Technique: Rotten air

Tips for winning the in-flight fight

October 1, 2009

Flags stood straight from their poles, plastered in place by blustery winds. It was a good day to grab Frederick, Maryland, instructor Tom O’Neill and conduct a research flight in search of practical tips to use for battling rough air.

The plan was to do takeoffs and landings in what turned out to be rotten conditions. The parking lot was empty when I arrived at the flight school, and I had a wide choice of rental aircraft, two observations that told me pilots had voted against flying. Student pilot solo activity had been shut down by the school. As I taxied to the runway in the flight school’s Cessna 172 winds dropped to 10 knots, gusting to 16, and were only 20 degrees off the runway heading.

“I’m kind of disappointed,” I foolishly told O’Neill. He suggested switching to the runway with 80- to 90-degree crosswinds, since it seemed I needed a challenge.

I wanted to gather practical tips, not rekindle old debates. Those include whether or not to use flaps in high winds (see “ The Flap about Flaps,” August 2004 AOPA Pilot) and whether to use the crab or crab-and-slip method to control crosswinds (see “ Technique; Defeating the Crosswind,” August 1996 AOPA Pilot). Those arguments continue in the AOPA Aviation Forum found on AOPA Online. For the record, I happen to favor partial flaps in gusty conditions and I use the crab-and-slip method of maintaining the centerline. (Let the e-mails begin.)

Control position when taxiing in high wind is very important to avoid getting flipped over. Years ago, a Cessna 206 was stationary on the ramp at Kahului, Maui, doing an engine runup at full power. It flipped over in place (see “ Extreme Crosswinds,” November 2003 AOPA Pilot). Another trick taught to me by Maui instructors is to switch to the slip method for controlling crosswind drift while still 100 feet high. That way you know early in the landing process whether the airplane is beyond its capabilities and can’t hold the centerline.

O’Neill and I consulted on correct control position during every turn. Turns can be tricky, as a Piper Cub pilot discovered at Frederick years ago when he taxied off the runway in high winds with the tail still up and ignored proper control position. The Cub, which had flown successfully for 50 years after it was built in 1941, flipped and was destroyed. The pilot was uninjured.

Reaching the run-up area, I made a point of turning the aircraft 180 degrees into the wind.

Once on the runway, ailerons were fully deflected into the wind as the takeoff roll began and slowly returned towards neutral as speed grew. No more than 10 feet after liftoff a gust slammed into the tail, suddenly pointing the nose into the wind. That’s just what I wanted, although not in such a violent manner. I made sure that transition to a crab was slower on subsequent takeoffs.

All seemed to be going well until the turn to base. Airspeed had been 75 to 80 KIAS on downwind (with the analog indicator bouncing back and forth, I might add), but the tailwind provided a groundspeed of 90 knots on base. The descent was still 500 feet per minute but now the base leg was over so quickly that there wasn’t enough time to lose the required amount of altitude. An early turn to final to prevent the wind from blowing me past the runway left me looking at a runway way down there, but I was still way up here. Not even idle power and a forward slip could fix the problem. I admitted defeat and O’Neill called for a go-around.

The next time around I started the descent more aggressively prior to base, used less power, and slowed the aircraft to 70 KIAS while turning to the base leg, but the wind was now stronger, so the groundspeed reached 100 knots. Again I arrived on final with too much altitude and chose to go around. The third time I made it to within 10 feet of the runway where we whistled along at the higher approach airspeed used for gusty conditions (I added half the gust factor to the approach speed). The Cessna appeared willing to sit at 10 feet while a considerable length of the runway passed underneath. I could have made it (don’t all pilots say that?) but I went around for a third time.

Further adjustments to power, the pattern, and descent rates resulted in my making the next few landings. Landing the upwind wheel first was not just a mark of pilot finesse, but also an essential ingredient for preventing side loading on the landing gear.

By now I was getting cocky and asked O’Neill to pull power on downwind for a simulated engine failure. Winds had increased to the aircraft’s maximum demonstrated capability, at least as far as gusts were concerned; 11 knots gusting to 27. Had I not been able to track the centerline I could have switched to the runway aligned with the prevailing wind.

So what were the practical tips from that little adventure? Know not only the capability of the airplane but also the capability of the pilot. If you haven’t fought winds for a while, see your friendly instructor. In my case it had been eight months since I tackled any serious winds. I had passed an instrument proficiency check only three weeks earlier.

On a lighter note, here are some other observations from that flight. Renters, be careful with that paperwork you fill out for each flight and carry to the aircraft. Once it’s out of your hands in strong wind, it’s gone. Watch the doors as well, since hinges have been known to bend when the door is whipped open by strong wind.

For that matter, watch the whole airplane. Wind can push it out of its parking place after the aircraft is untied, so set the brake or chock the wheels.

Controls can be damaged in whipping winds. My preflight solution was to replace the control lock after a visual inspection of the controls, then repeating the checklist once in the cabin and removing it again prior to taxi. Finally, lift and hold the aileron with one hand to keep the wind from closing it on your fingers. Years ago my instructor warned that an aileron can “…cut your finger off.” I’ll leave that research to another day.

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

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.