Mastering Crosswind Landings

When it comes to crosswind conditions, experience counts.

Crosswind Landing big

Crosswind Landing big

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."

In order to begin a nice rectangular pattern, pick a point on the horizon that will help you maintain a straight track on the downwind leg at an appropriate distance from the runway. But don’t point the airplane’s nose toward that point. Instead you need to allow the airplane to yaw into the wind sufficiently to maintain a ground track toward your selected point. If you don’t allow the airplane to crab in this fashion, you’ll get blown closer to or farther from the runway, depending on where the wind is coming from, and your approach is botched before you turn base.

The base leg and base-to-final turn are undoubtedly the most critical parts of a crosswind approach, because it is here that most problems begin and some flights end tragically short of the runway.

So in order to continue your stabilized, rectangular approach, you will need to make corrections on the base leg. With a headwind on base, that leg will take more time and you may need to add power to avoid getting low. Conversely, with a tailwind, the base leg will be quicker than you’re used to. Don’t make the mistake of increasing the bank angle to prevent overshooting the final leg, since this may result in an inadvertent stall and spin — one accident type you’re not likely to walk away from. Instead, be aware of the tailwind condition on base and start your turn to final early to avoid overshooting. If you find yourself pulling back during the turn, alarms should go off. Relax the back pressure, add power, straighten the wings, go around, and try again.

Now for the final leg. This is when technique and experience really count. The goal is for the airplane to track straight down the centerline of the runway. Start out crabbing by pointing the nose sufficiently into the wind to keep a straight track toward the runway. Timely corrections should be expected to continue this track as you descend because the wind will most likely shift and decrease in strength due to ground friction. It is always worth referencing the windsock occasionally to get an idea of what to expect as you get closer to the runway.

Some pilots continue the crab until just before the touchdown point, when they quickly align the airplane with the runway centerline. While this may work really well for them, I use a different technique. I crab until I get close to the runway — within a quarter-mile or so — at which point I establish a sideslip by banking the airplane into the wind while maintaining a straight track with rudder input. Both methods work. Which one you prefer will likely depend on how you were first taught.

If you choose the sideslip technique, the airplane will be cross-controlled, making your stall speed higher. Set your target airspeed a couple of knots above your usual approach speed to make sure you have some margins to play with. If the conditions are gusty, give yourself even more of a buffer, since a forward wind gust means airspeed to the airplane. Be ready to make quick corrections with power and directional control because the wind can quickly change its speed and direction.

Also, remember that the reported winds are measured at only one localized point. The wind conditions may be vastly different at the departure end of the runway compared with the approach end. Reference the windsock that is closest to you.

As you get closer to the ground, shift your focus from your touchdown point to the horizon and continue to make corrections to align the longitudinal axis of the airplane with the centerline of the runway. If you have full rudder deflection and are still unable to align the airplane, you should go around and try the landing again or head to an airport with more favorable wind conditions. If you attempt a landing without being properly aligned, you will side-load the landing gear and risk damaging the airplane or having an accident.

With strong winds, it is quite likely that you’ll touch down on one wheel — the upwind wheel — if you’re using the sideslip technique. But landing on one wheel shouldn’t alarm you. As long as your power is idle and your speed slow, the second wheel will soon follow. And the need to apply wind correction doesn’t stop just because the wheels have touched the ground. Referencing common pilot errors, Stewart said: “As soon as [the pilots] touch down, although they’ve had that sideslip going, they now relax the ailerons back to neutral and they forget that they have to continue to deflect them more and more.” So once you’re on the ground, get your ailerons into the wind and keep working the rudders to maintain a straight track down the runway until you’ve slowed the airplane sufficiently to safely taxi to your parking spot.

Crosswind landing technique with a taildragger is identical, but the repercussions of a side-loaded landing are greater. Once the wheels are on the ground, you need to make very quick, timely corrections with the rudder pedals, while keeping the ailerons into the wind, to maintain a straight ground track. If you don’t, there is a great chance that the airplane will groundloop. In a groundloop, the tailwheel quickly swings around the center of gravity of the airplane, and in the worst-case scenario this could lead to a cartwheel.

Practice Makes Perfect
Crosswind conditions do increase risk, so if you are uncomfortable with crosswind landings, I highly recommend going out with an experienced instructor who can teach you how it's done right. If the wind direction is straight down the runway at your home base, hope that there is an airport nearby that has crossing runways. At an airport with multiple runways, you always have the option of practicing crosswind techniques no matter which direction the wind is blowing.

To practice the sideslip technique, have your instructor guide you through a low approach, preferably over a long runway, where you track above the centerline at 20 to 30 feet agl. This will get you used to applying the necessary aileron and rudder input. Play around with different control inputs and allow the airplane to drift side to side. This type of practice is helpful even if you don’t have a crosswind to learn what the outside picture looks like when the longitudinal axis is properly aligned with the centerline of the runway — knowledge critical to a successful crosswind landing.

After practicing crosswind techniques, you should have an idea of what your personal limits are and use them to make a go/no-go decision. I limit most of my students to a 7-knot crosswind component, but this figure will vary greatly with your level of experience. And while I landed safely in San Felipe, I would never intentionally get myself in a 25-knot crosswind in a taildragger.

If you arrive at an airport with stronger than expected crosswinds, don’t get discouraged unless the winds are truly extreme. Attempt a crosswind approach and, if you run out of rudder authority or don’t feel comfortable attempting the landing, go around and land somewhere else. The day you get stuck with no options, as I did in Mexico, you’ll be thankful for every time you’ve challenged yourself with crosswind practice.