Pilots spend a lot of time worrying about the weather, and for good reason–it’s a factor in many general aviation accidents. But while nasty things like thunderstorms and in-flight icing get a lot of attention, more flights are affected by wind than any other weather phenomena. It deserves serious attention.
Wind is rarely fatal, which may be why it’s often ignored, but it can do serious damage to airplanes on takeoff or landing. Losing control of the airplane in a gusty crosswind may not lead to injuries, but it will certainly ruin your day. At the very least, high winds discourage pilots from flying—most of the flights I’ve canceled as a pilot were due to high winds.
So if you’re going to get good utility and enjoyment out of your pilot certificate, you need to embrace the wind. That doesn’t mean you should blast off into a 35 knot crosswind, but it does mean you’ll eventually need to become proficient at dealing with different wind conditions. You’ll be a better pilot and you’ll have more fun flying.
While I won’t bore you with a rehash of basic crosswind techniques, here are some lessons I’ve learned for windy flights:
- Crosswind component matters more than overall wind speed. 20 knots of wind may sound like a lot, but if it’s steady and right down the runway, it’s probably no problem at all. In fact, a steady headwind can actually make landings easier in some airplanes, as you have something to work against. A 20 knot crosswind, on the other hand, is a completely different matter. You shouldn’t cancel a flight just because you see 20 knots on the METAR; read the whole story.
- Gusty winds are the worst. Given the choice between a steady 20 knot crosswind and a 5 knot wind gusting to 20, I would take the steady 20 knots. When the wind is steady, you can set up your crab or slip on final approach and fly it all the way to runway. When the wind is gusty, it takes constant corrections to keep the airplane lined up with the runway—it’s flat out hard work. When you practice landings, make sure to go out (with a CFI) on a day where there are some gusts so you can learn how to handle them. It’s a very different experience.
- Understand the big weather picture. This tip applies to almost all flights, but many pilots don’t consider it when talking about wind. High winds caused by a fast-moving cold front can behave very differently from those caused by afternoon heating on a warm spring day. Knowing what’s driving the wind conditions will help you anticipate the conditions aloft (including turbulence) and forecast how they might strengthen or weaken. You can practice this skill without ever flying: just watch the surface weather charts and the METARs throughout the day to get a sense for how different weather systems affect surface winds. You’ll be less likely to get surprised by a bad TAF if you know how to read the signs.
- Crosswind landing skills erode faster than almost any others. If I don’t fly for a month, the first thing I notice is how bad my crosswind landings are. It’s 80% physical and 20% mental, which is the exact opposite of most flying skills. You simply have to practice it continuously if you want to be proficient. If you’ve been out of the cockpit for a while, be sure to go out and practice crosswind landings before taking that big trip.
- Tailwheel airplanes do make you better at crosswinds. I won’t lecture you about how magical tailwheel airplanes are, or how only “real pilots” fly them. They’re different, not better or worse. Having said that, five hours of instruction in a Cub or a Citabria will certainly do good things for your crosswind landing skills. When I checked out in a tailwheel airplane, it really helped me understand the different forces at work and how to use the rudder most effectively. Even if you don’t get the endorsement, consider logging some time.
Your personal minimums—or the ones set by your flight instructor—are the final word on whether you should fly or not. If you’re not comfortable with the conditions, you shouldn’t fly, regardless of what the airplane’s demonstrated crosswind component is. As you’ve likely heard before, it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than in the air wishing you were on the ground.
But once you have your license, you should get some quality instruction from a CFI and push up that personal minimum. If you cancel a flight every time the wind tops 10 knots, you simply won’t fly much. Even if you’re conservative, you may get trapped some day when you return to the airport and find that the winds have picked up to 18 knots. Better know how to handle them, lest you ruin a wonderful day of flying.