Dancing With the Crosswind

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Loss of control after landing in a crosswind is one of the most common general aviation accidents. Here are some techniques to avoid such embarrassment.

It never seems to fail. You reserve the airplane for an early morning departure for the family vacation. Then the kids and the packing and the delays add up, so you launch hours late, and arrive at beautiful Lake Runamuck as one of the kids becomes spectacularly ill, the other is screaming about the dead batteries in the electronic game gizmo, the turbulence reaches its glorious maximum, the winds are 270 at 15 gusting to 20, the runway is oriented north and south and is 75 feet wide.

The last two people to announce their position in the pattern were using runway 18, so you figure youíll follow the crowd and you enter the downwind while remembering that there is an ďisolateĒ position on the cockpit intercom system and you can hear yourself think. You also remember that the maximum demonstrated crosswind component for this airplane is 17 knots. You know itís not a limitation, but you consider that it was a professional test pilot who did the demonstration, so, as you havenít really done any serious crosswind practice for at least a month, OK, OK, it was six months ago and it wasnít pretty, maybe you should admit to yourself that your ability to control the airplane and make a safe landing is not a sure thing.

As common sense suddenly kicks in, you leave the pattern, add a little power and climb about 500 feet, then pull the power back and lean the mixture so you can have a minute or two to decide what to do.

You recheck the airport diagram and see that there is an east-west grass runway. Itís only 2,000 feet long. Why werenít others using it? Why didnít you consider it? Well, because itís not paved and the FBO where you rented the airplane says no grass runway operations. Seems that right now, in high summer, landing on a grass runway into the teeth of a 15 to 20 knot breeze is a heck of lot preferable to landing at a 90 degree angle to that wind, no matter what the surface of the runway.

Into the Wind

So, you announce your intention to land on runway 27, fly the pattern and make a normal landing. Your spouse comments on how nice and soft it is to land on the grass and how pretty it is and why havenít we done this before?† You taxi in, holding the ailerons carefully for the wind and tie down the airplane. As you are picking up the bags to walk into the FBO you hear a horrible squealing noise as one of those airplanes in the pattern for runway 18 loses control on the rollout, scrapes a wingtip and describes a graceful curving path right into the airport fence. You run to the site and help the stunned pilot and passengers out of the airplane.

Later that evening, over a cold beverage, your spouse asks you what happened to that other airplane and you find yourself talking about crosswinds and remembering a very good primary instructor who took you out for about an hour and a half of intensive takeoffs and landings on windy day when there was a stiff crosswind.

He taught you some things that have stuck. He taught you to come down final at the published approach speed for the airplane, adding only half of the gust factor and no more, as excess speed was the enemy on landing. You argued with him explaining that if you tacked on 10 or 15 knots, the airplane was a lot easier to control and you could keep it lined up with the runway better. He asked you to continue thinking about the approach. Sure, it was easy to line up on final, but where it matters is not on final; itís over the runway itself, the touchdown and rollout. You have to get rid of the speed. First, you want to touch down as slowly as possible, as speed is energy and itís a squared function. Remember that energy equals mass time acceleration squared, if you double your speed, you donít double the force of the impact, you quadruple it; so any extra speed is a very bad thing if you are not going the direction you desire to go. So, when you flare to land, if you have extra speed, whatís going to happen?† Right, youíre going to float. And while you are floating along there, in ground effect, the wind has time to act on you and there is a huge chance you are going to start drifting downwind. In fact, about that time you may be finding out that the wind is so strong you cannot keep the airplane over the runway, as you lower the upwind wing and hold opposite rudder (donít worry, you wonít hit a wingtip, even if it feels as if youíre going to) you may run out of rudder or aileron and the airplane is still drifting or you cannot keep it parallel to the centerline. Now you have to go around from late in the flare. When was the last time you practiced a go around from near stall speed in gusty winds?† Itís a challenge isnít it?†

On Speed-Use the Controls

So, letís fly the airplane at the speed published, the speed youíve been flying it all this time. The controls are effective; it just may take some big inputs to get the airplane to go where you wantóand sometimes it takes moving a control to the stop to get the airplane to go where you want it to go, so be willing to do it, in the air or on the ground. Now, as you get close in, you transition from a crab to wing down approach, you nail the drift with the aileron and keep the nose parallel to the centerline with the rudder and you flare slightly and touch down. You donít mess around. Youíve got full flaps in there for drag so you donít float, you nail the landing, you put it on the upwind wheel and progressively roll in all of the aileron to keep it on one wheel as long as you can. The other wheel comes down and NO! you do not breathe a sigh of relief. Now you are actually at the highest area of risk on a crosswind landing. Very few pilots crash on the approach, where the majority lose it is right here. They have too much speed, so they have no rolling control and, worse, they think theyíve made it back to earth and quit flying the airplane. They center the ailerons and give up. The airplane starts to hop sideways and they canít stop it with the rudder, they get the airplane a bit sideways and things proceed to get ugly. Once you touch down you roll in all of the aileron into the wind and you keep it there throughout the rollout.

So your spouse asks you what you can do if you approach on speed, with full flaps and as you transition into that wing low and opposite rudder slip thing, and you canít stay lined up. What if you have the controls to the stops and you canít keep the airplane going where you want it to go? You explain that you make a go around. You go to full power, hold the appropriate climb attitude and retract half the flaps fairly soon after going to full power because that last half of the flap travel is mostly drag and getting rid of it does good things for you. Then you make sure the airplane is climbing and then retract the remaining flaps half at a time while holding normal climb attitude.

You continue with your explanation by saying that once youíve reached a safe altitude, you set the power to a low cruise power setting with the mixture leaned to burn the least fuel to give yourself time to plan what to do next. You frankly admit that there is a question about safely landing in that crosswind and discuss options. If it is late afternoon and the wind is forecast to drop, the best thing to do might be a one hour sightseeing trip in the local area, at reduced power so as not to use up all the fuel and then a landing in the reduced crosswind. Otherwise, the safe alternative is to find a way to land the airplane into the wind, or at least reduce the crosswind component. Look for another runway oriented into the wind on the airport or on a nearby airport. Sure, landing on another airport may delay your arrival where you want to go, but itís a lot less embarrassing to show up late with an intact airplane than to arrive at some previously arbitrarily established time with an airplane that has been rolled into a ball.

Perfectly Good Runway

You explain that grass runways on public use airports are ordinarily useable unless they have been NOTAMed closed. But, for some reason, pilots seem to ignore them; maybe because of lack of training or because of insurance policies that exclude coverage for landings on grass runways. You point out that you always thought it was foolish to pass up a perfectly good runway oriented into the wind, which is why the two of you are enjoying a pleasant evening rather than running around trying to take care of the myriad loose ends that would have come about had you landed in that awful crosswind and lost control of the airplane and bent it.

You take a sip of your drink, look at your spouse and say, ďThere is one other technique for handling crosswinds that is perfectly legal but quite unusual. It has saved countless lives and bent airplanes, yet airport managers sometimes get distressed about it and a number of pilots and air traffic controllers donít fully understand that it is legal and may be the safest way of dealing with a strong crosswind.Ē† There is a pregnant pause and you continue, ďIf the airport has a long enough taxiway that is oriented into the wind and it isnít near buildings or obstructions and there is no one on it, you land on the taxiway.Ē†


You elaborate by pointing out that most all taxiways are paved and wider than some runways youíve landed on. So, as long as there arenít any people or things to hit around, itís certainly much safer to land on a taxiway that is into the wind than try to land in a crosswind that is so strong you are concerned about your ability to make a safe landing. The Federal Aviation Regulations contain no prohibition against taxiway landingsóthey are silent on the subject. Helicopters make their touchdown on taxiways all the time, although they usually approach a runway, but only to fit in with the flow of traffic, and when hot air balloons take off or land on an airport, they come and go from open areas on the airport. Glider operations frequently use taxiways. However, there are those who are very conventional that may get excited about an airplane landing on taxiway and raise some concern afterwards. Armed with knowledge that there was nothing illegal in the operation, the pilot having made sure that the landing did not conflict with any other airplanes in the traffic pattern and had assured that there were no people, vehicles or buildings in the immediate vicinity of the touchdown and rollout area (so the operation was not careless or reckless) can then explain to the blow hard complainer that doing something a little unconventional is far, far safer than losing control of an airplane while being fully conventional.

After all, a potential loss of control of an airplane, for whatever reason, is an emergency situation and even if the prude tries to make up a regulation about taxiway landings, the operant regulation in such a situation is that the pilot in command may deviate from any regulation to the extent possible to deal with an emergency.

Your refill your spouseís glass and turn to enjoy the sunsetóand you notice the winds have dropped to nothing.

Rick Durden is a CFI-AI with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation 500 series and is the author of The Thinking Pilotís Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vol. I.