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#46 Too Windy to Fly?

(Note to my readers:  My attorney, J. Litigous Cautionpuss, proofread the following article and commented, “Are you out of your flippin’ mind?  You can’t write stuff like that; someone might go out and practice it, kill themselves and sue us!”  I pointed out that if they were dead they couldn’t sue us, but I got his point.  MY point is that my readers are smart enough to know their limitations and to seek competent flight instruction to keep their butts out of trouble.  I’ll stick with that opinion.)

Jeff was at a point where all student pilots find themselves eventually.  He was “getting it”.  He was flying pretty well and he understood coordination and the airplane’s gaits.  Crosswinds, however, were still eluding him a bit and it was partly because we hadn’t been in very many of them.

And then, one day it was windy as hell.  Jeff was scheduled to fly and many students at his stage would have been happy to hear their instructor say, “I think we’ll hold off on flying today… it’s just too windy.”

I understand that sense of caution on the part of many instructors and students.  But I’m also concerned that such a cancellation may both deprive the student of valuable experience and set the stage for future wimpiness.

Most of my students have heard me quote one of Bill Warren’s favorite expressions:  “No guts, no air medal”.  There is a lot more truth than poetry in that line.

That windy day, Jeff and I launched off and flew up to Madras.  The wind was blowing directly across the runway at about twenty-five knots or so.  As the Unicom operator heard us call downwind, he told us the wind, assuming that we were oblivious to it and needed a warning.  We thanked him and continued the approach.  We’d already decided that this was going to be a low approach for the purpose of observing the effects of a hellacious crosswind.  It was one of the most productive flights Jeff ever made with me.  At one time we put a wheel down and ran down the runway, banked steeply into the wind and holding runway heading with opposite rudder.  The run demonstrated why I love the wheel landing in a crosswind.  It allows you to make the touchdown and then decide if you have the skill and controllability with which to bring the plane to a stop.

The lessons learned from that flight were not only the the how-to’s of crosswind work, but also that it is not necessary to land in order to teach crosswind work and that we shouldn’t  be afraid of wind, we should simply respect it.

If you have any doubt about your own ability to fly safely under some windy conditions, get a flight instructor or trusted pilot who has that ability and can protect you while you gain experience.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Happy Swooping!


7 comments to #46 Too Windy to Fly?

  • chuck

    Brian, I love the way you think. I get real tired of the flying magazine propaganda stuff. I may be Polish but I’m not stupid. We need to get together and fly.

    Keep it going. thanks, chuck

  • Darren Pleasance

    Excellent perspective. My first instructor would get giddy on winter days when there was a 90 degree crosswind from the north in Livermore. He’d jump in his S1C Pitts and go back and forth, first landing on 25, then on runway 07. Always wheel landings, wing low with good practice on both left and right crosswinds. No one else was flying but him and he was amazing. I picked that up from him and now very much look forward to those days when keeping it straight takes just a bit more attention and coordination than normal.

  • It was the fall of 1992 and my good buddy, Greg “Spanky” Barber asked if he could fly with me to get his feet back in shape. You see Spanky was about to purchase a Luscombe and wanted to be sure he remembered how to drag a tail around the airport. At the time I was towing gliders for the guys up in Deer Park Washington. KDEW was a triangle field with one good leg, 34/16 and a not-so-good-but good-enough for “Glider Guys” 4/22.
    Good ole 4/22 was beat up, with grass through the cracks and big chunks of macadam missing along the edges. More on this later.
    I decided to take Spanky to a grass strip up north in the clubs 7KCAB Citabria. Cavanaugh Bay Airport, 66S was a great place to visit for those 100 dollar hamburgers. Located in Northern Idaho on the Southern shore Priest Lake, this little grass strip was a challenge to fly into but oh was it pretty!
    The flight plan that day would take us about 30 min with the wind on our tail and 40 or so min to get back to KDEW. We would fly into Cavanaugh Bay, tie the Citabria down and grab something to eat. Then head back home. Spanky would taxi out and take off. I would land a Cavanaugh and let him work the pattern back at KDEW. Spanky would taxi out and take off. Spanky hopped in the front and I settled into the back and off we went.
    On the way home my dead reckoning was showing us tardy. GPS was a luxury item only for Air Force bombers and high end business jets. Both Spanky and I were well versed in the “Watch to Map to Ground” routine and we decided the wind must have picked up during our Southern leg home.
    I reported 10 miles North of Deer Park and the Unicom offered winds of 210/28 gust 40! You could hear the wind howling in the background as the line boy broke squelch, “Guys the wind is so strong it is picking up rocks and hurling them into the shack outside!”
    There was not a cloud in the sky. It was as if the jet stream settled to the surface to saw into the earth before ascending to continue harassment of weary airline travelers.
    I decided to land on 22. Wind right down the runway I would carry power and do a wheelie then taxi tail up to the ramp and tie the tug down with the help of Spanky… so I thought. I flew the Citabria to the runway and planted the mains. So far so good! I kept the power up because it seemed like I would not make headway if I bought the throttle back. In fact the plan stopped its forward motion when I reduced power, tail still in the air. It was like I was still flying and I was. I could lift either wing, raise and lower the tail all with just enough power to hold the old glider tug in position on the broken tarmac.
    Looking out the window there was a steady wave of debris flowing in a sheet across the surface down the runway. Nothing was hitting the airplane but the wind was so strong I had to think twice about shutting down and riding it out. I tried to turn onto the taxiway that would take us to the ramp but I could not keep the Citabria from weather vanning into the gale force, rock moving, invisible force field!
    With half of the 3200 foot runway 22 in front of me, I pushed up the throttle, rolled about 10 feet and became airborne. I climbed steeply into the wind gaining altitude but not much ground. When I was safely airborne, I lowered the nose and clawed forward. Banking to the right I let the big wind drift me to a left downwind position for runway 16, the good leg of KDEW’s triangle. Keeping it tight I started a shallow right bank abeam my touchdown point and flew the Citabria, right wing down, to a right wheel landing.
    From the time Spanky and I touched down on runway 16 and made it to the ramp, the big wind had vanished. As we tied the Glider tug down to its special spot, the line boy came up and told us the whole event lasted less than ten min. Our battle with the big wind was about five!
    Thank goodness I was in a taildragger!

  • Richard Hamilton

    I think most pilots don’t like flying in strong winds because of the associated anxiety. They don’t often practice the skills required for these conditions. But it goes back to their early experiences. Here the CFI can be instrumental. The student mimics the CFI to an extent even for years after. The CFI shies from winds or rises to the challenges. The other end of the spectrum is the pilot who may have had a bad experience yet they didn’t work to overcome the unpleasant experience. A CFI I had for my initial CFI wouldn’t fly in what I would call light winds. sigh

    I look forward to flying in high winds. It expands my comfort zone and is fun.

    • brian

      Richard has hit the instructional nail squarely on the head. And, as a CFI it’s not simple, either. A responsible CFI must find the magic balance between teaching more advance flying without encouraging unsafe practices. It ain’t easy! Thank you, Richard!

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