Taking Wing: Wherever the Winds Blow

Before the storm: Windbird lies at anchor off Great Harbour Cay in the Bahamas. Sam Weigel

Tonight I am nestled in a cozy corner of Windbird’s enclosed cockpit, feet propped on her helm and a rum drink in my hands as I watch her dance to and fro across the anchor chain in the faint light of a milky half-moon. We are in the Bahamas’ Berry Islands and have tucked into a serene sandy cove for the evening — but the mood is hardly tropical, for at sunset the wind picked up to nearly 30 knots from the southwest and transformed the turquoise water of the anchorage into an inky froth. A cold front is approaching in the darkness; a falling barometer and a towering line of squalls to the west foretell its arrival. Both the storms and the abrupt wind shift upon frontal passage present a potential threat to my little 42-foot world, and so I am staying up late to ensure that my boat (and wife, dog and most of our earthly possessions) stays securely anchored through the night. To pass the time, I open a notebook to scribble my thoughts of the day — but it is hard to write when you cannot think, and in sailboats as in airplanes it is sometimes hard to hear yourself think above the howling of the wind through the rigging.

Sailors and pilots share a keen appreciation of — and healthy respect for — the weather that impacts our endeavors to a far greater extent than it does the workaday activities of our fellow modern citizens. In each of our respective pursuits, the weather can greatly assist us or it can threaten our very lives, according to its mood and our own preparedness for it. Accordingly, both mariners and aviators spend a significant amount of time gathering weather reports and forecasts from various sources, comparing them to the actual conditions we encounter and tweaking our coping strategies as needed along the way. Of course, we tend to experience those conditions in rather different ways. Sea voyages allow for continuous observation of incremental weather changes over lengthy periods, but only within a small area at any given time, and only close to the surface. Pilots spend their time immersed in the very bowels of the atmosphere, but only for a few hours at a time, and the variations we experience are measured across geography rather than timelines.

Naturally, our chief areas of concern differ considerably. For the aviator, the big three are clouds, visibility and precipitation. The sailor doesn’t mind scuddy weather so much unless it thickens into fog. Both pilots and sailors prefer to avoid thunderstorms, of course, but only the pilot has the practical means to do so; the sailor usually has to take what comes and ride it out. Ice is of considerable importance to the pilot but means nothing to the average mariner unless it’s in his drink. The sailor’s main concern — indeed, the primary element of his existence — is the wind. It dictates where he can go and when, and in what degree of comfort and safety. A change in wind will immediately affect the trim of the boat, and soon thereafter be reflected in the mood of the sea. A lazy sailor might well lope along completely innocent of the march of highs and lows across the weather map — but he can always tell you which way the wind is blowing.

As an airline pilot, wind doesn’t figure all that high among my preflight weather considerations. Unusually strong upper-level winds might delay our arrival or require extra fuel — or more fortuitously, help us finish up a trip a few minutes early. Surface winds might get my attention if they’re gusting over 30 knots, but only twice in 10,000 airline hours have I had to delay a landing because the wind exceeded the legal crosswind component. Wind in the airline world is usually a curiosity, at worst a nuisance. But when I’m flying small planes, the wind becomes every bit as important as when I’m sailing. Even modest winds aloft can cut drastically into groundspeeds and threaten fuel reserves. Turbulence that might be a slight nuisance in a 757 can be quite uncomfortable in a light plane. And at the destination, it doesn’t take much of a crosswind to effectively close a particular runway to the prudent aviator — especially when flying a light taildragger like my old Piper Pacer or J-3 Cub.

On a winter flight over the Canadian Rockies, standing lenticular clouds provide a visual warning of the wind’s power. Sam Weigel

Crosswind landings gave me absolute fits as a young student pilot; I know I’m not alone in this. It was a conceptualization problem: I had a lot of trouble imagining my path through the air being different from my course across the ground, and didn’t really understand how an unnatural-feeling decoupling of the controls would bring the two into harmony. My aha moment came when John and Martha King somehow got my name and sent me a short sample VHS tape on mastering crosswind landings as a misguided inducement to spend my scarce flying money on their ground-school video course. I forget exactly how they presented it, but the graphical approach really made it click for me, and my crosswind landings subsequently improved. Today I actually find that many of my best landings involve a brisk crosswind; it’s easier to smoothly land one wheel at a time. Thanks, John and Martha!

Since then, I can think of quite a few times that the wind made life aloft a little more interesting. I’ve flown backward (intentionally), been passed by old pickups on dirt country roads (unintentionally!), nearly doubled my true airspeed and almost hit the elusive 700-knots-groundspeed mark. Yes, I can hear the military fast movers chuckling at that one. In Southern California, I experienced my first severe turbulence in the autumnal El Cajon winds, and my only “extremish” encounter during a cold front spilling over the Sierras into the Owens Valley.

I earned a literal ovation from 76 passengers for a perfect max-crosswind landing at O’Hare following a pretty wild ride down final, and groundlooped the Cub in embarrassingly ham-fisted fashion in front of a good friend in a barely 15-knot gust. I’ve seen stark lenticulars over the Canadian Rockies marking the precise reach of the strongest punches the atmosphere can dole out, and I’ve seen a windless ocean as smooth as a frozen pond. The fact that such variation exists as a result of the uneven heating of a rotating near-sphere by the star it is orbiting at a distance of some 93 million miles with a declination of 23.45 degrees is a source of endless wonder to me. The fact that I get to experience these variations firsthand on a daily basis, in such environs as the sky and the sea, gives me great satisfaction — and yes, an occasional reminder of my own mortality.

Back here on Earth, I put down my pen just as the first raindrops pitter-patter on Windbird’s Bimini top; within seconds, the rain becomes a torrent and my view of the anchorage drops to a few boat lengths. Lightning flashes, and the wind whips through the rigging at 40 knots.

Windbird bucks and sways in the chop, but the anchor holds firm. Soon enough, the squall passes and the wind fades abruptly, then starts filling in anew from the west-northwest. The sky will clear tomorrow, and with the fair weather, a parade of small planes will arrive at the adjacent airport. Two years ago, I landed my Piper Pacer on this very airstrip during the flying and sailing trip that eventually led to us selling everything and buying a sailboat. In this case, it seems the winds of fate have conspired to lead us full circle. Life’s funny like that. I finish my drink and head to bed, satisfied that my little world will hold secure against whatever wind this wild universe will mete out tonight.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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