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Ski Resorts: Not Always an Enjoyable Experience

Ski Resorts: Not Always an Enjoyable Experience

Detachment 1, C Company,
1st Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment (Security & Support)
Massachusetts Army National Guard
Westfield, Massachusetts

As aviators, we’re trained to recognize and understand the hazards of icing, especially when flying an aircraft without deice or anti-ice capabilities. During my initial Readiness Level (RL) progression in the UH-72A, I had an eye-opening experience with icing that stuck with me.

One winter night, I was tasked with planning and conducting what would hopefully be my final RL2-RL1 night vision goggles (NVG) progression flight with my company standardization pilot (SP). During the first portion of the flight, we talked about how the local ski resorts were especially busy that year and the hazards of flying near them when they were creating snow. We landed at Portsmouth International Airport to refuel and debrief before conducting the second portion of the flight. As we were debriefing, we noticed the winds increasing. After rechecking weather, I notified the SP that the winds had picked up from 10 knots to about 20 knots on the ground, and visibility and ceilings hadn’t changed since our arrival.

We departed Portsmouth for our return to Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport as planned. As I leveled off at our cruise altitude, about 10 nautical miles south of the ski resorts we flew over earlier, I noticed the winds were a direct crosswind at 40 knots with a light chop. My SP then began asking me questions about NVGs and NVG flight characteristics, and I was explaining how we can utilize artificial lighting to our advantage. When I turned on the searchlight to demonstrate, my heart nearly stopped.

Outside my windscreen looked like a scene from Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon travels through hyperspace. There was snow everywhere! I turned off the searchlight and the snow disappeared. After turning the searchlight back on and my SP confirming that we were indeed in blowing snow, I transferred the controls. The SP asked me what the outside air temperature was and I replied minus 4 Celsius. He calmly asked me to set up the radios for nearby airfields and monitor the skid shoes, wire strike protection system and pitot tubes with my flashlight for any ice accumulation. As a crew, we decided to place the searchlight field of view to the opposite side of the pilot on the controls. We determined this would provide us with situational awareness of the blowing snow while not impacting visibility. Additionally, we descended from our visual flight rules cruise altitude to about 1,000 feet above ground level to increase our ambient temperature. Even with the decrease in altitude, we were still at zero Celsius with snow all around us.

I continued to scan the areas as assigned and thankfully found no ice accumulation. However, due to the repeated scanning, going aided to unaided, and light turbulence, I began to feel slightly nauseated. I told this to my SP. He said he was going to transfer the controls to me to see if that helped, but he would be “ghosting” them just in case. Once I took the controls, my nausea subsided. After ensuring the aircraft was indeed stable with me flying, my SP then took over my previously assigned duties of monitoring.

While on the controls, I looked out my door and saw a mountain with a sizeable illuminated area and a thick cloud rising from it. I alerted my SP who, after viewing the map, confirmed it was a ski resort. We then realized the snow we were flying through was coming from the resort and being carried by the strong winds. Once we had some distance from the ski resort, the snow stopped. With no snow or ice accumulation on the aircraft, I transferred the controls back to my SP. We proceeded to conduct the rest of the training flight without incident. After landing and shutdown at Westfield-Barnes, I breathed a sigh of relief. My SP and I then conducted a lengthy debrief on all phases of the flight.

Lessons learned

I learned several lessons that day, but one reigned supreme: Be aware of potential icing hazards that don’t show up on the probability and severity charts — in this case, the snow created by a ski resort. I’ve since learned to identify and brief ski resorts along the route of flight, modify my flight route(s) based on the winds aloft, and recognize the effect(s) it can have on natural and unnatural phenomena such as smoke, precipitation and man-made snow. Additionally, the use of artificial lighting while flying NVG is a highly effective way to identify and mitigate this hazard. The snow produced by ski resorts provides an enjoyable time for skiers, but it’s not much fun when you’re flying through it.

  • 4 December 2022
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 264
  • Comments: 0
Categories: On-DutyAviation