Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 22, 2011

There’s No Such Thing As Tailwinds

Why is it that we always only remember headwinds?

AN ILLUSION. In a nondirect headwind, you’ll lose slightly more speed than you’ll gain in tailwinds.
I know what some of you may be thinking. Bill Cox has finally gone off his rocker.

Well, yes and no. I was reflecting a while back during an allegedly quickie delivery of a Seneca IV from Oakland, Calif., to Cleveland, Ohio, that God doesn’t seem to hand out headwinds and tailwinds equitably. By all accounts, that should have been a tailwind trip. It didn’t work out that way. Most other trips don’t either, and therein lies the rub.

As I reflect on several years of delivering airplanes to destinations both domestic and foreign, it seems there have been more headwinds than tailwinds, so many more that I sometimes wonder if I’ve EVER had tailwinds. (Of course I have. They’re just hard to remember.)

Logic and Las Vegas odds suggest you should have tailwinds on half your flights, on the premise that you always fly out-and-backs (for the now $250 hamburger). Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way. My semi-educated SWAG estimate is that you’ll only experience tailwinds around 25% of the time, and here’s why.

Like many of you, I’ve seen the occasional freakish tailwind that shoved me along ridiculously faster than book. The best I’ve flown was in a Cheyenne III, predictably up high on an Atlantic crossing from St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada to Shannon, Ireland. We had a welcome 130 knot push at FL270.

(Several years later, returning home to Los Angeles on a Qantas 747 after delivering a new Mooney Ovation to Sydney, Australia, I watched the readout on the flight-information monitor creep up to 1,100 kph at 37,000 feet. That’s almost a 600 knot groundspeed. My seatmate had probably just read the book Yeager; he knew I was a pilot, and when he saw the speed, he immediately exclaimed, “Good Lord, we’re traveling faster than Mach 1.” I shook my head, but no, I didn’t bother to explain it to him.)

Contrary to the title above, big tailwinds obviously do happen, but almost never on round-trips, and almost never in the bottom 10,000 feet of sky.


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