Crosswind conundrum: Pilots share all

April 10, 2008

Crosswind conundrum: Pilots share all

By Alyssa J. Miller

Crosswind landings seem to be so controversial among pilots that even the headline of last week’s AOPA ePilot newsletter story requesting comments was challenged: “Really not a ‘Conundrum’ but a matter of choice in technique,” one member wrote.

About 500 members wrote to ePilot throughout the week to share crosswind landing techniques in everything from gliders to Harrier jets. (And yes, we had a few happy Ercoupe pilots write in explaining their “touchdown in a crab” technique.) We’ve shared some of the comments that are representative of what we received.

Some of you are devout crab or slip pilots; others are converts; some are ambidextrous; and one declared himself a crosswind “connoisseur.”

So the question:

“To slip or to crab?” a member asked. “Depends on the plane and the pilot I would say.”

Bingo. Most pilots’ techniques are based largely on preference. While many of you have different techniques for high- and low-wing aircraft, for every slip there was also a crab.

But the preference also seemed to stem from early flight training experiences.

The crab crowd said they were hesitant to cross-control the aircraft on final while flying low and slow over the ground because of the stall/spin scenarios their instructors described.

“Being a rather low-time private pilot, who only goes flying when the weather and pocketbook are getting along with each other, I prefer the crab method,” a Cessna 172 pilot said. “The reason I prefer the crab method is because my instructor was constantly preaching about the dangers of crossed-controls at low altitudes.”

On the other hand, those who slip said they were taught to land that way because their instructors said “kicking out” of the crab required too much maneuvering right before touchdown.

However, there were a few who, after earning their private pilot certificates, started flying in crosswinds and experimenting with their techniques. Switching from the crab to the slip or vice versa for the first time resulted in an epiphany and a new way of landing for them.

Combo

Many of you use a combination of the crab and slip. Generally, pilots said they would crab toward the runway after turning final and then switch to a slip anywhere from 200 feet to a half-mile out.

“Most of my fellow company Airbus pilots, even though they say they intend to land entirely crabbed, with no slip, will still partially slip the aircraft just before touchdown. Almost in a subconscious maneuver, because a full crab is an uncomfortable picture,” said a check airman flying the Airbus A300.

Crab

“Flying a Cessna 172M model, I prefer to crab on final until about 30 seconds from touchdown and then transition to a slip technique with low wing into the wind and hold the slip until touchdown, touching down with main landing wheel on the upwind side of the airplane,” a pilot explained. “Thirty seconds is enough time to figure out the correct combination of aileron and rudder inputs to keep the airplane on the runway centerline.”

The pilots who said they use the crab technique seemed to break into two camps: crab until just before touchdown, then “de-crab” (straighten out and land wings level); or crab until the flair and then transition to a wing-low touchdown.

“I would say the challenging part is the transition from the crab to the slip on touchdown,” a pilot wrote. “Because of the coordination it takes, I always go through the procedure in my head a few times before landing. Just remember to relax, wipe the sweat from your hands, and be familiar with your go-around procedures.”

A pilot who used to fly AV-8B Harriers said that if he didn’t perform a vertical landing facing into the wind, he would land in the crab and would caster out of it on touchdown, but the “kick the crab” approach would also work.

Pilots who used the crab said it allowed them to land in stronger crosswinds than the slip would, was a natural transition to landing particularly after breaking out of the clouds on an instrument approach, and just felt better. Another justification for the crab came down to, well, personality.

“Crab, and if you ask my friends they would say it’s because I’m crabby!” another pilot wrote. “I have always found it easier to stay lined up with the centerline by establishing the correct crab angle on final, then bringing in the rudder to straighten out during flare. Personal preference I guess.”

Slip

Those who wrote called the slip method everything from elegant to dangerous.

“Nothing beats that maneuver [the slip] for a feeling of mastery over the elements around you,” one pilot said.

“Using [the slip], I have landed in crosswinds up to 15 gusting to 25 knots,” a Maule pilot wrote. But he concluded, “I don’t like to either do that or practice it—it’s sort of like practicing heart attack resuscitation by giving your subject a real heart attack—the results can be disastrous.”

The devout “slip” pilots said following this maneuver from final to touchdown gave them a better “feel” for the wind, allowed them to see how much rudder control they had remaining, provided a stabilized approach, and prevented their wing from getting picked up by wind gusts.

Passenger comfort

Most pilots said they perform the crab maneuver to land when they are carrying passengers—so as to avoid scaring them by flying with a wing low. But, there wasn’t complete agreement.

“My technique for crosswind landings depends on my passengers,” a Cessna 172 pilot said. “My wife would much rather have the airplane lined up with the runway than to crab, as she does not like it when the airplane’s heading is much different than its course track.”

The pilot of a Piper Comanche said, “I brief passengers about ‘flying crooked’ before establishing the slip, just after turning final.”

Whatever it takes to make the landing

Then there were those of you who “just fly the airplane.”

A J-3 Cub pilot who was recently asked how he did crosswind landings had to actually do one to find the answer. “I really never thought about it, I just did it,” he said.

A pilot based at Salt Lake City Municipal No. 2 said the crosswinds are particularly tricky when the wind blows from the north. “During landings in these conditions I remember what my flight instructor from 25 years ago told me.... Sometimes you just have to do whatever works.”

The pilot of a Grumman Cheetah said, “We really should set up a correct approach the same each time. However, when things go south, be prepared to strap the bird on and make it do what it is capable of doing without bending/breaking anything important.”

It starts long before landing

“What I also do is prepare myself mentally, as in who’s flying this mother, me or it. Plus, I’ll have a distinct picture in my mind of the upwind wheel touching down first with absolutely no drift,” a Cessna Citation II Bravo pilot shared.

One member shared his “five Ls” to crosswind landings: Look for wind information as you approach the airport; listen to the AWOS or ATIS, or ask air traffic control; line up on the runway centerline; lean into the wind; and land.

“The key in my book is to let the airplane tell you whether or not it will align with the runway and complete a safe landing,” another explained. “You can never force an airplane on the runway safely if the forces of nature are against you. If you are not able to merge yourself with the actions of the airplane in its environment, crosswind landings will always be a challenge.”

Safety is the top priority

Pilots can debate landing technique for hours on end, but one thing we can all agree on is safety. And crosswinds are a serious matter.

Wind conditions were cited as the primary cause in 17.2 percent of landing accidents, second only to “loss of control” (32.8 percent), a more generic category that likely includes accidents in which wind conditions/gusts factored into the loss of control, according to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Ups and Downs of Takeoffs and Landings Safety Advisor.

“I am very cautious with winds and approach these situations with respect but not apprehension. I always have a backup plan for a go-around and an alternate airport if I can’t get into my destination,” explained a pilot who flies Citabrias, Piper PA-28s, and Cessna 172s.

Many of you were also quick to point out that your workload doesn’t end when you touchdown. You “fly” the airplane all the way to the tiedown.

“Just because a plane is ‘on the ground’ doesn’t mean that lift has gone to zero; there exists a significant component of lift during the rollout. By keeping the yoke into the wind, we maintain directional control through the rollout.”

April 10, 2008