Whether we’re flying a small trainer or a large airliner, the wind plays a critical role in navigation as well as our aircraft’s performance.
The effects of the wind are most evident during ground reference maneuvers, when flying in the traffic pattern, and as we land.
The windsock beside the runway is an excellent tool for determining wind direction and speed. But what if the windsock is out of sight when we’re at altitude and practicing flying a squared-off traffic pattern or a symmetrical turn around a point? Fortunately, the world below us provides plenty of insight into wind direction and speed.
The direction smoke rises from chimneys and open fires is a great wind indicator. Keep in mind that smoke will always travel downwind. A visible column of smoke will only form if there is little or no wind. If the smoke hugs the ground, we can be reasonably sure the wind is stronger.
Large flags and advertising banners can tell us a lot about the wind at ground level. Similarly, large and small bodies of water can give us useful information. A lake or large pond will show a glassy band around the edge where the wind is coming from. The larger that glassy band, the lighter the wind. Ripples or waves will form downwind, perpendicular to the wind’s direction.
The water can even tell us the wind speed. White streaks will appear on the surface, paralleling the wind direction at 6 to 8 knots. Whitecaps tend to form at 10 to 12 knots.
To pilots, the wind can be a great gift or a curse. The key to keeping the wind on your side is to know where it comes from and how fast it moves. Thankfully, we have plenty of good references on the ground and in the air to help keep us and the wind working together in harmony.