Crosswind landings: you are not driving a car!


Photo by Dlanor S on Unsplash

DEAR AND wellbeloved student pilots,

Let me get right to the point: to land your airplane in a crosswind you must turn the ailerons into the wind as you touch down and steer with your feet. I’m writing you this letter because doing this is proving difficult for some of you, and as a consequence you end up sliding the aircraft sideways across the runway. This is bad for the tires, the undercarriage and my nerves. It has to stop, people.

When you taxi the airplane into a front quartering wind I have taught you to roll the yoke full into the side the wind is coming from: if the wind is coming from the front right, turn the yoke to the right. Front left – yoke to the left.

When you takeoff in a crosswind I have taught you to begin the takeoff roll with the yoke turned fully into the wind. Then, as you pick up speed, gradually reduce the aileron input. In a strong crosswind you’ll keep full aileron input until almost the very point of rotation.

You have demonstrated competence with these two things. You already know that keeping directional control of your airplane on the ground is aided by correct aileron deflection. Why? With a wind from the front right, turning the yoke to the right raises the right aileron and lowers the left. This increases the drag on the left wing and reduces the drag on the right wing, a phenomenon we have looked at in flight under the title of “aileron-induced adverse yaw”. It is the reason why you must use rudder and not just aileron as you roll an airplane into and out of a turn. On the ground we harness this effect to help the rudder prevent the airplane from weathercocking into the wind.

You are also accomplished at steering the airplane in the direction you want to go with the rudder, by using your feet on the pedals. You can taxi to the runway keeping the nose on the yellow line, and keep the aircraft in the middle of the runway as you takeoff, even in a crosswind.

So you cannot imagine for one second that after landing in a crosswind it’s ok to try to drive down the runway centreline steering with the yoke and with relaxed feet. It isn’t ok, it doesn’t work, and you must not try to do it.

Let’s back up a bit. You know that a good landing is achieved when the aircraft is over the runway centreline (position), tracking along the runway centreline (direction of motion) and pointing straight down the runway centreline (heading). That means that when the wheels touch the ground they do so with no side loading, no sideways stress on the tires, and the aircraft doesn’t jerk to the left or the right, nor try to steer itself off to the left or right.

To make those things happen use the rudder to adjust the heading of the airplane (yaw) so it’s pointing in the direction it is moving over the ground, and use the ailerons to bank the plane so that it slips sideways through the air just enough to compensate for the air moving sideways over the runway. That way you can both move along the centreline and point along the centreline, even with a wind blowing from one side. This is a slipping manoeuvre.

Most of you are actually pretty good at doing this for as long as the airplane is in the air. But problems begin at touchdown. At this point your inner pilot hands over the controls to your lizard brain: you relax on the rudder and let the ailerons go back to neutral, yoke horizontal, as if you were driving a car. But you’re not in a car, and the control inputs that make sense in a car are completely wrong in an airplane. By relaxing your hands you let the crosswind push you to the downwind side of the runway, and by relaxing your feet you let it yaw the plane nose into the wind. Then we do the old bump-and-slide, scraping our asses sideways along the tarmac and praying the plane will come to a stop as quickly as possible.

Please, for the love of all that’s holy – as the wheels touch continue to keep the nose straight with the rudder, and increase aileron deflection into the wind. Within two or three seconds of landing in any kind of crosswind you should have the yoke hard against the left or right stop, and you should keep it there with steady pressure through the entire rollout.

In anything more than a light crosswind you should be aiming to touch down on one wheel – the upwind wheel – first, and to use the ailerons to keep the other main gear wheel off the ground for as long as possible again, by increasing the aileron deflection. Only once the airplane has slowed down sufficiently for the ailerons no longer to be able to keep one wheel off the ground despite you holding the yoke against the stop, does that second wheel touch.

How do you tell what kind of crosswind you have? By looking out of the window. See the direction the plane points, and see the different direction it moves over the ground. If you need a lot of rudder to yaw the nose straight and a lot of opposite aileron input to keep the the plane over the centreline then you’re landing in a strong crosswind. If you need only light control inputs to achieve these things then the crosswind is light. It really doesn’t matter where the windsock is pointing or what the ATIS or Tower controller says. You move your hands and feet to make the plane do what you want. The control inputs will inform you what the wind is doing. Not vice versa.

When you do that you’ll get a soft, jerk-and-slide-free landing in any wind conditions, with no risk of bursting a tire, no risk of ripping the main gear legs off the fuselage, and no risk of burst blood vessels in your instructor. Result.

Happy holidays, and happy crosswind landings to everyone.

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