Monday, July 20, 2015

Safety is a Working Heater (or easily assessible warm clothing!)

I’ve always thought of myself as “flying prepared.”  I’ve got an extra warm jacket, bottled water, blankets and various other types of survival gear in the back of my airplane, plus I’m superstitious about flying in clothing that wouldn’t’ serve me well at a crash site (shorts, sandals, etc.).  

So it was with nary a second thought that I took off one December day for an hour and a half flight from Santa Barbara to Oakland. Climbing up through 5500 feet MSL, I decided that it was time for some heat from my Baron’s nose-mounted Janitrol heater.To fire up the heater (and I mean fire up, as it’s a small gas heater that has its own Hobbs meter to ensure proper inspections are performed in a timely manner),  you first push the cabin air lever “in” half way to be sure there’s air for combustion. Then, switch on the heater so it can mix the air with the fuel and begin its smelly process of warming the cabin.  However, the lever MUST be at least half way pushed in to allow enough air for combustion.  No air, no heat. 

I began the process of turning on the heater by trying to push the air lever all the way in (forward)…and trying to push the air lever…and then realizing that the air lever was stuck and no amount of pushing (either 1-handed, 2-handed or by using my shoe to bang on it) was going to move that frozen lever inwards.   Since that air lever controls the flow of outside air into the cabin, I had been flying  for the past few months with the air lever mostly “off” (pulled out) to regulate the cabin temperature, not needing the heater and preferring instead to just stop the cold air inflow by closing off that infamous lever which was now stuck in the “no air” position.

Fortunately, I had a blanket at hand, but only a thin one that just barely did a sufficient job of keeping my lower extremities warm.  My upper body was now beginning to chill as the OAT plunged toward +5C at 8500 feet.  Thinking about my jacket in the aft baggage, I quickly discarded any thought to trying to get to it and instead put my freezing hands inside the soft lined bag I use to hold my headset. Bagged hands are no substitute for warm gloves, believe me.

I asked ATC for a descent to 4500 MSL as soon as the MEA (minimum enroute altitude) would permit, hoping the temperature would increase as I got to a lower altitude, but no such luck.  It was still around +7C as the cold front was just arriving in the area, turning our balmy weather into a very chilly and windy Friday afternoon.  Landing at OAK, I made a beeline for the FBO where I could park, retrieve my sweater, jacket and gloves to warm up my frozen parts.  

Safety wise, I now realize how much of my time I was spent during the flight worrying about my overly-chilled body.  Thinking back, it’s obvious that the infamous air lever needs to go on my cabin preflight checklist, if only to move it in and out before each flight to ensure it functions properly when I need it. As for warm clothing, having it close at hand, ever if you never use it, is the best insurance possible, to avoid the possibility of an inflight diversion or frost bitten body parts.


  1. That must have been quite scary to be flying and go to turn on the heat and have that happen. To be that cold while flying? How awful. And then to check your pack for warm clothes and blankets and only find a thin blanket? That must have been so disappointing. I am glad you are okay!

  2. Wow, that must have made for a long flight for you! That was a really interesting read, thank you for sharing. I knew that it got chilly the higher up you went, but I did not realize it was so chilly a few thousand feet up! I'm glad that nothing else went wrong on your flight. Safe travels!