Cross Your Fingers

Crosswinds plague even experienced pilots. The secrets to success: consistent patterns, proper procedure and a modicum of skill


By Ray Leis

Most pilots, whether they will admit it or not, have basic, nagging worries about crosswind landings. There is no cheap, clean, easy way out of it. If you have decided to be the pilot of an airplane, there will be ill winds, blowing you no good, while you try to stay aligned with the landing runway.

These are demons to be exorcised, not only while you are trying to stay on the runway, but even more so after a bounce or a porpoise. Its a challenge that is not to be avoided, rather a technique that can be learned and practiced. Anyone who can solo an airplane can certainly be capable of guiding an airplane through controlled and safe landings, regardless of which direction the wind decides to blow from.

There are some flight instructors who are able to get crosswind techniques over to students, right from the start of training. There are also flight instructors, waiting to help those pilots who have let their crosswind skills get a bit rusty. The records are full of cases where the pilot has exceeded his personal crosswind landing safety limits and ran into unfortunate results.

About a third of all aviation accidents happen during the landing phase. While there are a few mechanically related cases such as when the landing gear wont extend no matter what the pilot does, generally the main problem is the pilot. Its clear when rusty skills, distraction or just poor decision-making leads to a lousy landing.

A fairly typical example involves a Cessna 182Q landing at Palo Alto, Calif., during an instructional flight. The pilot said the airplane was rolling out at the end of the instructional flight when she lost control of the airplane during a strong gust of wind.

The gust picked up the left wing and turned the airplane to the right. According to the flight instructor, The airplane veered off the runway and was substantially damaged when a wing contacted the ground. The wind was 50 degrees off the center of the runway and was considerably different than that which was reported on the ATIS.

The flight instructor further explained: During the landing roll-out, a gust of wind – possibly a dust devil – caught the left wing and began lifting it up. The airplane veered to the right and exited the runway, despite the fact that the left aileron was fully deflected to the left.

The NTSB found that the probable cause was the inadequate compensation for wind conditions by the private pilot and failure of the flight instructor to ensure that directional control of the aircraft was maintained. The gusty crosswind condition was a related factor.

There are dozens of these crosswind accidents every year – and they are expensive. These accidents also point to the fact that pilots in general need to have better understanding of crosswinds and more practice in preventive maneuvers.

The art of the crosswind landing is one of the trickiest skills to learn in flying. Not only are the control nuances among the most difficult, but developing the judgment is challenging as well. Its easy for a pilot to exceed his personal safety limits when pushed by ego or enthusiastic friends. The end result is an airplane grinding up its landing gear, fuselage or wingtip as it slides off the runway. Once control is lost, getting the airplane upside down isnt too hard to do, either.

While nosewheel airplanes are more pilot-friendly on the ground than tailwheel airplanes, loss of control on the runway remains the major cause of airplane accidents.

Wind Effects
There are a number of ways that wind affects an airplane. Chief among them is that an airplane on the ground will try to turn into the wind like a weathervane – regardless of whether it has a nosewheel or tailwheel. The tendency to weathervane is increased in taildraggers, however.

To counter weathervaning tendencies, most pilots know the adage of climbing into the wind and diving away from the wind. Some pilots get into trouble during taxi at the transition point of a turn where a headwind turns into a tailwind.

Once on the runway, of course, things get simpler. Crosswind management requires the pilot to understand how to compensate for them on takeoff, landing and go-arounds. At the very least it means understanding your airplanes maximum demonstrated crosswind component, but it also means applying that knowledge by adjusting flaps, approach speeds and control inputs to keep the airplane lined up.

Its not a secret, but many pilots are not sure how it applies to their own airplane. One 200-hour private pilot – with 150 hours in his Bellanca 7ECA – decided to try his skill against a crosswind on a 2,500-foot runway in California. He reported to FAA inspectors that during a touch-and-go landing he lost directional control of the aircraft, veered off the runway and nosed over after encountering a soft, muddy surface.

ATC had transmitted two wind advisories to the pilot prior to landing indicating winds were 70 degrees off the active runway heading at 15 knots. The controllers reported that the aircraft touched down about mid-field, then veered off the left side of the runway into a grassy area.

Following this, the aircraft swung to the right, crossed over the runway and nosed over in a marshy area on the right side of the runway. The pilots injuries were mostly to his pilot pride, but also involved some expensive reports.

The NTSB found the accidents cause was the result of the pilots inadequate compensation for the existing crosswind conditions, and his resultant loss of directional control.

Crosswind Technique
Crosswind landings really arent any different from any other kind of landings except by degree. The problem is, many pilots have trouble with landings. Ive been in the right seat for hundreds of poor-to-bad landings and salvaged more than that in the last seconds of play.

Bad landings are usually the result of the pilots failure to control one or more of a few key things. The main ones are lack of visual pattern reference points, not making the best use of flaps, not holding the correct airspeeds, poor pitch and power control, and incorrect pilot reaction to wind and turbulence.

In addition some other areas where things start to go bad stem from failure to use checklists, being distracted from focusing on the landing, poor communications, not looking for other airplanes, and – if things arent looking right – not being ready to go around.

The landing process, at least the ability to make a consistent series of good landings, requires that the pilot constantly review basics. Here are a few that apply to most light planes: A normal landing isnt really much more complicated than flying slowly, in a straight-and-level attitude down the centerline of the runway. The landing flare starts from about 10 to 20 feet above the runway.

When the wheels are level and about two feet above the surface, the power is reduced and a constant elevator back pressure is applied to maintain position. The aircraft will generally smoothly settle to touch down. Naturally, it takes some experience to learn just how much elevator pressure is needed to hold off the final stall and yet still induce the airplane to settle onto the runway surface without a noticeable bump.

What the pilot wants to accomplish during the final phase in a crosswind landing using a standard slip technique is to make the correct control movements so the airplane is flying straight toward the runway. The ailerons control the drift and prevent the airplane from moving sideways away from the centerline. Opposite rudder is used to prevent the ailerons from turning the airplane and to keep the nose pointed down the runway.

Is this discussion too basic? You would be surprised at the number of pilots – many with considerable flight experience – who have a poor handle on the basics of crosswind landings.

The tip-off is clear. Just watch airplanes closely as they make their final approach to touchdown. During this test of airmanship, youll find the pilot making a correct approach and landing about once in every hundred or so landings.

What are the other aviators doing? Usually a series of wing-wobbling maneuvers. Crosswind correction in, crosswind correction out, all the way down final approach. The worst part comes at the flare.

At this critical point, all thoughts of maintaining the correction for the crosswind are forgotten. The wings are suddenly leveled, the crab taken out, and the drift starts again. On touchdown, the airplane lurches around and the resulting wild corrections with brake and rudder make for a lousy landing.

The Crosswind Pattern
The only way to really get proficient in the art of excellent, consistent landings is to try to find a way to duplicate your best landings. Youll need to make a personal mental snapshot record of what youve been doing.

The first thing to review is what kind of ground track you normally make. There are pilots who seldom have any particular ground track in mind when they enter traffic. That usually means they never knew what kind of landing they were likely to get, either.

For a normal landing, the downwind leg should be a consistent distance out from the runway. Just how far out you want to be is a matter of some debate. I usually teach that on the downwind leg you want to add about a third of your runway side wingspan as open space in the visual picture between you and the landing runway. Some pilots like one-half mile out, others use the point where some part of the wing intersects the runway.

Once you have decided on the distance for your airplane, use it consistently. You need to get in the habit of creating a similar visual picture each time rather than getting in the habit of using ground reference points that fit your home airport traffic pattern. A chicken house here, a crossroad there may work at home, but when you get to another airport youre up the creek.

The downwind leg for a crosswind landing will tell you a lot about what kind of an approach and landing youll be dealing with. And the whole process will be easier if you have been consistent in the past about where you put your downwind for every landing. The wind that is blowing you toward or away from the runway tells you immediately where the crosswind is coming from and how strong it is.

The ATIS, controllers advisories and windsock are all useful, but nothing provides clearer feedback about the winds than the crab you need to stay on course. But lest this make it sound too easy, remember that the winds on downwind and short final can sometimes differ considerably, due to terrain, trees or buildings. This will be readily apparent on final approach.

The rest of any good crosswind landing approach is airspeed management and a precise descent. Simple, right?

At the instant the wheels (or wheel) are planted on the runway, the airplane must be pointed very close to its direction of travel. Airplanes dont do as well on the ground as they do in the air, and side loads on landing gear structures can result in serious damage or complete collapse.

There are several methods that have been used by pilots since the earliest days of flight to get all of the crosswind drift neutralized before touchdown. These are the crab, the slip and a combination of both of them.

The crab involves adopting a level flight attitude that ensures the main direction of travel is down the runway, even though the nose is pointed to one side of it. Downwind, base leg and final approach phases should all be flown with the airplane aimed to the windward side of the selected ground track.

While it sounds elementary, adopt a spot at the airport where you can watch traffic and youll see that most pilots do not fly the downwind, base and final with the wind correction angle in. This basic error accounts for most of the bizarre crosswind landings seen at every airport.

Usually the only negative outcome is a bit of embarrassment, but sometimes real danger lurks.

If the wind is blowing the airplanes downwind leg toward the runway, the pilot can turn base only to realize hes already on the extended centerline. By the time the pilot can turn final, its an overshoot situation. A bad one.

You dont even want to think that you could make it to runway centerline alignment by rolling into a 60-degree bank at approach speed and holding altitude, yet pilots continue to try it. Stall/spin is what gets attached to the accident investigation. The answer, of course, is to go around and look over the drift situation more closely next time.

The Slip
In correcting for the side thrust of a crosswind, the pilot can bank the airplane toward the wind to stop the drift, and then use the rudder to stop the turn and hold the nose on the runway centerline – a classic forward slip.

Its usually a graceful performance in which the pilot holds the wing low into the crosswind and the nose pointed straight down the runway. Unfortunately, deep-seated training can kick in just as the flare is started. The wings are leveled for no apparent reason.

The whole efficiency of the slip approach is that by holding the control inputs (aileron and rudder) right to touchdown on the upwind wheel, the crosswind effect remains neutralized throughout.

As the speed bleeds off, the other wing is allowed to come down, followed by a smooth touchdown of the nosewheel as the elevator loses effectiveness. With the tailwheel airplane in the three-point attitude, the upwind wheel and tailwheel touch down first, followed by the downwind wheel. In a wheel landing, the tailwheel stays off the ground until late, just as the nosewheel does.

Once on the runway, the friction of the tires against the runway surface will help stop the weathervane action of the wind against the fuselage. The pilot does need to hold aileron into the wind, along with opposite rudder to keep best control, until the airplane is slowed to taxi speed. Even then, the combination is often continued during taxi, in strong winds.

The advantage of the slip approach is that the pilot gets to see the immediate runway and airplane alignment picture. Properly executed, there are seldom any control changes required from final approach to landing other than increasing control surface deflection as speed decreases.

But there are disadvantages as well. Passengers may not like the feeling of uncoordinated flight. In a go-around, the airplane may roll toward the upwind wing unless the cross-control inputs are not smoothly and carefully released. Some pilots have trouble holding the slip to touchdown on the upwind wheel or else set the correction on short final and forget to continually adjust it, either of which results in a drifting touchdown. If the touchdown point is sheltered from the crosswind by trees or buildings, the airplane can float or balloon.

The Crab
To use the crab method, hold the crab angle until just before touchdown, then kick out the crab angle with downwind rudder add upwind aileron to keep the wings level as the airplane touches down. It takes timing and experience to balance the flare and rudder/aileron coordination, particularly in variable crosswinds and turbulence. Land tail-low on the mains in a trike and in the three-point attitude in a tailwheel airplane.

There are disadvantages to this technique. An unskilled pilot can easily over-control or come in too early or too late with the rudder. That can result in a drifting touchdown or landing with a wing drop on the downwind side.

This method is also complicated by the fact that the crosswind force directly over the touchdown point may be quite different from what it was on final, due to ground obstructions. This phase of the landing requires the very close attention of the pilot to the rapid shifts in the wind correction angle. Slow reactions can result in peeled tires or worse.

Despite these challenges, the crab method has some real advantages. The airplane is in balanced flight until touchdown. The pitot-static instruments read normally. The pilot has a very accurate picture of the crosswind strength. Passengers are generally more comfortable with this one, if done properly. Plus, its all you have at an uncontrolled field, without a wind T or windsock.

It is usually possible to handle a higher crosswind with this approach in a low- or mid-wing light airplane. With the slip in a strong crosswind, you can run out of rudder trying to hold the centerline of the runway with the large bank angle in. Plus the wing can be very close to obstructions like snow banks or off-runway bushes or markers.

The Combination
The combination uses the crab on final approach, shifting at the flare to the slip landing. At the flare point, kick out the crab angle, drop the upwind wing to prevent drift and hold opposite rudder as necessary to hold the centerline.

The combination combines the best of both worlds for most airplanes. Properly executed, passenger comfort is satisfactory and the landing is relatively easy. Relatively strong crosswinds, up to and possibly exceeding the demonstrated component in the POH, are possible with the crab/slip combination approach.

Regardless of the landing type you select, always use the manufacturers recommended procedures as to the approach speed and flap setting for your airplane. If there isnt any data available, a good rule-of-thumb is that most airplanes can handle a crosswind component of 20 percent of stall speed with flaps at max gross weight. Your own limits may be less, of course.

Finally, if you get yourself into a situation where the crosswinds are stronger than you can handle and you cant divert to a friendlier airport because of fuel or weather conditions, dont be afraid to take creative actions to land safely.

Declare an emergency, if you feel the need, and ask the tower to give you a different runway, or even a taxiway, grass or ramp area if thats what it takes. At an uncontrolled field, clearly broadcast your intentions and overfly the area until you are convinced the intended landing area is free of obstructions and conflicting traffic.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Tricks and Traps.”
Click here to view “Training Tips.”

-Ray Leis is an ATP, CFII and FAA Aviation Safety Counselor.


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