How to Fly Safely in Icing Conditions

If you fly light aircraft in parts of the world that are susceptible to icing conditions then it is imperative that you understand the dangers that can be experienced and how to prevent them.

Ice is known as one of the main causes of weather related accidents and pilots repeatedly fail to heed warnings about how dangerous it can be.

In this post I’ll look at some of the precautions to take, and how to fly safely in icing conditions.


Why is ice bad for aircraft?

Ice typically forms over the surface of the aircraft, particularly where water or moisture can gather, such as on the surface of the wings and elevators.

It is these formations which cause particular problems when flying as accumulations of ice on wings can significantly alter the surface shape of the wing, which in turn alters its aerodynamic ability to produce lift when air passes over it.

When ice forms, it creates an uneven surface on top of the wing which can deflect airflow. This can be dangerous at any stage of the flight, leading to a stall.

Ice can also affect the readings of instruments if it causes a blockage of pitot tubes and static vents.

In extreme circumstances, ice can also restrict the movement of control surfaces.


Ice can form on wings and pose a great risk to aircraft.

Ice can form on aircraft wings and pose a great risk to aircraft.

Dealing with ice before a flight

If there have been icy conditions leading up to the time of your flight, extra time should be taken to prepare the aircraft and remove ice.

This can be done through the use of scrapers and de-icing fluid (check it is suitable for use on aircraft). This may be more difficult on high-wing aircraft.

Check over every inch of the control surfaces as ice can also be difficult to see at first. A completely clean wing is the only way to be safe.

It is also important to check your pitot tubes and static vents for ice build-up, and then make sure your pitot heat is on before flight.

Try not to operate a fully laden aircraft in icing conditions, as the climb performance can be affected by ice. However, make sure you have enough fuel to deal with a bit of extra power and speed if necessary.


Icy Runway

Operating on icy airports

Remember that ice may also be widespread on the taxiways and runway at the airport. Therefore keep your taxi speed low, especially when turning corners, and look out for patches of ice on the runway.

Avoid heavy braking and give yourself plenty of stopping distance in case you do slide.


Dealing with ice in flight

Smaller aircraft rarely have the de-icing equipment seen on larger aircraft, such as leading edge boots or heated wings. Therefore you should keep an eye out for ice build-up during flight if you can see your wing surfaces.

Chances are that if it has built up quickly, it may continue to build up and put the aircraft at greater risk. It is also possible to accumulate ice when flying in or near clouds during freezing temperatures.

The best solution if this is the case is to consider landing, but immediately you should be putting your pitot heat on and also putting your windshield defrost on. Also think about turning around to where you came from to prevent flying deeper into icing conditions.

If you notice any drop in RPM, ice could be forming in the carburetor so stick the heat on to melt it.

Clouds should be given a wide clearance to avoid icing associated with them, and if ATC clearance takes you into the path of clouds it is important to communicate that an alternate path needs to be taken.

Flying at a lower altitude or away from areas such as clouds can help to melt ice, but once a build up has occurred it is difficult to remove in the air.

Having ice on the wings in flight can alter their performance. It can mean the stall occurs at a lower speed and with a lower angle of attack. It can also cause the tailplane to stall if ice has formed.

If your windscreen ices over, use the defroster in the aircraft (if it carries one), or try to scrape a gap if you can reach from an open window.


Prevent ice in the engine

You have probably been taught to use carburetor heat during your flights. This is important during icing conditions as it can prevent ice buildup in the induction system, which will restrict air flow to the carburetor. Remember that this can happen even in the summer when moisture and cooled air are present in the engine! During icing conditions use the carburetor heat for longer than usual (30 seconds).


Approach and landing

It is a good idea to approach for landing at a higher speed when ice is present as any build up on the wings can increase the stall speed. You should also avoid using flaps if there is a buildup of ice on your wings as it could lead to a tail stall.

Ice on the ground should also be taken into account. Patches of ice can cause the aircraft to skid, and this may make the landing extra difficult in crosswind conditions.


Winter flying can be the best when you have a crisp, clear day. But remember the dangers it poses when the temperature has fallen to 0 degrees and ice is forming. Many crashes every year occur because of ice, and in particular because due care has not been taken by the pilot to take into account how ice affects their aircraft.




Matt Falcus is a private pilot and aviation writer. He has been flying since 2006, taking the opportunity whenever the British weather allows to explore the local area and other airfields. He is author of a number of aviation books.

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2 Responses

  1. May 19, 2016

    […] I’ve covered before, ice is often fatal to aircraft, so it must be removed before flight. However, cracks can also damage the integrity of the wing, […]

  2. September 14, 2016

    […] [How to Fly Safely in Icing Conditions] […]

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