Wind Socked

At about 11 AM, just as I arrived to fly an R-22 into a cool blue March sky out of Frederick, Maryland, a pilot proved once again that when you consider all weather phenomena, it is winds which are the cause of many accidents. As I was waiting for the instructor to return with his student and the helicopter, I heard a cacophony of sirens, but I just figured that it was coming from one of the local roads nearby. They weren’t.

The winds have been fairly insistent here in the Washington area recently, but in this case, unlike two weeks ago when I had last flown at Frederick, the winds weren’t 14 gusting to 22. They were blowing more or less steadily from the northwest at about eight to ten knots. While attempting to land, not only did this airplane manage to depart off the end of 3600-foot runway 30 … and not only did he wind up within a couple of hundred feet of Bruce Landsberg’s window at AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation … the airplane also came to rest at a point that was even closer to the hangar of Trooper Three of the Maryland State Police’s Aviation Division. (Normally, they have to fly to the scene of an accident, but in this case, it came to them, you might say.)

According to the NTSB, out of all aircraft accidents, roughly a quarter are weather-related. Although thunderstorms are among the bigger bugaboos, the single greatest cause of weather related accidents is adverse winds. (Among those accidents which do involve weather in some way, adverse winds cover a bit under half.) By adverse, I mean those winds that are gusty, highly variable, overly powerful, or just plain unfavorable (such as the downwind landing on a short runway). In cases such as the one I just recounted, although I haven’t seen even a preliminary report, I suspect that the incident involved a loss of directional control at some point in the landing roll. After that, the pilot was mostly along for the ride.

In most cases, no one gets hurt, but the airplanes sure do; wind-related accidents are usually the “fender bender” variety. The problem of course is that our airplanes have very expensive fenders. Less than 10 percent of wind-related accidents result in fatalities or serious injury (which is well below the overall average of about 25% of accidents being serious). There is usually some damage to the airframe, and often to the propeller and engine: thankfully little business for the emergency room, but too much business for the insurance claims adjuster. This may be good news of sorts, but we are at a much higher risk of losing a fight with a rip-snorting crosswind than we are of losing control when flying in IMC. (Accidents caused by low ceilings and visibility come in next on the lineup.) By the way, when I say “accident” I’m adhering to the NTSB Part 830 definition when it comes to citing accident statistics, but practically speaking, I consider most “incidents” as accidents, too.

What the stats mean: Most “incidents” involving wingtips, landing gear, dented metal (apart from the fact that they also usually don’t result in any hospitalization) do involve quite a chunk of change, post-event contrition, self-doubt, and self-analysis, so I certainly don’t consider them insignificant! Is it any surprise that about three-quarters of this type of accident occur during personal flying? The remainder is split about even with business and instructional flying. For business flying interestingly, low ceilings and poor visibility comes out as the number one accident cause, and adverse winds number two.

So what can we take away from all this? I apologize if I might disappoint you in not having a totally original solution, heretofore undiscovered, for diminishing your own likelihood of attracting attention on a windy day. But here’s my own two cents:

    • Fuel Before we even get near the ground, while recognizing that fuel management needs its own separate soapbox, I’ll wag my finger with yet another reminder that there needs to be enough fuel to reach your destination in spite of groundspeed reduced by a headwind.
    • Practice Yes, I’m talking “help feed your local CFI today“. All the reading in the world is great, but something akin to “muscle memory” is what we have to work at if we want to improve one’s proficiency in performing crosswind landings. Practice is the only answer to being able to handle them, because unlike riding a bicycle, this kind of muscle memory doesn’t last a lifetime. It just takes practice to ingrain the need for heightened attention to airspeed and directional control, and in addition, it takes practice to use your control surfaces effectively and confidently — and to remember that you must fly the airplane until everything on it stops. Improper aircraft configuration is one of the leading causes of both takeoff and landing accidents (even taxiing accidents).

Note: You probably already know that half of all general aviation accidents happen during takeoff or landing. (Once we’re away from the ground, aside from turbulence rattling us around, there’s not all that much to bump into.) It’s only when we’re leaving or coming back in proximity to the ground that wind represents more of a hazard than an inconvenience.

  • Humility Three-fourths of all pilots limit their exposure to all but good VFR weather — those who don’t also often overestimate their abilities. IFR pilots deal with scuzzy weather, and aside from maintaining aircraft control they must follow (and anticipate) IFR procedures in a high-workload environment. The workload also includes dealing with winds.
  • Airspeed Airspeed is control and you need the proper amount of airspeed to accomplish this during takeoff and landing. The rule of thumb is to add half the gust factor to the normal approach speed. Just remember that you’ll need to dissipate that extra speed to get stopped safely.
  • Wheels When it’s gusty, forget about those feather-light full stall landings. The nosewheel should still not be the first thing to touch the runway, but you should use higher speeds and lower angles of attack to insure controllability. (Remember that, practically speaking, the aircraft will still be flying after you put it on the ground.)
  • Flaps: When landing in a strong crosswind, be miserly with your use of flaps, and use the minimum flap setting possible, considering field length. Flaps make high-wind landings more difficult. Also, avoid landing on any short, narrow runways when strong crosswinds prevail. The difference between the “full flaps” and “no flaps” stall speeds is typically between seven and 10 percent in most singles and light twins, which will increase your landing roll by about 20 percent.
  • Runways: If the wind is really picking up steam, you should pick an airport with a runway that is more closely aligned with the wind. A taxicab is a heckuva lot cheaper than a new propeller, cowling, wingtip, landing gear, engine tear-down…
  • Ground Flying: When rolling (ground bound) into the wind (anywhere between just ahead of one wing to just ahead of the other) keep the elevator neutral to forward as needed and turn the wheel (or move the stick) into the wind. If the wind is from behind, “dive away” from it; (Here it becomes more important to keep the elevator down.) In extreme cases: If it’s really howling, stop right where you are and request “wing walkers” to help get you to a tiedown spot. Of course, you probably shouldn’t put yourself in that scenario in the first place.
  • Directional Control: Don’t be caught “flat-footed.” To many pilots, rudder pedals are just for steering on the ground and coordinating turns. But most often slight deviations due to torque or weathervaning can easily be compensated by using the rudder pedals. Too little, too late only matters if you’re interested in just how far off the runway the aircraft ends up. Don’t forget to account for differential braking.

The Bottom Line: The easiest way to avoid unwelcome excitement on a windy day is probably to trust your gut feelings, and use the conservative response rule. If you’re on top of your game, go for it. But if your operational envelope is still in its early growth stages and the windsock is dancing, remember some of these tips, bring along some local talent, and don’t let the wind push you around!