They Call The Wind Betty


No matter how much we who carp continue to carp, certain aviation themes will never change. It’s karma—what happens to pilots happens because we made it so. An unchangeable percentage of aircraft will run out of gas or slide sideways off runways in the mildest of crosswinds, and—unrelated to safety but irksome—82 percent of our community will confuse “hangar” with “hanger,” regardless of how snarky and uppity we who correct the spelling errors on FBO bulletin boards get.

For the record, flight jackets are hung on hangars, while airplanes are stored inside … oh, carp! It’s too late, the two words have become interchangeable. Best to admit defeat and turn away from hopeless—albeit righteous—pursuits and tackle issues of lesser significance. Namely, how to land an airplane with minimal damage. Yeah, I’m aiming low.

Most aircraft will land if left unattended. Gravity giggles at our squishy attempts to overpower its grip. I once made a bad landing. And, then, the next time I attempted to land, I made another stinker … and another. Forty years later, I found myself grinding rubber off my Citabria’s left tire on a paved runway while landing in what—to my surprise—turned out to be a right crosswind, despite the AWOS promise that the wind would be from my left. Two lessons worth sharing: 1.) AWOS lies; it’s a computer, and all computers are evil; and, 2.) airplanes should only land on grass, because it’s much quieter than a hard surface. But, when instant karma strikes, you should always have something to blame, especially when flying solo.

Don’t underestimate the redemptive power of blame. Rare is the day goes by I don’t blame someone or something for my faults, which are really not my fault. How often have you attended a pilots lounge debrief and listened to the most recent arrival hold forth on the “tricky crosswinds,” as the assembled coffee-drinkers nod in unison as though winds of any kind play tricks? They don’t. Wind is just wind, and, although, that should be the end of any Zen treatise on the being of air, it’s not.

Wind has no malice. It has no conscience, nor does it have intent. If it did, its desires would reach beyond our sniggling ambitions to navigate through the moving air while seated, white-knuckled, inside a beer can with wings pulled by a 50-year-old engine well past TBO. Nothing against beer, but the wind doesn’t give a fig about us. And yet, we worship it and even give it names, such as Williwaw, Scirocco or Mariah. Well, some people call the wind, Mariah, but I prefer to call the wind as I experience it. Or, Betty.

When my students —clutching their EAA caps—question if it’s too windy to fly, I smile in an insane old CFI way and shout into the gale, “The wind is our friend!” And, then, like Captain Ahab, offer great reward to those who will launch with me in a monomaniacal quest for the perfect wind. I’ve yet to encounter it, but I have tangled with a few contenders, only to discover that wind never sticks around to take credit for the havoc it wreaks. It morphs, shifts shape and steals into the night like a thief with your severed ego stashed inside its swag bag. Friend? I should think not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all get along. Or at least recognize a bully and stay out of its way? Never! To do so is to shrink from the challenge, and that’s no way to handle a bully. Best to strike a Churchillian pose and spit in its eye.

Dwight D. Eisenhower may have once said, but likely didn’t, “To defeat a pernicious enemy you have to know it and, then, overwhelm it with unfathomable force.” Truth is you’ll never overwhelm the wind, but you can know a bit about it before taking it on. Know that’s it’s fickle and never blows in straight lines like in textbooks. In fact, it has no lines. Wind is a giant blob of swirling 3-D atmosphere, possibly moving in one general direction.

Picture a wind sock. This iconic tattered rag waves like a battle flag atop a skinny pole, several hundred feet from your touchdown spot. Much like its digital offspring, the AWOS/ASOS, it samples the movement of air—at that location and nowhere else. From its flapping reports we humans—the ones with the brains—interpret the semaphore: “Hey, winds outta the west … no, southwest … no, wait, I mean northwest ….” And, somehow, we have to plant our three wheels on the centerline without a sideload. Only we don’t plant three wheels or shouldn’t.

Pop quiz: How many wheels are in a Cessna 172’s landing gear? The answer is two. The mains are the landing gear. The wheel under the nose is there to keep the prop from striking the runway. Extra credit: Why don’t we call it taking-off gear? After all, we use the wheels just as much for takeoff as landing … with the possible exception of complex airplanes that periodically take off on the wheels but land on the belly skins, a bad thing.

Tailwheel pilots, shaking fists at the screen, know they can “three-point it on,” and that’s cool, because tailwheel pilots are above the ordinary. Still, try three-pointing it on with a stiff crosswind, and you may look silly as your Cub suddenly becomes a YouTube wind-T star. And we won’t even divert into the shibboleth of: “Which is the better way to land a taildragger in a crosswind—full-stall or wheel-landing?” The answer is, “Depends.” End of discussion, except, yeah, I know that only airplanes with tail skids are technically taildraggers.

Fourteenth century comedy writer, Dante Alighieri, wrote, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” I guess it’s funnier in the original Italian, but the point is that, as applied to aviation, hope springs with every takeoff and shouldn’t be dashed upon arrival. My friend and fellow blogger, Paul Bertorelli, recently wrote a piece on appropriate approach speeds. You can click on it hereor just take his word that … there are no appropriate, one-size-fits all airspeeds.

But I wouldn’t know, because I teach from the back seat of a tandem aircraft where I rarely see much of the instrument panel. Mostly I see backs of heads swaying opposite to turns, hinting that the student is uncoordinated or afraid of falling out. I also watch them stretch their necks in the landing flair to see over the cowling, when they should be slumping lazily into the seat and bringing that same nose up to avoid the inevitable flat-landing bounce, blush, swerve— “I got it!”—and go-around.

I don’t need instruments to feel when the airplane is sinking on final—power … power … power! —or when we’re about to float over the corn, across the threshold and past the departure end. A CFI’s calibrated butt possesses sensitive Ground Proximity Warning Sensors (GPWS), there to save the host.

When it comes to crosswinds there’s no panel instrument in my world that gives an appropriate wind correction angle in that final few, gyrating seconds of approach, flair and flop. The AWOS is useless at this point, as is the wind sock, yet so proudly waving from the FBO’s ramparts a half-mile away. To get a little Zen here, again, you become the wind sock as flying beer can meets planet Earth at whatever appropriate airspeed the wind gods demand.

The angle between rolling it on straight or ripping off the sidewalls is determined by the appropriate sneaker pressing the rudder pedal, with an opposite-hand input poking the joystick or yoke into the wind. How much of each? Whatever works, because a good landing is more solo improv jazz than regimented marching band. Yer on yer own so blow cool, and the wind might not applaud, but at least you’ll know you’ve played your best.

Truthin’ time: If I don’t have a student on board I’ll blame “tricky winds,” “dust devils,” “lactose intolerance” or “air pockets” for any of my numerous mediocre landings, although only if someone witnesses it. But, if you’re walking across the ramp and your toupee blows off, don’t blame Betty. She and I go way back, and I know that she can be malicious, but I also know that she doesn’t care if we launch or sit in the hangar on her busier days and carp.