You’re on downwind, and you see it: the shadow of the windsock aiming at the middle of the runway. Or, you tune in ATIS and hear a thoroughly disinterested voice saying, “Wind: 120 at 10, gusting one-eight.” You know 120 is exactly 60 degrees to the runway, and there’s a measurable gust factor. You can feel the tension building. You want flying to be fun, but this doesn’t sound like fun. Panic is gnawing at your nerves, and the famed sweaty spots in the palms of your hands tell you that you wish you had stayed in bed.
This is a universal response to crosswinds, but it needn’t be that way. All winds, unless they’re exactly 90 degrees, are actually our friends because they’re slowing our airplanes down, making landings easier. For that reason, we should learn to make friends with the wind, and we won’t do that by staying in bed on windy days.
It’s dangerous to make generalities, but here’s one that’s true: The more time we put into learning crosswind landings and the more crosswind landings we make, the more we’re going to enjoy flying. Period! They’re something that’s always there, waiting to challenge us, and the only way we’re going to rise to the challenge is to go out there and meet them on the field of battle—the runway. Winds are something to understand—not avoid.
Learning to beat down the wind sounds heroic, but how do we do it? The first thing is to realize that there are winds, and then there are winds. Some should be avoided. And there are winds that are imminently flyable, but not for you at your present skill level. So, right from the beginning, it’s important that we study winds, looking for their individual characteristics, and know how to separate those that are killers from those that just look like killers. To do that, we have to understand what identifiable characteristics make up a wind’s personality. Then, we have to understand the role each of those characteristics plays in making our lives miserable. The next step is knowing how the various aircraft controls affect various aspects of wind and how to put those controls into play.
Windsocks Almost Always Lie
The only time a windsock is guaranteed to be right is when you’re within about 10 feet of it. As we get farther away, it’s only giving you a general opinion of what the wind is doing. This is because wind isn’t a constant. It’s not a free-flowing river that’s the same velocity all the way across. At least, not all winds. In fact, most winds are made up of scrambled streams interrupted by small circular movements, reactions to topography, buildings and dozens of other factors. Plus, if the windsock is located at the midpoint of a 4,000-foot runway, it’s nearly half a mile from where you’ll take off and land. The farther away it is, the less likely it will be accurate for your immediate location. It will, however give a place to start in analyzing the wind. Hats off to those airports that have windsocks at the thresholds of their runways where they really count.
Height Above The Runway Versus Your Airplane
Right on the pavement, the wind speed and direction is zero. Then, it builds up as you get farther from the runway until, at around 15 feet, you’re experiencing pretty much what the windsock is showing (if you’re close enough to it). The lower to the runway you are, the lower the wind effect (velocity, direction, gusts, etc.). All other things being equal, this is why low-wing airplanes with short gear appear to be easier to handle in crosswinds, and long-legged, high-wing birds are usually more affected by the wind.
The most dangerous winds are the few that don’t change as they get closer to the ground. They don’t occur often, but once in a while, you’ll see a wind that’s just as strong at 10 inches as it is at 10 feet, and that’s the one you have to watch out for, especially in high-wing airplanes. This is because as an airplane flares and lands, it’s continually slowing down and losing energy, which means all of its controls are less effective. So, if a wind maintains its strength and character right down to the pavement, it in effect is becoming stronger in relation to the airplane’s dwindling energy, so the airplane is becoming more vulnerable to the wind as its speed goes away.
How Do We Beat The Crosswind Villains?
We could stop talking right now and simply say that the way we beat crosswinds is to get some instruction and then practice. Which, of course, works with everything from golf to crocheting. So, we’ll go into a little more detail about what should be included in the instruction and what’s to be practiced.
Essentially, when flaring in a crosswind, our goal is to touch down with the center of gravity of the airplane on the line of travel (the tail is right behind the nose) with zero sideways motion. To do this we, in reverse order, kill any drift by lowering a wing into the wind and, no, we don’t automatically cross-control with rudder against the aileron, which sounds as if it goes against conventional wisdom, but stay with us.
What makes crosswinds so difficult for so many people is that they intellectualize it too much; they think about it too much. They’re thinking, “Lemme see, the wing goes down into the wind, the rudder goes out of the wind, or is it into the wind…” We can simplify the whole process by making it very mechanical.
There are only two goals to be achieved during a crosswind landing. Only two. And both are simple and are treated separately. Rule one is to keep the airplane parallel to the centerline, keep the tail behind the nose, center of gravity on the line of travel: All of those phrases mean the same thing, and they’re all controlled the same way. Whatever rudder is needed to keep the nose straight on touchdown is used. As the airplane settles in, mechanically use the rudders to keep the nose on centerline. Ignore what the ailerons are doing. They have their own task.
Not all crosswinds are the same, so blindly saying we roll into the wind and use opposite rudder isn’t always true. Quite often, the amount of aileron required to stop the sideways drift isn’t enough to cause the nose to move sideways. Sometimes it is. So, just because we have the wing down a little isn’t reason to always put opposite rudder in. If we do that every time, we can wind up with the nose pointing out of the wind, during those times when it isn’t needed. The opposite rudder is used in response to the nose trying to move sideways. So, sometimes you’re cross-controlled, sometimes you’re not. Every situation will be different because every wind will be different. Just keep the nose straight and kill drift with bank angle. The rest will take care of itself.
Slip Or Kick?
There’s some difference of opinion as to the proper way to get into crosswind-landing mode. The two schools of thought are a)fly it right down to the runway in a crab so it stays on centerline (but is cocked into the wind) and, at the very last moment, kick it straight or b)set the airplane up in a slight cross-controlled side slip well before getting into flair, so you’re killing the drift with aileron and probably holding the nose straight well before getting close to the runway.
The downside to the kick-it-out-at-the-last-second method is that the instant the airplane starts to come out of the crab, it will start to drift, and there’s no way to avoid that. It will always touch down in a slight drift, which is simply sloppy flying in a nose dragger, but possibly catastrophic if the little wheel is on the back.
Many pilots blend the two together: A crab into the wind is held partway down final, but as the airplane starts into ground effect, the nose is brought straight, and the wing goes down into a side slip that’s balanced by the wind and converted into a straight line.
Don’t Fight The Airplane
When gusts or turbulence are working on you in flare, there’s a tendency to “fight” the airplane: using too much control motion and not visually controlling the situation. “Fighting the airplane” means that pilots don’t have a firm idea in their mind as to what the attitude should be, so they’re wracking the ailerons back and forth without a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish. They don’t have the aforementioned goals in mind.
When fighting through turbulence or gusts on short final into flare, the pilot should visualize what angle he wants the airplane to be in when he goes closer to the runway. He should picture a slightly wing-low attitude, roll the airplane into that attitude and hold it there with small, but firm movements of the controls. Don’t give in to heavy hits from gusts and respond with gross movements. Those are almost never needed. It’s not unusual to see an airplane in flare, and the pilot is fighting it so hard that the ailerons are actually going past center—e.g. they’re momentarily left when the goal is to hold a right bank. When in flare in a crosswind, we want small, quick, precise movements.
Repetition Cuts Down The Tendency To Over-Control
In crosswinds, the real problems are unfamiliarity with the situation and over-controlling. In other words, the pilot is his own worst enemy because he doesn’t know what to expect or how to handle it. But, that’s understandable. As the old saying goes, “If you’ve never been there before, how are you going to find your way back when you find yourself there?” No one can be expected to handle a crosswind of any kind, much less a fierce one, without having been “there” numerous times. Enter the CFI and a training program.
Jumping into the deep end and tackling really bad winds solo for the first time is definitely not a smart thing to do. This is where you buddy up with a local instructor and set a goal: You’re going to practice until you’re no longer intimidated by crosswinds. Granted, this is usually part of PPL training, but a concentrated post-graduate course in nothing but crosswinds does wonders. Usually, that takes about three hours, depending on the instructor and pilot. It will be, hands down, the best investment you’ll ever make in aviation.
The instructor already knows where he’s most likely to find crosswinds in the local area, and it’s worth a short flight to another airport to find the right wind. Plus, practicing on something other than your home airport adds a level of adaptability to the lessons. He should work with you until you’re confident and in complete control of the airplane. Also, along the way, he should be passing on the wizardry involved in correctly assessing a windsock and reading other indications of winds that might be lying in wait.
It would be quite easy to write an entire book about the environment in which we land and take off that, for the most part, is affected by wind in all its variations. Once we learn to understand and conquer the wind, our life in aviation will be forever improved. If we were to sum up the entire problem in a single sentence it would be: “Skill and confidence come from only two sources: instruction and doing.”
So, find a CFI and start doing.
|WHAT ARE WE LOOKING FOR WHEN ANALYZING A SOCK?|
Direction: This is a given, however, the actual direction will change with distance. Look at close-in wind indicators like grass or flags, to see what the wind’s doing right at the end of the runway.
Direction Variability: How stable is the direction? Does the sock swing back and forth? Each change in direction varies the actual strength of the wind on the nose.
Velocity: Another given. How much wind is there? That’s important info, but too often, pilots place too much importance on the velocity and not enough on the overall character of the wind. It can have a small velocity, say 10 mph, and still be a nasty, hard-to-handle wind, or it can be a sweetheart at 20 because of other factors.
Velocity Stability: Change in direction also changes the velocity. But, some winds simply change velocity more often and more quickly than others. If the change happens quickly, it’s a gust; if it changes more slowly, it really doesn’t have a name, but don’t think that what the sock shows is what you’re going to experience. Velocity and direction almost always change from what a centrally mounted sock is telling you by the time it gets to the end of the runway.
Gust Strength: If there’s one factor that defines the seriousness of the wind, the strength of its gusts—the gust spread—is it. Everything else, including the character of the gusts, is super important, but a wind without a gust factor is generally more stable in all areas and won’t work you nearly as hard in takeoff or landing.
Gust Character: There are two factors to gusts that define their personality, and the gusts’ personality defines the character of the wind. The first is the size of the gust factor. The second is how rapidly the gusts change direction. Probably the nastiest wind is the one that has a sizeable gust factor that snaps from one direction to another in nanoseconds.
Gust Direction: The direction of a gust is as important as that of the wind. Quite often, the gusts will come from a direction that’s significantly different than the basic wind. When a sizeable gust comes from a very different direction than the basic wind, you’re going to have your hands full. That’s a major reason why we want to stare at the windsock for a few minutes while trying to read its character, and the character of the gusts is the most important information we’re trying to develop.