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Home » John E. McLain

Instructor’s Manual: Bucking the winds

By John E. McLain (July 2002)

Recently, a reader asked me to write an article on landing in high and gusty winds, and the time has come to do it. There probably are more ideas, theories and techniques for this than any other operation in flying. I will attempt to explain what I think is the proper technique to get the airplane safely on the runway.

First, let’s lay some ground rules. I believe in the use of full flaps for all landings, including those in windy conditions. Since this is very controversial, I’m often asked if I would use full flaps if I had to land a Cessna 150 in a 90°, 40 knot crosswind. The answer to that one is that I don’t know what I would use, except a lot of experience combined with a reasonable amount of luck. This discussion is about landings within the reasonable operating capabilities of the airplane.

As with any landing, but even more so, a high wind landing requires a good approach. Mess up the approach and probably you will mess up the landing. Adverse results will be magnified in gusty winds. I firmly believe that a good high wind landing must start with an approach that is higher and steeper than normal. There are two very simple reasons for this. An airplane in a nose low attitude will be less affected by wind shear, and gusty winds in themselves produce wind shear.

Just imagine, for a moment, that you are approaching into a 20-knot headwind. If you were to get low, and end up with the airplane in a nose high attitude with power, think what would happen if the wind suddenly dropped off to 10 knots. The airplane probably would sink like a brick, and you would end up short of the runway or hit it excessively hard. Either could ruin your whole day, not to mention the airplane.

On the other hand if, when the wind changed, the airplane had been in a nose low attitude well below the horizon, the effect on the airplane would be much less. The worst thing you can do in a strong gusty wind is to get your approach so low that you have to use power and a nose high attitude to reach the runway. This can lead to disaster. Remember that the wind itself will increase your angle of descent, because it decreases your ground speed. This leads to a tendency for most pilots to get low on the approach, and it should be avoided. Stay high on the approach. The other reason for the high, steep approach is that it will set you up for a better flare to touchdown.

The next thing to consider in a high wind landing is the flare, or round-out to touchdown. Where do people have the biggest problem in gusty wind landings? In the last few feet of altitude, where they are trying to lose airspeed, change attitude, correct for crosswind, and maintain directional control all at once. This is what I consider the danger area. If the time in the flare or round out can be shortened, the time in the danger area is less; the primary reason I recommend full flaps. It shortens the time in the flare and allows for a slower touchdown speed.

The slower touchdown is another thing you should work on in high wind conditions. A high touchdown speed will exaggerate any errors you make. Touch down with poor runway alignment and you will put side load on the landing gear. This can lead to an uncontrolled swerve and loss of directional control, as well as possible damage to the airplane. The slower you are, the less severe the problem. Also, if you should mess up the landing and totally lose directional control, the slower you are going, the less severe the results. The worst thing you can do in a gusty wind is rush to get the airplane onto the runway. You should hold it off as long as possible and avoid stuffing it onto the runway with excess speed.

OK, so we establish the steep, nose low approach, which basically nullifies much of the wind’s effect. However, in a high wind condition we are more than likely to encounter a crosswind. Here is where the steep final approach, with ultimately full flaps, will really benefit you. It will allow you to set up a flare that gives you the best opportunity for crosswind correction and good runway alignment.

First off, let’s look at the normal flare. This generally starts from a slightly nose low attitude as the airplane crosses the runway threshold. From there, it is a constant change in attitude until the landing attitude is reached and the aircraft touches down at or near stall speed.

Now let’s look at a slightly different flare technique. I recommend it for all landings, but especially for gusty and/or crosswind conditions. With this technique, you approach the runway with a significantly lower nose attitude, probably using full flaps to maintain the normal approach speed. Now, this is where things differ. Instead of a constant change in attitude, the flare will comprise two stages. As, or just prior to, crossing the fence you should transition to a level attitude. If done properly, you then have approximately 10 seconds to set up your crosswind correction and runway alignment. At the end of that time, the airplane should have lost enough speed to begin to sink. That is when you begin the transition to the landing and ultimately touchdown attitude.

Lest readers think this is some crazy procedure that I have invented, perish the thought. It has been used for years, but described a little differently. When I learned to fly some 35 years ago, landing was described as glide, break the glide, and stall onto the runway. I just describe it as glide, fly level, and flare. It is the same thing.

Let’s put all of this in the proper prospective by walking through a landing. We’ll keep the numbers easy. We are landing on runway 36 and the winds are variable from 010° to 040°, at 15 gusting to 25 knots. While the traffic pattern will be the same, you should delay starting the descent until final. That’s right, enter final at pattern altitude and preferably with no flaps, although in some airplanes an application of one quarter flap may be necessary to slow to approach speed. Also, a longer than normal final should be established in order for you to judge the effect of the wind on your glide path and to establish a crab to correct for the crosswind. For crosswinds, I suggest the combination crab and slip method, which I will use in this example.

The first trick now is to maintain your altitude until you are assured you can glide to the runway with full flaps and a nose low attitude. While I apply all the flaps at once, some pilots may want to apply them in increments, if they find that more comfortable. A little trick I sometimes use is to establish the nose low attitude I want with no flaps, which will give me a higher than desirable final approach speed, then I add the flaps in increments, without changing the attitude. This gradually slows me to the desired approach speed with only minor pitch adjustments.

On final, I maintain a crab to compensate for the crosswind and maintain runway alignment and centerline. In fact, I maintain the crab until I transition to the level attitude. Once level, I use rudder to kick out of the crab, and then use those precious moments while level to establish a slip into the wind to compensate for the crosswind.

Then it is just a matter of being patient, waiting for the airplane to start settling, maintaining the proper wing-low attitude, and finally transitioning to the landing attitude for a smooth, slow touchdown.

Well, there is my procedure for taming the gusty crosswinds on landings. In summary, the salient points are:

  • Stay high on final. The worst thing you can do in heavy winds is to get too low on final. It is much better to be too high than too low. Keep in mind that the one great asset of a strong headwind is that it shortens the landing distance. Therefore, the shorter landing distance will compensate for being a little high.
  • Use a three phase approach and landing: Glide, Level, Flare.
  • Establish your final crosswind correction while in the level phase.
  • Use full flaps.
  • Be patient. Don’t try to rush the airplane onto the runway. Hold the flare so as to touchdown at or near the stall speed.