The value of regular crosswind takeoff and landing practice becomes evident when you get caught with no choices. I learned this lesson on a flight in my Cessna 170 to the Baja California peninsula a few years back. On my way to Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, to watch whales, I had planned to stop in San Felipe to clear Mexican customs, pay the fees and file the obligatory flight plan.
There was no ATIS or ASOS at San Felipe’s airport, but I could hear the controller announcing the weather to other pilots approaching Runway 13-31. The controller had a strong Spanish accent, so it took a few calls before I understood what the wind conditions were. The wind was blowing from 220 at 25 knots — a straight 25-knot crosswind!
I hadn’t owned the taildragger very long, so the realization made my hands sweat; however, my passenger was a student pilot and a slightly nervous flyer, so I had to appear as calm as I could. And with no crossing runways and no other airports with fuel in the vicinity, I had no choice but to land in San Felipe.
Being most comfortable with wheel landings, I decided to keep the speed up on final so that I could go around if it didn’t feel right. And I did. Twice. The third time, I touched down and kept the ailerons into the wind and the tail up as long as I could, fighting to maintain as straight a path as I could. Thankfully, I was also able to control the tailwheel once it came down, and I slowly taxied toward the terminal, where two young machine gun-carrying, camouflage-fatigue-clad airport security guards greeted us — a reception common at Mexican airports. I was quite tense as I climbed out of the taildragger, but very satisfied that I had managed to get the airplane down in one piece.
The importance of being able to handle crosswind landings also becomes evident when looking at accident and incident reports. The 2010 Air Safety Institute’s Nall Report revealed that in 2009 about one-third of all landing accidents (the phase of flight when most accidents happen) occurred with gusty winds or crosswinds present. There were 71 wind-related accidents reported that year and more than 100 in 2008. In addition, an NTSB query revealed about two dozen crosswind-related incidents annually in the past few years. The good news is that, in most cases, the pilots involved in these accidents and incidents walked away with nothing but bruises to their egos; their passengers were safe and the airplanes were repairable.
But while some pilots consider any landing they walk away from a good landing, I don’t. I do my best to avoid these types of accidents and incidents altogether by staying current on crosswind technique.
Know the Wind
The first step to a good crosswind landing and a factor that should be considered with any landing is to maximize the headwind component. A trailing crosswind is not easy to handle in any airplane and should be avoided at all cost. If you’re flying into or out of an airport that prevents takeoffs or landings in one direction, it’s best to wait out the wind if it presents you with a tailwind of any significance. If there are intersecting runways available, choose the runway that will give you the highest headwind component and the least crosswind, unless you are specifically practicing crosswind techniques, of course.
The second step to any good landing is a stable approach. If you’re flying a standard pattern, you need to keep crosswind correction technique in mind during each leg and continually make appropriate control and power inputs to reach your touchdown point. Doug Stewart, executive director of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) and a highly experienced flight instructor and designated pilot examiner, said it best: “Airmanship means that you’re aware of where the wind is all the time and how it’s going to affect you at every point in the flight, especially in the pattern.”