to be firm and suitable. On landing, the aircraft drifted right. Power was added and the aircraft became airborne for about 100 feet and touched down again with the right wheel on softer ground. The aircraft continued to the right until the right wheel hit a snow drift and the aircraft flipped over. The pilot was not injured.

A Taylorcraft BC1201 pilot departed a snow-covered runway. He returned for a 3-point landing on runway 26. Depth perception was difficult, the aircraft stalled and landed hard, short of the runway. The main gear collapsed and the propeller was damaged.

The pilot of the Piper PA-32-300 aircraft was practicing a short field landing at Lake Simcoe Regional Airport when the aircraft's main wheels contacted a snow bank at the threshold of runway 28. There was substantial damage to the landing gear and propeller. 

A Christavia Mk 1 hit a snowdrift on take-off. The aircraft ground looped and nosed over, damaging the propeller.

The C-172 pilots and the PA28-140 pilot did not check out the runway conditions before the landing or the touch-and-go. A precautionary approach may have saved them from some very tense moments or a lot of grief. At airports where there is no control tower or FSS, or other aircraft traffic, we have no way of determining the runway condition unless we perform a precautionary approach.

The first C-172 pilot discovered that drifting snow can change the runway condition in 20 minutes. The PA28-140 pilot learned that it does not take much snow to grab a tire and send you off into a snow bank.

Snow windrows can be left behind temporarily by snowplough operators as the instructor and student discovered. The snowplough operator had just ploughed an intersecting runway and had not had time to remove the windrows. The snowplough operator was listening to the radio and heard the C-172 approaching, but had no way of warning the pilots. 

The Beech 24R and C-180 pilots did check out their runways prior to landing. The C-180 pilot’s mistake was allowing the aircraft to drift to the side where the strip surface was soft. Soft portions of a strip may be difficult to detect from the air. If melting has occurred recently and you are not certain the ground is frozen, watch carefully for soft ground. Be prepared to go around any time drift occurs toward snow banks. Adding power to make corrections and save a landing may be too little too late.

The Beech 24R pilot did not detect the ice. Unless the suns glare reflects off of the ice, it may be very difficult to see.

The Bellanca pilot did not check out the runway prior to landing and didn’t know about the patches of ice. If brakes are being applied when a patch of ice is encountered, directional control can be quickly lost.

Low light conditions may make it difficult to judge height above ground when the area around the button of the runway is snow covered. The Taylorcraft pilot realized late that he was low and raised the aircraft nose to hold the aircraft off, but was too slow in adding power. The PA-32-300 pilot was intentionally low for his short field landing practice, but the low light conditions prevented him from judging just how high the snow was at the runway threshold.

Low light conditions do not allow definition or shadows that may give us something to judge height by. We must use our peripheral vision and buildings, vehicles or parked aircraft to assist in height judgements.

It may be a good idea to perform a precautionary check of a runway prior to take off after a recent snow fall or period of melting. The Christavia pilot likely wished he had. 

We should always be prepared to go around. Too often, when we judge a landing site safe, we put ourselves into the mindset that we are going to land. This mindset will delay our decision and reactions to go around if we are surprised by anything unexpected.

At airports without an operating Control Tower, FSS or CARS, we do not have reports on runway conditions. Recent snow, crosswinds or recent melting conditions can leave unexpected hazards. The point is, they should not be unexpected. We should be prepared for anything all the time, especially during the winter.  

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies medevacs from Victoria in a Lear 25. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.

Got an aviation safety story to tell? Dale Nielsen would like to hear from pilots who have educational aviation experiences to relate. Excerpts from these stories will be used in upcoming safety articles. Dale can be contacted via e-mail: