Why Tailwinds Suck
In the grand scheme of things, lighter winds rule.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Oct 29, 2013
On my trip from Austin to Las Vegas for the NBAA Convention I saw the national trend of very light winds aloft continue to play out.
I flew out at between 12,500 feet msl (VFR on the first leg) and 16,500 feet, in part to test the mid-teens performance of my SR22, which I haven't had enough time to fly on longer trips of late, ironically, because of a too-busy travel schedule to some very distant destinations over very large bodies of water. The good news was I saw better than 200 knots true at 16,500 and 16.5 gph. Nice.
As has been the case for the past few years, even in the mid-teens, I saw wind speeds of less than 20 knots, instead of the usual blistering winds up there, which is part of the whole deal of flying high — at least it's supposed to be. Fly high heading east and down lower heading west, and it's a great deal.
But when you need to fly high, such as I did to get over the southern peaks of the Rockies and associated mountain chains, strong winds are a losing game. In this case, a game I didn't have to play.
On my trip west, when I'd normally expect strong winds in my face the whole way, the headwinds were downright mild. That's good news, but the flipside is on the way back home a week later, the tailwinds were nothing to write home about either.
Looking at the big picture, lighter winds in both directions get you there faster than strong winds both ways. It's counterintuitive, but it's true. Simply stated, when the wind's really blowing, you spend a lot more time in the headwinds than you do in the tailwinds. Just imagine a 200-knot airplane flying into a 100-knot headwind on a thousand mile trip. It'll take you 10 hours to get there, while on the way back it will take you 3 hours and change along the way with the big breeze at your back. With no winds whatsoever, you're looking at 5 hours each way, for 10 hours total, versus a total of 13-plus hours with the big winds.
The bottom line is, light and variable get you there faster, all things considered. If you're like me, what you really want is a honking tailwind in both directions ... and a PC-12 too, as long as we're wishing for things.
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