Taming the Big Bad Wolf
(Crosswind Takeoffs and Landings)

By Hank Canterbury

Spring is here and that usually means a change in wind patterns and speeds.  Are you ready to handle them?  Like all flying skills, crosswind skills – and confidence in dealing with them –deteriorate from infrequent use. This month, let’s take a review and I’ll share some of my techniques and recommendations. Crosswind operations can be both challenging and fun.

Often, I hear pilots ask what they should  use as a maximum wind speed? How about gusts? Should the Pilot’s Operating Handbook [POH] speed be the maximum?

There are no short or absolute answers here, but consider this.  You carefully gather all pertinent data for your cross-country; you check surface winds and forecasts, and all look to be within your comfort zone; so off you go.

But Mother Nature has a way about her that isn’t always nice.  Upon arrival, you discover the wind is greater in both speed and direction than your present personal minimums. Other locations are too far away or don’t fit your schedule. What to do now?  As the old sage said, “Takeoffs are optional—landings are mandatory.”

First, what exactly is the POH “maximum demonstrated crosswind component”? It is not a  limitation—it’s not in that section of your POH; so, it is only a recommendation.

A manufacturer is required to demonstrate that directional control can be maintained with winds at 90 degrees of 0.2 x Vso.  For a Bonanza with Vso = 64 kts, that’s 12.8 kts.  Listed in the “Normal Section,” it is 17 kts.  The manufacturer can list a higher speed but must also demonstrate the same control effectiveness.  There is no mention of gust velocities, but usually it’s a good idea to use the total of both steady-state speed plus gusts if you’re trying to get a conservative ballpark number.  In actuality, your proficiency, currency, confidence and aerodynamic control limits are the real answer.  More on this below.

When you check the winds, are you looking at true or magnetic direction?  An easy way to remember is if you hear the wind direction, like from ATIS or tower, it’s magnetic.  If you read about it, then it’s true, as measured from a line of longitude.

Let’s look at takeoff techniques to keep you between the edges of the runway.  Before starting the roll, apply full upwind aileron deflection.  As you increase speed, slowly take out aileron, but you won’t take it all out until rotation.

My little trick is to simply keep the glare shield level, parallel to the runway surface, just as if there were no wind, by reducing aileron deflection as you accelerate.  As speed increases, keeping the glare shield level will automatically provide just the right amount of aileron into the wind to counteract the downward force on the upwind wing.  If you hold too much aileron as airspeed increases, the upwind strut will actually compress somewhat while the wheel is still on the ground.  As a result, you’ll “bank” into the wind on the roll if overdone.

When reaching your rotation speed (Vr), raise the nose slightly more briskly (not abruptly) to crisply clear the runway without skipping during transition before the climb angle develops.  It’s not necessary to add more airspeed before liftoff unless the wind is very strong or gusty.  As you rotate, quickly remove any remaining aileron deflection.  While it’s a nice gesture to dip your wings to spectators, that is  exactly what will happen if you don’t simultaneously snap any remaining aileron to neutral.  How sweet it is to achieve a smooth, clean lift off with wings level and steady.

Directional control to maintain the centerline is somewhat complicated in a crosswind.  It’s normal for the plane to “weather vane” into the wind – and you must counter that to keep the plane on centerline.

Remember the bungee interconnect on Bonanzas (not in Barons) between the rudder and ailerons?  Designed to assist with coordination in flight by applying some rudder in direction of aileron deflection, it gets in our way when on the ground in crosswinds.  If not effectively countered, it adds to the weather vane effect, which is not what you need right now.  You counter the effect while holding an aileron down with opposite rudder — nose wheel steering  as necessary to keep the plane rolling straight.  Use a steady pressure on the rudder as needed, because the bungee and the crosswind is resisting your opposite rudder control and wants to turn the plane even more into the wind.  If you just push and release the rudder, the nose will swing back off track.  This is annoying, but you must deal with it.

Ok, now let’s look at that mandatory part: landing.

There are two methods frequently taught to correct drift on final approach. One is to correct the drift by applying a slight bank into the wind while holding the fuselage alignment with opposite rudder as you proceed toward the runway.  It’s just a slip down the chute. The other is to remain coordinated with the nose pointed into the wind until flaring when you “kick out the crab” into a slip just before touchdown.

I recommend using the crab method to stay on extended centerline until starting flare, then convert smoothly into a small sideslip until touchdown. It just seems to be more logical than side-slipping for some distance on final, but if you find that easier, go for it.

Just as you begin to convert from your crab correction on final in the flare, visualize first lowering the upwind wing into the wind, then use opposite rudder to align the fuselage with the track of the plane.  Try to perform these two actions  simultaneously, if possible; otherwise, if you deploy opposite rudder first, the plane will immediately begin to drift downwind off centerline.  In the slip, it’s the bank — tilted lift vector — that controls  lateral movement.  Aligning the fuselage with the track at touchdown will reduce side loads on the landing gear.

For most crosswind conditions, it is customary to use full flaps, but in any configuration carry small amount of power during the flare process, as you will have greater drag (airspeed bleed off) during the slip.  In very strong or gusty wind conditions, choosing to use less than full flaps will increase aileron responsiveness somewhat as you are going faster, and will feel a bit more solid when correcting for gusts and bumps.  Adjust throttle in the flare as necessary while controlling the drift and slowing down.

Be patient and keep working the situation.  Do not let the plane touch down (use power as needed) until you have stopped the drift.  Gusty winds create particularly dynamic conditions in the flare process, so keep some power in to stay airborne until you are ready to touch down with no drift.  Also realize that winds constantly change both in direction and speed with small changes in altitude.  They will be affected as well by buildings and trees near the runway.  Remember: “You can always go around.”

When you’re stabilized and ready to touch down, reduce power.  The plane will immediately descend.  Be sure the throttle is completely closed after touchdown, and increase aileron fully into wind during roll out.  Without full aileron in a strong crosswind, it may become difficult to maintain directional control after touchdown, so practice it each landing even with light winds.

As the plane weathervanes into the crosswind the upwind wing may get lifted causing a lot of directional instability.  Remember that after lowering the nose wheel onto the runway, the aileron-rudder bungee interconnect system in a Bonanza will steer the plane into the wind and add to the already present weathercocking. Therefore,  you must hold some opposite rudder to counteract this condition.  Barons don’t have a bungee interconnect.

Here are a few additional thoughts.  If at all possible, do not land on icy or very slick runways with a crosswind.  After touchdown regardless of no drift you likely will not be able to stop a downwind slide as there is little or no friction to hold you against the side wind.  Steering will be ineffective.  Better judgement says go somewhere else with no crosswind or icy surface.

Don’t pass up the opportunity to get some needed refresher training the next time you have stronger winds at your airport.  Call your instructor for some fun times taming the Big Bad Wolf — you know, the one who “huffs and puffs and tries to blow the house down.”

As time and opportunity passes, so too does our skill to handle crosswinds.  Yesterday’s “personal minimum” only gets smaller without practice!

Fly Often – Train Regularly – Practice More!


Hank Canterbury