Air Chart

Pilots, judgement, crosswind landings

Tracy R Reed  | 

I don’t post nearly enough about my flying adventures on my blog. I have long vowed to write more about aviation here but for some reason once the plane is tied down and paperwork done I don’t do anything more about it.

I have been flying on average every couple of weeks for years now and I’m getting near a thousand flight hours of experience. An old friend emailed me today asking a question about aviation and my reply turned out to be rather long so I decided I should just post it here for all to enjoy.

He wrote:

So, I’d love to hear your opinion on this. There’s a lotta comments from posters saying they’re professional pilots etc, but I don’t know them from Adam. So, your thoughts, was this great piloting, or poor judgement in the first place? [](

A co-worker pointed this out to me earlier today. I’m really not sure. I don’t know what the forecast conditions were, what the actual conditions were, etc. It could be that the conditions were forecast to be just fine and suddenly a microburst or gust front or something similar hit the airport just as he was landing. The article indicates something to that effect. Generally I try really hard not to second guess other pilots unless I am there in the cockpit and have all of the same information they do. Non-pilots should try twice as hard.

I try to avoid the mainstream media when it comes to aviation or computers because they inevitably get it wrong and just piss me off.

About the only thing I can say is that by calling it a “near plane crash” they almost certainly sensationalize the situation and needlessly scare people. I guess I can also say that he did the right thing by initiating a go-around as soon as he realized something wasn’t right. Impossible to say if the pilot has “skills” or not though.

Superior pilots use their superior judgment to stay out of situations where they must use their superior skills.” I have always liked that motto. They do indeed train for just that situation. I train for it too.

In fact, just last night I was returning from a flight to Fullerton airport where we went for dinner with some of Trinity’s old high school friends from Vietnam. It is amazing how many of her friends have made it over to the US and live around or occasionally visit the Westminster (Little Saigon) area. There was a pretty strong Santa Ana weather condition last night and the winds were quite strong as we arrived back over Montgomery Field in San Diego around 11pm. Because the wind was out of the northeast (around 050 degrees) the best runway to land on was runway 05. But that runway is unlit at night. So do I land on the runway favored by the wind which has no lights or do I land on the lighted runway and deal with the crosswind? I decided that a crosswind is something I can handle but a lack of visibility and possibly landing on the taxiway or elsewhere by mistake was not acceptable. So I had to land on the only lighted runway which is 28R/10L (normally I land on 28R due to normal winds out of the west). You can land in either direction on this runway but 10L was facing more into the wind which is always preferable as it decreases your landing distance and speed at touchdown which makes for a safer landing.

The control tower had long since closed. The airport was uncontrolled. The automated weather told me there was a strong wind out of the northeast. As I approached the runway having completed the pre-landing checks I noticed that I was having to point the nose of the airplane far left of the runway in order to keep the plane making progress towards the runway. The nose of the plane was probably (just guessing) 15 degrees to the left of the actual direction of travel over the ground. If we touched down in that attitude (wheels not aligned with direction of travel) we could damage the landing gear, blow a tire, run off the runway, or generally lose control of the aircraft.

So the procedure is to bank the airplane into the wind which turns some of the wings normally vertical lift vector into horizontal “lift” (or just call it force if you like) into the wind which pulls the plane horizontally into the wind and counters the blowing of the wind so your track across the ground is straight. However, this by itself would actually cause the airplane to start turning left into the wind so you have to put in right rudder to hold the nose of the plane aligned parallel with the runway. The amount of bank into the wind is proportional to the strength of the wind and the amount of rudder proportional to the bank. As the airplane gets slower while approaching the runway the controls become less effective due to less air moving over them so you have to steadily feed in more aileron control to maintain the same amount of bank angle until you finally touch down on just one wheel (the upwind wheel) with the controls all the way over into the direction of the wind and then the rest of the wheels come down as the plane decelerates.

If the wind is changing or gusting you have to vary the amount of aileron (and thus rudder etc) with the changing wind. All together it turns out to be quite an exercise in judgement and coordination and not a terribly easy maneuver to do well. Last night I did all of the above and was actually quite successful with it and made a very nice landing in a strong crosswind at night on a relatively unfamiliar runway on an uncontrolled airfield. And the reason why is training. We all train for this sort of thing. And if the wind had suddenly kicked up really strong and started to blow me off the runway like it did for that airliner I would have pushed the throttle full forward, kept the plane under control, and headed back up for the safety of the open sky having already pre-configured the airplane for just such an event (in my case that is propeller at high rpm, mixture rich, etc) as part of my pre-landing checks. Just like that guy did.