Spring: Showers, Flowers And Gusting Crosswinds

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As spring approaches and the crosswinds build, it's time to review the techniques for landing successfully on those blustery days.

Although a friend of mine in the Detroit area just told me it was so cold that he saw a dog frozen to a hydrant, there’s a rumor that spring—and its high winds—will be eventually put in appearance at airports north of the equator. Spring: that time of year when airport managers’ thoughts turn to replacing their airport wind socks with log chains.

Just as April showers bring May flowers and Mayflowers bring Pilgrims (sorry, it’s been a cold winter), the strong, gusty winds of spring bring runway loss of control accidents (RLOC) on landing—and sometimes takeoff. The combination of the challenge of keeping an airplane under control in a gusting crosswind and the erosion of piloting skills because most pilots fly less in the winter than they do in summer means that it’s logical to anticipate there will be an unpleasant amount of bent metal and crunched composite on the sides of runways in the next few months.

I’m making that prediction because one of the things I do for our sister publication Aviation Consumer magazine is look at the 100 most recent accidents of the type of airplane being reviewed for the Used Aircraft Guide each month. If the airplane has a nosewheel, I expect to see 20 to 30 percent of the accidents involve loss of control on landing—the airplane gets sideways and tears up the landing gear and/or a wing; it ground loops; it runs off the runway and hits something; it hits so hard on landing that it damages the gear or things get out of hand far enough that the pilot decides to go around but the airplane hits the trees or hangar it was aiming at by then while flying rather than while on the ground.

If the airplane has a tailwheel, the rate for the landing-related accidents noted is at least 50 to 60 percent of all accidents for the type of airplane.

In almost all of those accidents, the pilot reports that the landing was being made in a crosswind. Often there is a comment about being hit by a gust during rollout.

When you read the reports, the one variable that eventually stands out is that, almost invariably, the pilot was able to get the airplane onto the runway successfully before things went south.

Worry About the Wrong Thing?

Landing accident reports show that few pilots lose control of their airplanes during the landing approach—yet that is the portion of a landing where pilots indicate they have most concern about losing control. That concern makes sense—after all, the airplane is bucking all over the place in gusts, the crosswind is trying to push the airplane away from that narrow bowling alley on which you’re trying to land, and the airspeed indicator needle may be a blur as it bounces around. Who wouldn’t worry about those conditions?

On the opposite side of the perceived risk coin is the time after the airplane has touched down on the runway. It’s now moving in two dimensions, not three and, in most cases, it has that good, dependable nosewheel for steering. It’s time to breathe a sigh of relief after the hair-raising episode of final approach—you made it.

Unfortunately, while we rightfully worry about controlling the airplane on final approach, the numbers show that we should be worrying more about keeping the airplane under control on rollout after touchdown—definitely not relax.

Why the Problems After Touchdown?

As I was putting this article together, I recalled a discussion I had had with my primary instructor when I was wrestling with crosswind landings not long before I was to take my private checkride. I told him that the airplane was easier to control when I added some extra speed on approach. He had smiled patiently and then asked me to continue thinking about the approach. Sure, it was easier to line up on final, but where things truly matter on a crosswind landing was not on final, it’s later: it’s over the runway itself, then, in the flare, touchdown and especially the rollout. He explained that I would have to deal with all of the extra speed I was carrying on final in a way that brings the airplane to a stop where I wanted. He went on to refer to stuff I was taking in my high school physics class, that the speed and mass of the airplane are energy and energy is a squared function: energy equals mass time acceleration squared. If you double your speed, you don’t double the force of the impact, you quadruple it; therefore, any extra speed is a very bad thing if I was not going the direction I wanted to go, such as if a swerve started on rollout. He asked me what would happen if I had any extra speed when I flared to land?  

That was easy, the airplane was going to float. He again smiled and pointed out that while I was floating along there, in ground effect, the crosswind had time to act on me and that there was a huge chance that the airplane and I would start drifting downwind. To stop the drift, I might be foolish enough to force the airplane onto the ground while still going fast, hitting either flat or on the nosewheel, while going sideways. Then I’d be faced with trying to salvage a landing that is in serious trouble. He paused and asked two questions: “Can you do it?  Do you want to be in that position?”

He looked at me and continued, “So, let’s fly the airplane at the speed the manufacturer published. After all, it’s the speed you flew when you first soloed and it worked just fine back then. The controls are effective; it just may take some big inputs to get the airplane to go where you want."

In later years I learned that while the published approach speed in a POH is usually at or slightly above 1.3 Vso, that the manufacturer had had to demonstrate the airplane was controllable on approach and landing when flying at only 1.2 Vso. It also confirmed what my instructor had told me about adding extra speed on the approach being a bad thing.

In our discussion, my instructor went on, “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, then you flare and touch down. You don’t mess around trying for a full stall landing, you get the nose up into landing attitude and touch down before you float and bad things start to happen. You’ve got full flaps in there for drag, to maximize the rate of deceleration and help make sure you don’t float. You put it on the upwind wheel and progressively roll in every bit of the aileron travel 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.” 

The Danger Zone

A Piper J-3 pilot keeping the airplane on the upwind wheel as long as possible after touching down in a crosswind.

I was paying full attention, partially because he was a good instructor and I’d been able to handle crosswind landings when I soloed because of his training, but recently they’d been giving me trouble, probably because I’d gotten sloppy or hadn’t been applying what he’d taught me. He was speaking very clearly: “Once you are on the ground, not while you are on the approach, you are squarely in the danger zone on a crosswind landing. Very few pilots crash on the approach. They lose it in the rollout. They have too much speed and have touched down either flat or drifting downwind, or both, and they are about to discover that even though the wheels are rolling, they have no rolling control. The tires won’t do a thing to keep the airplane going straight, there’s not enough friction for adhesion—they’ll just skid. I don’t want you to be one of those pilots who think that once the wheels touch that they can quit flying the airplane. I don’t want you centering the ailerons and sitting there patting yourself on the back for handling a crosswind and start thinking about everything except keeping the airplane going straight. Right then it is the flight controls that will keep the airplane going straight. I don’t want you to be one of those pilots who quit using them. I don’t want your brain to snap from 'flight' to 'ground.' The airplane is still flying. If you’ve centered the ailerons, the airplane will start to hop sideways and you can’t stop it with nosewheel steering. If the airplane gets a bit sideways, things can go downhill fast.

“I’ll say this to you now and every time we land until I see that it has become second nature to you—keep flying the airplane all the time. Once you touch down, you roll in all of the aileron into the wind and you keep it there throughout the rollout. That aileron deflection gives you flying control, because the airplane isn’t done flying. The drag of the downwind aileron helps keep the airplane going straight and not weathervaning into the wind. The upwind aileron also forces the upwind tire onto the ground, increasing its friction and giving lateral rolling control when otherwise there wouldn’t be much weight on any of the tires. You use all the flaps because you want their drag to help decelerate as quickly as you can through the region of diminishing aerodynamic control to a speed where you have rolling control.” 

As an aside at this point—I recognize that flap use in crosswinds is a hot topic with pilots. Also, a lot of POHs call for minimal use of flaps in crosswinds, whereas others, such as the Aviat Husky and Diamond DA40, call for full flaps. I’ll simply note that where I’ve been able to find information on flap deflection in crosswind landings, it’s indicated that as flap deflection increases, the accident rate decreases.

The Diamond DA40 POH calls for full flaps when landing in a crosswind.

I asked my instructor what I should do if I have the controls to the stops on the approach and I can’t keep the airplane going where I want it to go? He was kind enough not to remind me that we’d gone over this some months before. He reiterated that that situation was a red flag in a crosswind landing—It’s time to make a go-around, climb to a safe altitude, set low cruise power with the mixture leaned to burn minimum fuel and take time to decide what to do next. He and I talked over available options because the situation was a question about successfully landing the airplane. If there’s a question about being able to complete a landing safely, it’s time to step back and look other options. If it is afternoon and the wind is forecast to drop, the best thing to do might be a sightseeing trip in the local area, at reduced power so as not to use up all the fuel, and then land in the diminished crosswind. Otherwise, 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. He said that landing on another airport will delay my arrival at where I want to go, but it’s a lot less embarrassing to show up late than to roll the airplane into a ball. He and I discussed landing at an angle across a runway, to cut down the crosswind component. We did some drawings on a piece of paper and found that unless the runway was pretty wide, it would not make be a big difference, but it might be enough to reduce the crosswind from awful to just unpleasant. 

He also said that I should never ignore an available grass runway oriented into the wind. In later years I read accident reports where the pilot lost it in a strong crosswind because he felt he had to land on pavement even though there was a perfectly good grass runway that was right into the wind.

My thanks to the late Everett Benson, of Dana, Iowa, who taught me how to make crosswind landings. Over the years what he taught me has been verified many times over: Don’t fly fast on final, touch slowly and use the flight controls throughout rollout and when taxiing—they work at speeds much lower than you might imagine.

I'll also stick in a strong recommendation for recurrent training in crosswinds regularly. In addition, if you have access to the Redbird Xwind Simulator, buy an hour of dual in it. I reviewed it for Aviation Consumer for the November 2014 issue and came away impressed. I think it will improve any pilot's ability to handle crosswinds. 

One Extra Technique

Not long after I got my private rating, I learned one other technique for handling very strong crosswinds. It is perfectly legal but rarely considered. It has prevented accidents, yet airport managers sometimes get distressed about it: If the airport has a long enough taxiway that is oriented into the wind, isn’t near buildings or obstructions and there is no one on it, you land on the taxiway. 

The FARs do not prohibit landing on a taxiway. There may be a time when one is oriented into a strong wind and landing on it is far safer than trying to land on the runway that has a significant crosswind.

As long as there aren’t any people or things to hit, it’s 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 landings. So long as the landing does not conflict with any other airplanes and there are no people, vehicles or buildings in the immediate vicinity of the touchdown and rollout area, the operation is not careless or reckless, and is far, far safer than losing control of an airplane while landing on a runway. You may never need this tool in your bag, but stick it there, just in case. 

Conclusion

As the crosswinds of spring pick up, be ready with the tools to handle them: Land as nearly into the wind as possible; be at no faster than 1.3 Vso plus half the gust factor by short final; touchdown as slowly as possible to minimize the energy you’re going to have to deal with on rollout; after touchdown, continue to use the flight controls—ailerons into the wind throughout the roll out; and be willing to use full deflection of the controls. Be assertive and make the airplane go where you want it to go.

Rick Durden holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, is a CFII and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.