On Crosswind Landings…

I have another story percolating in my head when I finally finish putting in Lex’s posts.

But for now, I’ve never told you this story.

I’d like to tell you it involved superb flying, saved at the last minute by superior flying skills. And I got the girl at the end.

Nope, it isn’t that kind of story. 

To top it off, it was on my solo. Now different people use the term solo to mean one of two things: (1) It is anytime you are flying alone, or (2) it is one time, when the instructor gives you the words, “Well, I think you are ready to try it alone….

For me there is only 1 time you solo. And looking back on my old log book, my solo took 2.5 hours. On the comment section I remarked “learned about crosswinds”.

And in my case, it involved a heavy case of forgetfulness. I was flying a tried-and-true Piper 140. I remember, even back then (1979) it had 6,000 hours. If that plane could talk, it’d probably say “I’ve seen them all”. Pilots, that is.

Until it met me.

The site of my  memorable solo was the Yolo County Airport. It certainly had the runway, 6,000 feet long and 100′ wide. If I remember correctly, it was an old WW2 training field. It is about 25-30 miles west of Sacramento and maybe (guesstimating) 40-50 miles from the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay. This little fact will become important, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time my instructor got out of the plane.

One more thing about Yolo. It is an uncontrolled field, meaning it is up to each aviator to use the radio and announce positions and intentions. I believe, had it been controlled, the tower would have eventually called in an F-16 from nearby Travis AFB and just shoot me down.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. You pilots know how this is going to go and probably most of you non-pilots 😉

Any airplane, whether you are talking about an FA-18, Boeing 777, or PA-140, has 3 axis of control. The stick, or yoke (has a “wheel) controls roll (ailerons), and pitch (elevator). The rudders control the yaw, or the sideways movement. One of the many reasons I enjoyed Lex’s writing is how they fly in the Navy.  I can’t find the post readily *, but he was talking with a Navy pilot who, over Haiphong Harbor during the Vietnam War, aided in the rescue of a downed pilot by kicking the rudder back and forth and spraying a sampan with North Vietnamese intent of capturing said pilot, while the rescue helicopter was coming. Never thought of using the rudder that way and until Lex heard the story, neither had he.

When Lex talked about happy feet, his feet were moving the rudders back and forth so fast to accommodate the shifting wind (and keep the nose pointed straight down the runway) that you could say looking at his feet he was almost dancing.

Me? That day I thought that the rudder pedals were footrests.

So when I took off late afternoon almost as if on cue, a wind started coming in from the bay, over the coast ranges, to Yolo County airport.

I got the first part of a crosswind landing right – crabbing into the wind. This will come almost naturally, as you keep the runway in sight and to avoid having the wind blow you off course, you are keeping the nose at an angle off the center line to keep going straight to the numbers.

It’s the moment you touch down that you’d better get some happy feet. I’m telling you this in retrospect 😉

As you are about to touch down, you slip. Ailerons into the wind, opposite rudder. Meaning that you bank into the wind and then use the opposite rudder to keep it straight. Adjust power to control your sink rate.

I wasn’t doing this and hit the runway still crabbed. When the nose wheel touched the ground, as lex would say, it got “exciting”. I was swerving all over the runway, using all 100 feet of the width, believe it or not. In a small 4 place plane.

On the 3rd attempt, I actually went off the runway, bouncing over the dirt field and tumbleweeds about 70 mph, heading straight for a tractor trailer that serviced the ag planes.  I can remember uttering the 2 words the NTSB almost always hear on the voice recorder when investigating crashes (which I am sure you can guess) , and thought my only option was to give it throttle and try to clear the truck.

Which I did, by about 20-30 feet, as I watched the trailer under me.

After that, I had had it with crosswind landings, and made the rational decision to just stay up there, not even thinking of the fuel situation. Of course, I am here typing this, so I will say they eventually talked me down via the radio and I can remember in the pitch black of night, stalling the plane about 10′ off the runway and coming down like a runaway elevator.

They said I had about 2 gallons left and I broke a part in the main strut from hitting the runway so hard.

I was strongly considering just quitting the effort to get my license and then thought this failure would hang over me for the rest of my life.

So I went over and over in my head what I did wrong and a month or so later, my instructor picked the windiest day he could and I did it. It was one of the best crosswind landings I ever made.

Ailerons into the wind and opposite rudder! Of course you aren’t static but constantly adjusting each setting with the shifting of the wind.

I went on to get my license. My FAA Inspector was a guy named Karl Harder, now long gone, but he was so well thought of they renamed Lincoln Field (where I tested) to Karl Harder Field.  Let me tell you, he put me through the ringer. “I said 203 degrees! Not 205!” I thought for sure I had failed but just stick it through to learn what I had to improve on.

Engine shuts down and he grins, saying “I guess we’ll give it to you”. Karl taught me that there was a whole higher flying standard out there, but I was deemed to be not a danger to myself or others 😉 This crosswind knowledge proved handy when I went to work in Wichita for Cessna and flew (in their flying club) nearly new 172s. You see, it is always windy in Wichita. Real strong winds.

Lex talks about crosswind landings here.  Several Lexicans were fortunate in flying with him while at Barnstormers and said that he could really bring out the best in you. I would have loved to have flown with him.

Interestingly I saw a video of Boeing testing their airliners at a remote Brazilian field (away from the prying eyes of Airbus) and I thought they hit the mains crabbed (what a side load on the mains!), then used rudder to straighten the nose. But one of the Lexicans, a Boeing 777 captain, said that you land the 777 just like (I should have) landed that Piper.

BTW since the engineers in charge of certificating a plane cannot order up any wind velocity they desire, every manual on every plane will state “Maximum demonstrated crosswind (X) knots”.

They try their best for strong winds, as Boeing does. The handbook tells of the strongest wind they could find for testing. And obviously the angle of the wind to the runway matters. You can handle a stronger wind at 20 degrees off the runway heading than you can at a 90 degree wind to the runway.

It is up to each pilot to determine whether their plane (and skills) can handle a particular crosswind. This Lufthansa pilot was trying to handle a bit too much.


** Update – Post found 04-20-18

“The CO, a compact, taciturn man with extensive combat experience on Yankee Station, gave one of the longest speeches I ever heard him make: “You’re not supposed to hit anything with it. You just use it to hose the target area down when you’re on the wire. Fire a long burst and rudder her around a little bit. Gives the bad guys something else to think about besides tracking you in their gunsights.”

“Oh,” I replied. Feeling – not for the last time – simultaneously better educated and a great deal more stupid.”

Update – 05-14-18: You look at that Boeing video and they are definitely landing still crabbed with the nose wheel up – then use rudder to straighten the nose down the runway center line before it (the nose) touches the ground. From my time at Cessna – admittedly as a programmer who wrote programs charting production progress – not an aeronautical engineer – I can tell you companies really try to design in “safety factors” when they are going through the certification process.

They know that every crosswind landing won’t be textbook. So in these landings in Brazil my guess is they are testing the strength of the mains – with tremendous side forces on them when they hit the ground at an angle – as much as the plane’s ability to handle the wind. 

At Cessna on the way to lunch I’d pass the experimental hanger and every day up on the ceiling I’d see a Citation III wing being flexed at horrible rates on automatic hydraulic jigs, simulating many hours of the worst flying in storms.  They really do try to engineer a lot of “safety factor” in the planes you fly! 





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4 responses to “On Crosswind Landings…

  1. Pingback: The “Why” of Why Flying Is So Forfilling | The Lexicans

  2. comanchepilot

    The only time you need to be facing down the runway is when you are on it – old guy drilled that into me in the mid 1970’s when I was getting flight training in the Explorer Scouts!

    He liked to show people his original pilots license – signed by some guy ‘O. Wright” – that was a fun connection.

  3. Pingback: And I Thought My Solo Was Exciting | The Lexicans

  4. Pingback: Things I’ve Learned Along the Way | The Lexicans

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