New Pilot

Windy Days: How Much Is Too Much?

December 1, 1996

When not to challenge Mother Nature

You could tell that it was going to be one of those days. The short jog from the parking lot to the terminal underscored the meaning of the term wind chill. Inside, I stood for a moment to catch my breath, surrounded by my flight case and baggage. A woman who had mistaken me for the pilot of a newly arrived aircraft pointed to the sky and said, "Must be wild up there today." I responded that I would soon find out.

Out on the ramp, a lineman had towed the old Skyhawk out of a warm hangar and was releasing the towbar as I approached. He had that "Do you really want to be doing this?" look on his face. No, I didn't, but as the poet Robert Frost once observed, I had promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.

Taxiing wasn't bad. And as often happens after launch on one of those doubtful days, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that above the frictional chop of the lower levels, the ride was a hands-off affair in the spectacularly clear air flooding in behind yesterday's low. Still, there were hints that this was no ordinary day. The on-course heading home to Maine from Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut is 060 degrees. Was I really flying a 015-degree heading to track the course? That's a mighty big wind correction angle. Surface winds had been 18 knots, gusting to 25, at Oxford when I departed, and as I flew closer to the low, it was no surprise that ATIS broadcasts along the route advertised increasing surface winds from the northwest.

What did surprise me, however, was the altimeter setting. Only 200 miles up the route from the point of origin the altimeter was already a full half-inch of barometric pressure lower. My briefing had been of the old-fashioned 800/WX-BRIEF variety, but I could imagine the pressure gradients, coiled tightly around the low like a spider web. The low didn't seem to be moving out as fast as predicted, so this could only mean that the closer I got to home, the stronger the winds would be. This was more than just a casual observation. In a slow airplane with limited range bucking headwinds, every minute on the homeward heading was more of a commitment to dealing with the destination's conditions. At least the wind ought to be down the runway, or close enough, I thought as I said a fare-thee-well to Portland Approach and dialed in the Bangor ATIS.

Not bad. Twenty-five gusting to 35, from 310 degrees. But as I switched to approach control, the man at the mic was giving the latest wind to a commuter aircraft. Forty knots, steady. I said hello, and he asked if I had copied his winds. "Affirmative." What else was there to say? At times like this, with no one around to watch, I talk to myself. Actually, I talk to the airplane. This battered old green-and-white Cessna 172 and I had been through a lot together. I'd rather be here, waiting to tackle this situation, than in a lot of predicaments on terra firma with less reliable partners. Relaxed (if alert), I patted the top of the old ship's panel and readjusted my belt and harness. Tower cleared me to land. "Wind now three-one-zero at three-zero, gusting to four-four," the man said evenly. I selected half-flaps. Looking back on it now, no flaps would have been better. "Just keep 'er straight and wait," I said out loud.

It was smooth enough down to about 100 feet agl; but from there on down to flare height, violent gusts pounded the airplane like ocean waves, causing alternate balloons upward and plunges toward earth. I compensated with a touch of power for the sinks and throttled back for the lift from each successive shear, trying to hold a steady height above the pavement, waiting for a few seconds of steady wind for touchdown. Rudder and aileron were in motion throughout. Finally a break in the action occurred and the ship gently touched down with just enough flare to ensure a mains-first arrival. The key to the whole thing was patience, really. Now the trick was to not let down my guard during the difficult taxi to the parking area. The fuel truck and I arrived at the tiedown spot at the same time. It was nice to get out and see Charlie Fairbrother, one of our veteran linemen, gazing at me disapprovingly from the gas truck. "What the heck were you doing?" Charlie shouted above the wind.

How much wind is too much? The answer, of course, is "Depends." That day had more wind than was forecast — a forecast that seemed okay for a solo pilot's cross-country but unfavorable for an introductory flight lesson or a sightseeing outing with friends. It would have been a no- go for a student pilot on a solo trip, and if the actual conditions I encountered at the destination had been in the briefing, it would have also been a no-go for me.

People have funny ideas about wind and airplanes. The most commonly mistaken notion is revealed when a pilot asks, "How much wind can this airplane handle?" Of course, that varies with the experience and skill of the pilot. Yes, there are limits, although the "demonstrated crosswind velocity" you find in many operating manuals isn't one of them. Discussing how to learn about the wind raises the old should-you-or-shouldn't-you debate that attaches itself to other training issues such as spins. The basic idea to consider is that a pilot who has flown in the wind won't be nonplussed when suddenly faced with more than he bargained for; a more sheltered pilot may.

I used to belong to a flying club that owned a Cessna 152. Club rules were conservative to the point of timidity on the subject of wind. If steady wind exceeded 12 knots or peak gusts exceeded 17 knots, you couldn't fly. I raised a ruckus at a club meeting, and a well-intentioned novice explained, "We just want to protect the airplane." I said my piece about well-trained, confident pilots being a better guarantor, and after a massive effort that any congressional lobbyist would be proud of, the club waived its wind rules.

What they were missing is that quantity isn't a good judge of whether the wind's going to get you; it's the wind's character that counts. Give me 30 knots right down the runway any day — the only hint that it's there is the low groundspeed on final. But a 10-knot crosswind will flesh out any imperfections in your technique. A variable wind — you know, 270 at 10 knots, then 010 at 15, then something in between — can really get under your skin. A pilot learns his wind limits from experience, not from club rules. If heavy-wind flying is introduced during primary training (as experience for you and to ensure the instructor that you can handle anything that might come up on a solo flight), the pilot learns to evaluate wind objectively for such concerns as velocity, angle with runways that must be used (the crosswind component), variability, and the forecast for increase or decrease. Too much? Don't go. If it comes up after you have launched, be careful on the approach, keep the aircraft aligned with the centerline, be ready to go around, and have an alternate nearby with runways more sympathetically aligned.

But if significant wind (20 to 30 knots) wasn't tackled during training, flaws in a new pilot's technique that may have gone undetected — both in stick-and-rudder procedures and in making judgment calls — could make themselves known at a bad time. If that describes your status, lure one of your local high-timers out to the trainer and get your feet wet. The skills aren't difficult to master. There's no better confidence builder. Hour for hour, no training is better, especially when measured against the consequences of leaving yourself unprotected.

Practice Area: Dropping Objects

Washing airplanes was much less stressful


In the spring of 1946, I was 16 and working as a lineboy (airplane facilitator person) at my home airport in northern Tennessee, not getting much flying time but doing plenty of washing, propping, and fueling.

One of the instructors suggested flying to the nearby towns and dropping leaflets advertising the flight school and the G.I. Bill. I thought that this was an outstanding idea, particularly with me in the airplane, flying it part of the time, dropping leaflets part of the time, and generally having a lot of fun all of the time. It would sure beat washing airplanes. The leaflets were printed and the towns were selected for the first drops. An ex-military flight instructor — now a flight instructor in 65-horsepower, fabric-covered Champions — was selected to be my second-in-command.

Over the first town the wind was calm (we started early in the morning), and the drop was successful. I learned that I couldn't predict the landing point of the scattered leaflets because of the airplane's circling. I was seeing paper floating to all points of the compass. When we were on the south side of the town, it appeared that the leaflets would drift well north and not fall within the city limits. Yet when we circled over the north side, it seemed that the paper drifted to the south. We were glad to see that the scattering was good; many of the leaflets landed in the town square area — with, of course, a few sticking in trees and on roofs.

I wondered whether somebody at the airport had gotten permission to litter the streets. Surely somebody had.

I was in the back seat so that I could reach around to get the leaflets out of the baggage compartment and push them out the side window. But the instructor let me fly the airplane a lot between towns and everything was great. Our accuracy over the second town wasn't so good, and we flew back to get more ammunition for missions in southern Kentucky.

Once again airborne, we soon reached the first town and saturated it with paper.

The next was also covered. By now I had worked out a method of rolling the bills together for the drop, delaying by several hundred feet their scattering and getting more concentration in the main downtown areas. Actually, I was beginning to get quite the hang of it.

There were still a large number of leaflets left when we arrived over the last town, and I made up what could only be classified as the nuclear weapon of advertising. The roll must have weighed 10 pounds. The instructor, unaware of the awesome power of my construction because he was in the front seat, nodded for the release.

I pushed this big bundle out the side window. I thought that this one would really do the job and then I could take over the controls for the 15-minute flight back to the airport. The instructor set up a steep turn to check the drop — and after looking out the side window, his face turned white.

The Civil Air Regulations in force in 1946 laid it out pretty specifically, by stating, "Nothing shall be dropped from an aircraft in flight other than fine sand, fine shot, fuel or water, all unconfined." OK, so a 10- to 15-pound bundle of handbills didn't exactly fit the above description.

Later, the regulations would state, "No object or thing may be dropped from an aircraft in flight which might create a hazard to persons or property." The bundle of handbills didn't exactly escape that 1947 prohibition, either.

The bundle dropped. There was no sign of its coming apart. I had rolled the handbills in such a way that aerodynamic pressure really held them together. Now both of us weren't feeling so good, and I could see this big bundle of paper hitting a car, house — or worse, a person — still intact.

It was nearly to the ground when a sheet popped loose and then another and another. At about 100 feet above the ground, the bundle "blew open" right over a residential area where a man was raking his yard, distributing mulch, or whatever. Ninety-nine percent of the burst covered his yard, roof, and trees. Now he really had a use for that rake.

We were at a high enough altitude that we could hope that the registration numbers weren't readable, but that made no difference, because each leaflet helpfully had the name, address, and telephone number of the flying school, inviting people to call or write for useful information (like whom to arrest for littering?).

Even from 800 feet, we could see that he was one angry man. A mutual thought was "let's get the hell out of here," and the airplane was headed back to the airport, leaving the man shaking a rake at us, with a couple of leaflets looking like industrial-size dandruff on his shoulders.

I was so depressed that I let the instructor fly all the way back.

We both worried for several days, but nothing came of it. The boss was not told of this event, by mutual unspoken agreement of those involved.

The summer of 1946 was not good for people dropping objects from airplanes. It was decided, since there had been no rain for several weeks and the chief instructor's tobacco farm was suffering badly, that the clouds above it (when there were any) should be seeded to produce rain.

Finally one day, the conditions were right, with cumulus clouds being right over the crop. Dry ice was procured, beaten into small fragments, and placed in a large cloth sack. The idea was to use an airplane (the Aeronca Sedan, I believe) to climb above the clouds, while I, in the right seat, would scatter the dry ice so that it would fall through the cloud and hence produce rain. One of the instructors would do the honors of flying the airplane. I again would be the brains of the operation, as was the case for the leaflet drop.

The top of the cloud complex in question was at 8,000 feet and building slowly, but we managed to stay above it in our circling.

Now was my time to contribute to science.

I stuck the mouth of the sack out the window and began shaking the 25-pound load to get a good distribution. The dry ice did not want to leave the sack.

I stuck the sack farther out the window. It was very heavy.

I stuck it out a little farther.


My next thought was that 25 pounds or so of dry ice falling through a cloud while still encased in the sack was probably not as effective as it would have been had it been dispersed. The instructor, noting my sudden silence, turned to me and said that getting rid of the ice hadn't taken as long as he had anticipated.

I said that he was right. The instructor then asked where the empty sack was. I indicated that the sack was not empty and was on the ground by now. He mentioned something about total mental incapacitation; he might have been referring to me.

The airplane was high enough and above the clouds, so our presence was not noted on the ground, but there were two thoughts: What if the ice hit an object or person on the ground? And, in a second case, what would someone think when a large cloth sack of dry ice hit nearby? Would his or her thought be that it was a sign from heaven? (The sack had the name of a local mill, so that explanation wouldn't work.)

I was afraid to read the local newspaper for several days. The tabloids would have had a field day. ("Farmer nearly hit by mysterious object from sky. Officials say it probably came from a UFO mother ship.")

After we returned to the airport, I was relieved summarily and forever from any duties involving bombardier activities.

I was glad to get back to washing airplanes. At least when I dropped the bucket or brush, I didn't have to worry about it for several days afterward.

New Pilot's Journal: The True Cost of Flying

Preparing for a psychological battle


At age 48 I grabbed the yoke and pressed the rudder pedals for the very first time. A lifelong dream was happening, and it was paramount in my mind. Flying — why was it a necessity? How did I get to this point in my life with so much desire for this particular challenge? What would be the benefits and the complete price of this experience?

The weeks passed by and the instruction continued. Religiously, I flew twice a week. Each lesson was part adventure and part work. Many times I questioned the fact that I was not learning at the rate of which I was capable. This flying was affecting me — not just in the physical areas of sore arms, legs, etc., but there was a psychological war going on inside of me for which I was not totally prepared. Call it personality adjustment or character trait realignment, but change was occurring. For me and probably for many student pilots, a relearning of basic human traits immediately brought about a new level of success.

Not saying so directly, my instructor was constantly addressing issues relating to listening skills, precise communication skills, and patience. Changing my personality from one that was normally in a higher gear than most to one that could accommodate the flying tasks was more difficult than learning to operate the airplane. I am best described as a Type A personality, always on the go. I never do anything slowly. Flight instructors teach more than just the mechanics of flying; they cause you to reflect on how you do things. It amazes me to think that anyone can learn to fly but few can really fly.

As the year went on, my personality was changing. I started thinking in a "what if" mode. If I do this, then the airplane will do that. If I have a weather problem, then I will do this. If the airplane does this, I will then do that. On and on, thinking becomes a continuous flow of conscious acts. Trained educators and professionals strive to focus on one particular problem at one time, but a pilot must strive to scan and compare several problems at once. Being overly focused on a particular event causes an unwanted distraction. Did I want my mind to absorb continuous stimuli and keep making mental adjustments? It is called being ahead of the aircraft. What a mental challenge.

Probably one of the biggest areas of development lies on the continuum between being fearless to being fearful. Flying requires that everyone rethink his or her limits. Egos are continually tested. Sound judgment requires patience and extensive informational gathering techniques. Is the crosswind too strong? A simple landing requires the scanning of numerous factors before the perfect moment of flare. Variables have to be watched; one wonders where the pleasure lies.

The cost of flying has been the readjustment of my personality. People always ask, "How much does it cost to learn to fly?" For me it meant slowing down, defocusing my vision, and especially learning to use good planning techniques. If you really get hooked on the skies above, then plan on learning and relearning. The flying world is an endless learning environment. Therein lies the true cost of flying, and the true benefit.

Richard A. Bassotti, AOPA 1222182, of Delmar, New York, is an assistant principal and teacher of secondary education. A member of a flying club, he has acquired 168 hours in 2 years of flying.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.