Howling Crosswinds and Takeoffs — Are You Ready?

It never ceases to amaze me how many people are involved in plane wrecks every year. Despite months or years of training, people can still forget to fly the airplane when the weather and design challenges pile on to mess up an otherwise competent pilot.

A WINDY — BUT NICE — DAY set the stage for our pilot. He brought his recently purchased mid-1950 Bonanza out onto the apron, and started his preflight. Even though the crosswind approached the ability of the aircraft, our pilot elected to depart, since he was on his way out for a business trip.

With the preflight completed, he loaded up the plane, climbed in, and taxied out to the active runway. Our runway, in this case, was at a rural airport. The paved portion measured some 26 feet wide, while the well-rolled and smooth grass portion of the strip made the runway more like 75 feet wide. On either side of the runway was a tilled farm field and — as you would expect — the side close to the runway had an end row, that is, a large furrow made by the plow on the outside of the row.

Normally, this large furrow or “end row” would be closed by the next pass of the plow. However, since this furrow abutted the runway, there was no next pass, and there was a large ridge of dirt, approximately a foot high, on both sides of the runway as a result.

SIZE IS RELATIVE — The 75-foot overall width might have been useful, but grass presents more drag on a tire than a paved surface. If the aircraft weathervaned into the wind, the upwind tire would reach the grass first and exaggerate a turn toward the furrow. Our pilot centered the plane on the narrow paved runway and advanced the power. The winds tore at the plane as it accelerated, driving it southward off the paved strip. With the power still on full, our pilot was unable to correct the drift. The plane swerved to the left, and ran headlong into the farm field.

THE LANDING GEAR CAUGHT THE END-ROW, and smashed into the ridge of earth, bending the prop, stopping the engine, and causing the nose gear assembly to collapse. Our pilot was left with a severely damaged airplane, along with a blow to his pride as a pilot — but walked away with his life.

There were two ways out of Dodge that would have completely avoided this expensive accident:

  • STRONG CROSSWIND + NOT IN PRACTICE = DON’T FLY. If the pilot had considered that he was not experienced in that aircraft, he may have thought twice about trying to take off from an unusually narrow strip in strong crosswinds. When in doubt, go with probability — in this case, probability dictated that our pilot was not up to the task.
  • USE GROUND EFFECT. When your plane is close to the runway, a wedge of air builds up between the underside of the wing and the ground. This “ground effect” can help you get the plane off the runway, allowing you to build airspeed and climb. When push comes to shove, a really bad takeoff can sometimes be salvaged by yanking the plane off the ground and into ground effect. However, the pilot must make immediate and proper directional corrections as soon as the aircraft becomes airborne — this is not easy. Still, if your poor choice to depart is leading to a loss of directional control and getting the plane into the air sometimes makes more sense.

BOTTOM LINE: Think first, fly second. No amount of tricks or the use of ground effect will save you from a really bad decision. The only thing that can save you from a bad decision is using the organ that was placed between your ears. THINK — and if you have any doubts — don’t get into the airplane. The accident statistics that you prevent may well be your own!