Extreme Crosswinds

A search for the windiest airport in the nation leads to Maui

November 1, 2003

What airport has the worst crosswinds in the nation? Yours? To find out, a survey was conducted in the Hangar Talk message board of AOPA Online. The idea was to locate the airport based on the opinions of AOPA members and then go there and see how pilots deal with the wind. The result is tips for you on how to handle winds at your home airport.

The survey drew nearly three dozen responses from throughout the nation, responses that were later read by 300 of you who were attracted to the discussion. Since facts are often blended with fiction in online messages, follow-up telephone interviews were conducted with FBOs at each airport mentioned.

Based on the survey, the worst crosswinds at first appeared to be in the Southwest, particularly Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. There were scattered reports of wind problems in Maine, Alaska, the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and California.

A series of responses focused on Kahului Airport (pronounced kah hoo lou'ie), the main airport on the Island of Maui, Hawaii. "The winds were consistently horrific," one pilot wrote. "A good day was 30 gusting to 35. A guy in a 172 looked more like a helo as he gently lowered himself onto the numbers." A pilot in Idaho recalled receiving a certificate just for surviving the winds in Maui. That was the clincher: Since none of the other airports gave crosswind certificates, Kahului had to have the worst winds, or as Maui pilots prefer to say, the best winds. A call was made to Maui Aviators, the primary fixed-wing flight school at Kahului (the state has only 400 GA aircraft and many of those are helicopters), to schedule a checkout: Now I would see the winds for myself.

The airliner rocked in turbulence as it rounded out above Runway 2 at Kahului after a five-hour flight from Los Angeles — if the winds could do that to a Boeing, what would they do to a Cessna 172?

Remembering the rule that pilots should be well-nourished, I prepared for my checkout the following day with a meal at one of Maui's better restaurants: Humuhumunukunukuapua'a (pronounced — never mind, you're on your own). The restaurant's name is the same as the state fish, many of which swim in a 3,000-gallon saltwater aquarium surrounding the open-air, thatched-roof structure behind the Grand Wailea (wye lay'uh) Resort Hotel. Look over the banister while seated at your table, and there are the fish. Past customers include John Travolta, Cher, Aerosmith, and James Taylor — all of them happily fed.

The next morning was spent scouting for sites where the island's trade winds would be evident in photographs, and it wasn't a difficult search. A two-mile stretch of beach a few hundred yards off the departure end of Runway 2 plays host to hundreds of wind surfers from around the world. Kite surfers routinely run afoul of the FAA because their kites reach up into the airport's departure path.

At noon instructor Ian McKelvey began his preflight briefing on proper cruising altitudes between islands, en route advisory frequencies, and Kahului departure routes. McKelvey holds four jobs involving the wind. In addition to giving instruction, he is a fish spotter and operates parasailing and paragliding businesses. Maui Aviators owner Jon Muralt can tell when a mainlander pilot is concerned about the winds: After the briefing there is reluctance to go to the airplane. Instructors are happy to give tours or accompany pilots who would rather not fly solo.

The day I flew N7332G around the pattern winds were not terrible at all, by Hawaiian standards. I did refer to the aircraft after the flight as November-Seven-Three-Three-Two-Gust. Sure, winds at Kahului were 24 knots but only 20 degrees off the runway. I learned later that it is rare for either Runway 2 or Runway 5 to have crosswinds greater than 50 degrees off the runway heading. What surprised me was the turbulence. Kahului Airport sits in a valley at the mouth of a natural venturi tube formed by mountains on both sides. One of the mountains, the 10,000-foot volcano Haleakala (holly aka'la), also accelerates the wind on its downslopes, tumbling it across the waving sugarcane fields toward the airport. What does that mean to you? Pilots must have patience in the flare as they wait for the wind to decide when the aircraft will settle — but the ride two feet above the runway can be as rough as driving on a pothole-filled road. Yet the touchdown was smooth. Despite the battle, I didn't feel I had earned the crosswind certificate. That came on the next flight.

McKelvey's fish-spotting flight in a Cessna 152 was scheduled to depart following my checkout, so he allowed me to do the flying while he looked for fish. As we followed the western shore of Maui it occurred to me that the most difficult thing about flying in Hawaii is not the crosswinds, but pronouncing airport names. I would amend that thought minutes later. Returning to the airport, winds were 28 knots at 40 degrees off runway heading. On final, I converted from a crab to a slip early — while still more than 50 feet up — thus giving myself time to see if I had enough control authority to hold the centerline. I was using partial flaps as recommended — pilots who use full flaps find they slow to walking speed prior to touchdown. The roundout was followed by the now-familiar wait for the aircraft to settle while counteracting the turbulence, and the landing was uneventful. Taxiing wasn't. Clearing the runway and stopping, I placed the controls in what I thought was the proper position for taxi and the nose rose off the pavement. I needed neutral elevator, not up elevator. I had been trained previously to place the controls during taxi in a position that is remembered by the phrase, "Climb into the wind." But Cessna recommends neutral elevator and now I know why (but tailwheel pilots know they had better have the elevator up when taxiing into the wind to keep the tail on the ground).

"You earned your certificate with that one," McKelvey said. Two years ago at Kahului, Maui Aviators pilots report, a Cessna 206 doing an engine runup in strong winds flipped over.

There are airports on Maui, and the nearby Island of Molokai, with more problems than just crosswinds. For example, precision approach path indicator (PAPI) lights at Molokai Airport must be turned off at night because of the fear that someone might try to follow them from too far away, according to Morris F. Tamanaha, general aviation officer for the Hawaii Department of Transportation airports division. Because of the terrain, they can be used in daylight only one mile out, but aircraft following the lights at night while above the glideslope and trying to descend quickly on a two- or three-mile final will hit terrain. Some have. Not only that, but Molokai has no city or other lights around it, and appears to pilots as a black hole — even with runway lights on. Additionally, the airport suffers from valley wind effect — that is, air tumbles down nearby slopes before reaching the airport in turbulent chaos. The airport can be dangerous, but hardly compares to occasional conditions at Kalaupapa (kah lou uh pa'pa).

Wear your swimsuit when taking off from Kalaupapa, also located on the Island of Molokai. Both ends of the runway abut the sea, but in winter (that's when the temperature drops to 65 degrees) waves splash 30 to 40 feet high off the departure end of the 2,700-foot Runway 5 and have claimed a couple of aircraft. One that was badly damaged struggled past the jagged 12-foot-high lava rocks and ditched in the sea. (You'll see the skull-white carcass of a Beech 18 on the approach end of Runway 5, but that one was claimed by winds, not water, many years ago.) Pilot Hank Bruckner recalled hitting a wave in a Cessna 172.

"It was as though a hand reached up and just flat stopped me. I managed to fly out of it," Bruckner said. Pilots must time the takeoff after contemplating the waves, or failing that, turn toward higher ground to avoid a wall of water. Bruckner operates a flight school for aerobatics in Honolulu called Kaimana Aviation, and has flown charter trips throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Also the AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer for Honolulu, Bruckner offers some valuable tips for crosswind operations.

First, he suggests knowing your airplane. A Piper Seneca I that Bruckner once owned ran out of aileron authority, not just rudder authority, in a 17-knot direct crosswind, yet his CAP10 tailwheel aerobatic airplane can handle 23-knot crosswinds. The aerobatic CAP10 has large flight control surfaces that are perfect for countering crosswinds. He reports, though, that the aircraft is difficult to taxi after landing in high winds. Second, he tells students to convert from a crab to a slip at 100 feet so that they can become comfortable with the slip well before landing, and can see whether there is sufficient control authority to counter the winds.

Even so, aircraft must sometimes land with a slight sideways drift because of wind conditions — although tailwheel aircraft risk ground looping in such extreme circumstances. Bruckner sometimes uses full flaps in high or difficult winds in order to land as slowly as possible — he calls it landing with "minimum energy." The trick is knowing when to use that technique, and when to use partial flaps and higher speeds for better control. The key is experience.

How do students do in Hawaii? Quite well, thank you. They think the winds are normal, and for them, they are. However, some have ground looped a Cessna 152, something that is difficult to do except in Hawaiian winds. Bruckner cancels student operations when the winds at 3,000 feet exceed 25 knots.

And what about the tourist pilots from the mainland? From all accounts, those who fly there have no problem. Others choose to go with an instructor: The winds on Maui separate the crosswind-current pilots from the non-current.


E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.


Other Airports with Nasty Crosswinds

Maui won the contest, but these airports drew lots of votes.

Here are the airports that made the cut when AOPA asked members to nominate the nation's windiest airports.

Sparrevohn, Alaska

Hopefully you'll never land at Sparrevohn Long Range Radar Station Airport in south-central Alaska. "The wind is basically a swirl against a canyon wall," said AOPA medical advisor Dr. Bruce Chien. "I was a passenger once on a C-130 making the landing — he had to bring up power on the upwind engines to make it stick." Pilots are required to land uphill and depart downhill at this mountainous airport because of the runway's 5-percent gradient. Under the "Remarks" section of the airport's information there are a couple of interesting comments: "Winds in excess of 20 knots may produce severe turbulence. Takeoff Runway 16 only; approach from south and land Runway 34 only; successful go-around improbable."

Wiscasset, Maine

A previous owner of the Wicked Good Aviation Services FBO at Wiscasset, Maine, (30 miles northeast of Portland) once sold T-shirts that said, "Home of the wicked crosswind." Wiscasset Airport's single runway, located on Maine's mid-coast, sits 90 degrees to the prevailing sea breeze. The real fun starts in winter with the approach of a cold front, but summer is by no means easy. Pilots land, thank their lucky stars for surviving the crosswind, and then try to keep their chairs from blowing away later as they recover on the restaurant porch, according to Wiscasset pilot Nick Knobil. Knobil said diners hold up cards to grade the landings of pilots who taxi past the restaurant.

Angel Fire, New Mexico

The hangar starts to hum at 25 knots — not a good sign. That's how the staff at Ross Aviation, located on the Angel Fire Airport, New Mexico, knows the game is on. In April and again in September winds reach 30 knots at a perfect 90 degrees to Runway 17/35 — the FBO staff adds 5 knots to recorded airport advisories to tilt a pilot's decision in favor of safety. Quite often the conditions at the airport, located at an elevation of 8,380 feet, include wind shear. Pilots often opt instead for Taos Regional Airport on the other side of Palo Flechado Pass.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

The reopening in December 2002 of Runway 10/28 greatly helped the crosswind situation at Santa Fe Municipal Airport, but winds still blow at 20 to 25 knots during the spring and summer — enough to cause trouble. Last year, one Cessna 175 owner who told linemen not to tie his airplane down because he was "just stopping for lunch" returned to find it had flipped over. A Piper Tri-Pacer that was tied down was wrenched loose and flipped this year, according to Zia Aviation instructor Larry Haight. And there are still crosswinds, even with the reopened runway. "We tell people if you learn to fly here you will learn to handle crosswinds." He favors the crab-and-slip method, although he has students transition to the slip early, well before the flare occurs, to give them time to get comfortable with the slip.

Colorado Springs, Colorado

No check of nasty winds would be complete without looking at airports along the Front Range of Colorado. Colorado Springs pilots report that crosswinds aren't as much a problem as shifting winds. Winds turn and swirl as they exit the mountain peaks west of town; they arrive at Colorado Springs confused. "You can start an approach with a headwind, and by the time you touch down you have a tailwind," said one pilot. Another reported it is not uncommon for large trucks to be blown over during especially high winds at Colorado Springs.

Kansas City, Kansas

"My worst crosswind was at Kansas City Downtown Airport one night," reported Steve Woolstenhulme of Plano, Texas. "Winds were howling out of the west and planes were landing north (Runway 1). A Citation ahead of me went around, and a Baron barely managed to get on the ground. The tower controller couldn't believe I was going to try it in my [Cessna] 182. I told him I'd be ready to go around and head elsewhere, but I wanted to try it first. He permitted me to drift east on final and land on the high-speed taxiway, roll out onto the runway, and then turn back off at the next taxiway. Worked like a charm. Taxiing was scary, though!"

Anywhere...

"They [crosswinds] seem to be wherever I am trying to send a student to for a solo cross-country," said Brad Kramer of Evansville, Indiana.

...and at Anytime

"When I was a student pilot years ago I was convinced the worst crosswinds occurred anytime I was going flying," said Ron Kinney of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | "AOPA Pilot" Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.