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Blocks of Ice

Blocks of Ice

In the biz jet world operations can be varied, from Caribbean beaches, capital cities or the freezing snow covered airfields of the north, you just may not know where you will end up. This is where I fell foul when packing for the week ahead.  The plan for the week was so fly around southern Europe - all good. Although it was winter the weather was mild, then on day 5 we got the call to go to Russia. 

We hadn’t been to Russia for a good while so, visas checked – tick. A check of the books reminds us that they work QFE, and from experience controllers can be a little late helping you with descents but nothing to worry about.   A weather check tells us that it is CAVOK, windy and cold, again nothing to worry about there.

Wheels-up and off we go, Russian airspace doesn’t disappoint and we land safely early-evening in the dark.  Parking is in some dark abandoned part of the airfield, but to our relief we see the handlers’ minibus with its flashing lights. I go to open the door and am immediately met with an artic blast of air that takes my breath away. Maybe I should put my jacket on! Jacket-on, I assist our passengers to disembark and they promptly disappear into the night.

Back inside our APU warmed jet we promptly set about cleaning up.  Interior now polished, time to put the Pitot and engine covers on.  I check the actual weather on the smart phone, -35 Deg C and 20-25 Kts and immediately recall wind-chill tables but have no idea what the actual chill factor will be except for damn cold.

I turn to my fellow pilot who is looking hopefully at me to volunteer to go outside and do the covers, and I start laughing.  “Did you bring anything other than your jacket?” he asks. He turns and starts rummaging in his bag, and with a triumphant looks pulls out a pair of skiing gloves – nice work!

We decide that I should go out and put on the metal pitot covers. I open the door to the freezing wind and start trying to put them on.  Those who have tried this will know that it is pretty much impossible to do up the hand screws with gloves on; so I decide to take them off.  No-problems holding the covers as they are still unfrozen from having been inside, but as soon as I touch a metal part of the aircraft I stick to it.  Ah. Luckily a quick pull separates my skin from the metal with out any damage – close one!  Gloves back on I manage to get the covers in place on the left side and dash back inside to warm up.  I then point out to my fellow pilot that this maybe a little more serious than we thought.  All bravado, he then disappears outside to finish the other side.  10 minutes later he reappears and agrees with my assessment.

Pitot covers on, now for the engine covers.  We are on a large jet and the engines are high up requiring a ladder and with 20 odd knots of wind it will take two of us to complete.  Armed with one glove each we set off.  The aircraft is dimly lit and the wind is now swirling the ground snow all around us reducing visibility even further.  We take the soft covers out and immediately one escapes with the wind, I now trundle through a foot of snow on the grass area behind the jet to retrieve it in my chelsea boots.  Cover-retrieved, boots full of snow and one hand with no feeling at all, we both dive into the baggage hold to thaw out.

Hmm! Not going at all as planned.  It takes us an hour to complete the task that would normally take 10 minutes, and retreat inside the aircraft cabin.  I ask my fellow pilot if he has asked for the toilet to be drained and he tells me that the handling agent are not able to do it.  A full toilet will freeze over night damaging the system so we resort to an old trick of the trade, a bottle of the bosses best vodka tipped in, after all we are in Russia.

We manage to drain the potable water system and pack up all liquids to have them removed from the aircraft and stored indoors overnight.  What about the aircraft batteries I get asked, we are supposed to remove them and again store them inside below a certain negative temperature.  I think he was met by a reply of “to hell with the batteries they are on their own” we would need to survive another half hour trying to remove them and that might have just finished us off.

Handling-agent called for a pick-up and off we head to the warmth of the terminal with two highly amused Russians who have seen it all before. In the warmth of the hotel bar, vodka in hand we look up the wind chill graphs.

Minus 35 Deg C at 25 Kts (12.86m/s) = minus 55 Deg C = Exposed skin can get frost bite in less than 2 minutes

I think you get the moral of the story.