Answers for Pilots

Breezy days

May 1, 2002

Changing winds make for challenging approaches

In the spring, two conditions conspire to thwart a pilot's best attempts at good landings. Fickle weather brings wind, whether it's a tricky crosswind, gusty winds straight down the runway, or wind shear on final. And many of us don't get the opportunity to fly much during the winter months, leaving our ability to handle shifty winds compromised.

AOPA's aviation technical specialists field questions about coping with windy conditions, and in answering them Kitty Pultorak reiterates what most pilots know: "Practice is vital — for any pilot. Most pilots don't like the added stress of practicing crosswind landings. But in the spring, as fronts move through, you're going to have to do a crosswind landing at some point."

Pultorak continues, "Spring is a beautiful time to fly. It's warm, but you have to appreciate that with the warmth comes thermals, winds — the gliders love it! But every landing is different because the wind will change everything."

There are several changes to watch for in windy conditions. A strong wind at pattern altitude causes you to crab in order to maintain a rectangular course. On downwind, you can gauge the relative strength of the wind by your angle to the runway, comparing what you experience aloft to what the windsock shows on the ground. This also gives you an early warning of any wind shift you may encounter as you descend on final.

If you suspect that the wind will gust or shift during your final approach and landing, carry some extra speed. One technique is to add half of the gust factor to your normal approach speed. Say the wind is gusting from 10 to 25 knots. You should add 8 kt to your approach speed, which is usually 1.3 V SO. The additional speed acts as a buffer in case the wind drops off sharply when you are low and reduces your airspeed. However, depending on runway length, some pilots prefer not to carry additional speed in these conditions.

Still, some extra speed can benefit you during a crosswind approach and landing. The increased airflow over the control surfaces caused by the additional speed makes them more effective. When you use the ailerons to counteract a gust, they will be more responsive at the higher speed. "If the wind throws you off, adjust," says Pultorak. "Learn from every landing."

Pultorak notes another hazard to consider: one-way runways. If you fly into airports, such as some of those in mountainous areas, where there is a preferred landing and takeoff direction, be wary of any tailwind you may encounter. Look in the performance charts for your airplane's pilot operating handbook to see how much a tailwind affects landing performance. You may be surprised. Depending on the length of the runway and the aircraft, 5 kt is roughly the maximum amount of tailwind that you can handle under normal circumstances. If the conditions at the airport dictate a stronger tailwind, you may want to consider going elsewhere.

One final note about wind. As fronts whip across the country, strong winds aloft can make for cross-country flights that take far longer than expected. Watch your fuel reserves if flying into a headwind, and note that winds often increase with altitude. "No matter what you do, wind plays a part," concludes Pultorak. To the springtime pilot, those words ring especially true.

As an AOPA member, you have access to the best resources anywhere for information and answers for pilots. AOPA provides information for its members through a vast array of communications technologies. You can reach experts in all fields of aviation via AOPA Online (, the AOPA Pilot Information Center (800/USA-AOPA), and e-mail ( [email protected]). Aviation technical specialists respond promptly to member requests while AOPA Online provides members with access to information and resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The toll-free AOPA Pilot Information Center gives you direct access to specialists in every area of aviation. The center is available to members from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.

AOPA Web resources

Windy Flight Operations is a compilation of information from AOPA, government, and other aviation resources. Topics include:

  • Windy Operations: Experience and Judgment
    Includes articles by AOPA Pilot writers such as "Keeping Fear in Check: It's What You Know That Counts," by Dan Namowitz; "Way Too Windy: Learn Your Limitations," by Bruce Landsberg; and "Winds: Riding Waves, Shears, Rotors, Bumps, and Jumps," by Thomas A. Horne.
  • Takeoff Techniques
    Includes an article by AOPA Pilot Associate Editor Julie K. Boatman, "Stay Focused: Plan the Takeoff — and Takeoff According to the Plan."
  • Cruise and Wind Correction Angle
    Articles include "Looking Down: Ground Track in the Pattern," by Budd Davisson, AOPA Flight Training magazine, and "Wind Triangle Computers: Whiz-Wheel Wizardry," by Barry Schiff, AOPA Pilot magazine.
  • Crosswind Landing Techniques
    AOPA Flight Training magazine articles including "Practicing Crosswind Landings" and "Breezy Bop," by Amy Laboda, and "The Kickout Method," by Barry Schiff, AOPA Pilot magazine.