Wind Check, Please

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If you key your transmitter on short final and say, “wind check,” Tower Alexa replies with cheerful wind direction and speed. Try that at a non-towered airport, and a CTAF lurker might snarl, “Check the windsock yourself!” Rude perhaps, but the jerk makes a point, because as Dylan Thomas never said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Given that, what’s your recourse when the non-towered airport lacks AWOS/ASOS or a low-tech windsock near the runway? Are you stuck, unable to land? No, or as the motto inscribed above the entrance to the ATC Academy in Oklahoma City reads: “Habemus adhuc relinquo unus autem illic!” Meaning: “We’ve yet to leave one up there!” Truer words have never been mistranslated.

It is possible to land or takeoff without government assistance or mechanical wind indicators. Granted, your touchdown might get ugly if you choose the wrong runway, but your pilot certificate entitles you to claim all the risk and reward associated with being a PIC who’s expected to understand how air behaves. Or misbehaves when you think you have the touchdown nailed. Okay fine, but what is wind?

When ruffling the silk flying scarf I bought on Etsy, breathable air becomes “wind.” Although way out west they call it “Mariah.” Even when doing nothing, or nearly so, air retains its moniker as in, “wind calm.” Such reports that lack direction or force (under 3 knots) easily lure timid pilots into thinking that’s a good thing. “No wind today, Ethyl, I think I’ll fly the Flut-R-Bug!” Well, think again. The instant you add power, the airframe—if not the pilot—perceives wind relative to its movement and invokes all that Newton-Bernoulli lift-drag stuff I pretended to understand when teaching ground school. Airplanes need air movement to fly. Balloonists need it to push them into power lines. “Wind,” as I tell my students to their eye-rolling skepticism, “is our friend.” And, as we learned in high school, some friends can be obnoxious but incredibly fun to hang with.

I love flying on breezy days, much as I liked riding my Triumph 650 through the Santa Cruz Mountains via snaking two-lanes and took pride pushing that British classic home again after something inevitably broke, or the Lucas electrics quit at sunset. When flying, I try to avoid breaking things, including landing gear that could buckle under sloppy sideloads if you’re not paying attention to feckless air.

The wind that tower controllers or AWOS/ASOS/ATIS report may not reflect the same air motion you’ll encounter in the landing flare. Wind hosiery near the runway offers a reasonable hint of actual air movement, including how the sock’s tail snaps to indicate unruly gusts. A free-floating wind-T gives the wind’s general direction, but even those can lie. Our local airport’s wind-T was installed 50 years ago. A fiberglass fuselage with a vertical stabilizer, it swivels atop an old Studebaker axle, vertically protruding from the ground. Its nose generally points into the wind, unless air flowing across nearby hangars shears and confuses Mr. T. It’s not uncommon to see it pointing one way, while the windsock across the runway indicates total disagreement.

Unless asleep at the yoke, pilots should have a general idea what the surface winds will be upon arrival even without big city aids. Here in farm country during growing season, row crops flow in the wind, illustrating in real-time what’s happening over a large surface area, not merely a sample near the sock. Imagine a sea of foam fingers, illustrating that wind, for all the directionality we assign it, moves like a herd of cats, completely disinterested in pilot analysis. It swirls, changes its mind and won’t hesitate to curl up for a nap just when you need its help. It could watch you crash and feel no remorse. Once harvested, the remaining crop stubble is worthless for wind indication.

The solution to a lack of wind reports is to become the wind-T. Not to go all Zen here, but my first instructor, Artie Zen, said to let the airplane crab into the wind on final. Stay centered and coordinated. Wherever your spinner points, it does so into the wind. Relax and note the crab angle between the nose and the runway. Keep noting it through touchdown, and you’ll sideload the gear so press rudder opposite to the wind to point the wheels down the landing strip and add enough aileron into the wind to keep from drifting. How much? The correct amount, of course. Silly question ….

All is bliss, until the final 15 vertical feet when stray gusts lift the wrong wing to challenge your self-satisfaction. The Arthur Murray studios can’t teach all the quicksteps, but be ready to dance on rudder pedals and tweak ailerons while holding proper pitch for the anticipated touchdown. Requesting a wind check at this stage is pointless. You’re in the moment, so relaxation is vital. Seriously, the more you tense up, the worse your landing will be; plus, it freaks your passengers to see their pilot writhing in the left seat and leaning into the wind, rather than relaxing and letting the airplane land with minimal histrionics. That’s why airlines put those doors between the cabin and cockpit; no one should see what’s happening up there when the wind is unhinged.

Consider: We fly because there’s air. Without it … well, we’d all die, and the used airplane market would implode. Although, I suspect Mooney would somehow resurrect. With air, anything is possible, provided you treat it less like a force to be avoided and more as an omnipresent friend that rarely has your best interests in mind but always shows you a good time despite never offering to pick up the wind check.

And, yes, there is an airplane called a Stitts Flut-R-Bug, and the “weatherman” quote wasn’t from Dylan Thomas but, instead, Bob Dylan … whoever he was.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. One instructor I’ve had gave me a great tip I always use: on final cross-check your airspeed with your GPS groundspeed. Of course, your IAS should be higher than your GS, or you’re landing downwind.
    I was coming in to an airport one day with a 25kt westerly as I joined the RNAV. Fortunately there was an AWIS that told me to expect a 15kt easterly on the ground.
    At about the same time some friends of mine were landing at an airstrip not too far away that had no AWIS and no wind-sock. I suspect they used the upper wind to choose a runway and ended up landing downwind. They went around too late and hit a tree. One died and the other was seriously injured.
    This really drove home the utility of that simple tip to me. It might have saved them, but I have never heard it from any other instructor.

  2. There is an airstrip in west-central Indiana that I fly into almost daily. It does not have a windsock because it is, due to trees and an abnormally steep incline, a one-direction airfield; meaning you land to the east and takeoff to the west. Yet it is at times a fairly active airstrip, and even with the trees, the unusual incline, and the McDonald’s sign that flashes by your left wingtip when you cross the threshold, landing there holds little challenge, even during gusty downwind landings and while flying supposedly wind-sensitive airplanes such as Luscombes, Cubs, Champs, and Chiefs. Infact, quite often, the only way you can tell that you have landed downwind is from the protesting whir of the wheels when they spin up just a bit faster than normal upon landing.
    However, despite my airplane’s acceptance, I know that I am violating one of the cardinal rules of aviation each time I make a downwind landing and that someday, when I finally meet my maker, the first thing we will be discussing at length will be my apparent and frequent disregard for the wind.

  3. There comes a point in a pilot’s life when all the instructions on landing in windy conditions is for naught. Your muscle memory and aging brain take care of the process without much conscious thinking involved, fortunately, since as we age that faculty slows down considerably. 54+ years flying and still boring holes in the wind. You gotta keep doing it because the holes keep filling up right after drilling them.

  4. The mention of the Stitts Flut-R-Bug brought back memories.
    Back in the early 60s, I was working as an A&E with pilot licenses, when a guy flew in with his Stitts complaining about the engine running a bit rough a few minutes after take off – so, of course I had to jump in to check it out.
    I recall that it flew OK.
    As I remember, the right front exhaust gasket was leaking so as to heat up the
    intake port of the right rear intake port & leaning out the mixture for that cyl enough to feel it.
    Now, mechanics out there – this surely was a challenge as you can image!

  5. I was “born & raised” on a grass strip .. first plane was a Luscombe 8 A .. and I used oil Smudge pots at each end and in the middle of the strip .. NO landing light (although a friends car lights at the end on a DARK night helped .. wind check ?? .. well I always used the ‘favorable runway’ in the first place .. I could handle any admoralities after that .. like Robt. N. Buck states in his ‘Weather Flying” book (recommended for any single pilot corp. flyer like I was) .. Mr. Buck stating he used de-icing boots more for ‘amusement’ .. I used (later in life) . the glide slope indicator for ‘amusement’ .. since I was not apprised with such ‘luxury’ in my ‘no light ‘ Luscombe ..

    I am, among other things, an ex-corp. pilot (21 yrs. Cheyenne II, 5 yrs), CFII, Adv. Grnd and Inst Grnd. Instr. .. with many, many yrs as an Instructor..

    .. but if any of my ‘flight review’ applicants asked for a “wind check” on final ,, that’s their perogotive ..it’s how they handled the X-wind on touchdown that really matters ..

    Dale Rust

    grnd. Instr.

  6. Brings back many memories about winds, airplanes, and airports. I didn’t do much light airplane / civil flying. I was a military transport pilot and flew 747 freighters till retirement. One thing I noticed as the guys and gals grew younger in the right seat was a greater propensity to want more “wind checks” on final. I never understood that. We would get the ATIS in range, then the tower would give us the winds, and any pertinent other clues, when clearing us to land. Me, when the tower’s version of the winds approximated the ATIS version and there were no big windshear warnings, I stopped worrying about the winds entirely. The Whale would tell you what the winds were doing to it quite clearly, plus at mega-thousands of pounds landing weight, it sure wasn’t skittish.
    Back to my point, as those new folks got “younger”, yes I was jealous, the more they wanted wind checks along final. I am not talking about those days where the winds are horribly gusty and on the ragged edge of that 30kt x-wind limit either. Landing clearances with winds of down the runway one gust to two would still illicit a request or two for winds while on final. I could never get any of them to adequately, or even marginally explain what they were going to do with the new data. Most just seemed to be stuck on the “gotta have a wind check” idea. I would ask them what the tower gave as winds during the landing clearance and they would normally have no idea. Nor, after landing would they remember any of the other wind data they needed so much. Not sure who or where the younger generation got stuck on needed 50 wind checks prior to landing but….

  7. Brings back many memories about winds, airplanes, and airports. I didn’t do much light airplane / civil flying. I was a military transport pilot and flew 747 freighters till retirement. One thing I noticed as the guys and gals grew younger in the right seat was a greater propensity to want more “wind checks” on final. I never understood that. We would get the ATIS in range, then the tower would give us the winds, and any pertinent other clues, when clearing us to land. Me, when the tower’s version of the winds approximated the ATIS version and there were no big windshear warnings, I stopped worrying about the winds entirely. The Whale would tell you what the winds were doing to it quite clearly, plus at mega-thousands of pounds landing weight, it sure wasn’t skittish.
    Back to my point, as those new folks got “younger”, yes I was jealous, the more they wanted wind checks along final. I am not talking about those days where the winds are horribly gusty and on the ragged edge of that 30kt x-wind limit either. Landing clearances with winds down the runway at one gust to two would still illicit a request or two for winds while on final. I could never get any of them to adequately, or even marginally explain what they were going to do with the new data. Most just seemed to be stuck on the “gotta have a wind check” idea. I would ask them what the tower gave as winds during the landing clearance and they would normally have no idea. Nor, after landing would they remember any of the other wind data they needed so badly. Not sure where or from whom the younger generation got stuck on the idea of needing 50 wind checks prior to landing but….