Safety Publications/Articles

Too Windy?

Treating Turbulence With An Open Mind

It was one of those uncomfortable days - not winter and not yet spring. A dry cold front was howling through our area, bringing adequate ceilings and excellent visibility, but we knew it was going to be turbulent. Approaches to our airport's short runway were challenging anytime but especially so on windy days. Surrounded on three sides by trees or buildings, wind conditions were always different at the runway than they were 100 feet above it.

That morning our cadre of instructors was milling around the airport office drinking coffee and already missing the income from the students we'd been canceling when they called in. Disturbed by the lack of activity, the boss arrived from his home on the other side of the airport. Quickly analyzing the situation, he ordered us to fill an airplane with instructors to do a wind check. Once in the air we called on the CTAF to open a flight plan to Bermuda. This elicited no response from the boss, but several pilots doomed to spend the day bouncing around the Northeast took time from their duties to tell us we were on the wrong frequency.

After three trips around the pattern we returned. The boss was waiting. "Don't pour another cup of coffee until your students are on their way to the airport," he said and retreated to his office. Conditions precluded solo flight, so we had to make some adjustments to the training schedule, but by nightfall every instructor had earned a full day's pay - and their students had learned a lot about flying in crosswinds and turbulence.

Fifteen years later I was running my own flight school and encountered a similar situation one windy Saturday. I tried the "wind check" routine on my staff, adding, "and don't be taking off for a weekend in Bermuda." On her way out to the airplane one of my instructors said, "I know I can handle it. It's my students I'm worried about."

"Good point," I said, "but if they don't fly in wind with you to guide them, when are they going to learn how to do it?"

Now I grant you that a student has to have some experience in good conditions before tackling a windy day, so presolo students are better occupied studying for the knowledge test. Almost every other student - and certificated pilots, too - can benefit from a wind tuneup. We all know we've earned our money after a day of takeoffs and landings in a turbulent pattern, but it's well worth a little discomfort to see the increase in our students' confidence.

There's a similar opportunity for instructional excellence with respect to training in instrument meteorological conditions. Naturally some instrument weather - ice and thunderstorms - is unsafe to tackle in modestly equipped training airplanes. But most instrument accidents don't occur in extreme weather conditions. They happen in plain old low ceilings and visibility.

Instrument program graduates are much more confident in their piloting abilities if they've had some experience in the weather. I've seen this in practical test applicants I've evaluated over the years. But how do CFIs gain confidence in their ability to manage instruction in IMC? As with wind, you gain confidence in your ability to instruct in IMC by instructing in IMC. You may want to fly some actual IMC with a fellow instructor before working with your students.

When you begin flying with students start gradually in conditions that are well above minimums. You'll only be in the soup for a few minutes, but you and your student will appreciate the opportunity to fly instruments "for real." Gradually fly in lower IMC until you approach minimums. You'll need to have a solid alternate when the weather's low.

So far we've dealt with instructor self-confidence, but as you go further into harm's way you'll need to have confidence in your student as well. It's not a good idea to fly in challenging conditions with a student whom you've just met. You'll want to know something about that person's ability before watching him land in a gusty crosswind or shoot an approach to minimums.

By John Steuernagle

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