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Wind Awareness

How to Anticipate and Adapt
by Peter King, ATP, MCFI

Skywagon Slip

I distinctly remember the moments my situational awareness grew during my early years of flying. They were almost like shots of wisdom quickly expanding my understanding. Each wasn’t a gradual change either, but a sudden aha!

One of my first situational ahas happened returning to San Carlos (SQL) after doing pattern work at nearby Half Moon Bay (HAF). The entry into the San Carlos pattern from the west can be a bit challenging: “Cross overhead at 1,200 feet; enter right downwind Runway 30.” The pattern altitude is 800 feet and the floor of SFO Class Bravo drops to 1,500 feet as you cross the runway centerline. This leaves you with a 700-foot altitude window to split.

For a student pilot, just flying that procedure can be all consuming. Altitude, airspeed, power, pitch, bank, turn-coordination, scanning for traffic, flap deployment: it takes all your concentration. On around my 42nd return to San Carlos, something clicked. In addition to flying, I started listening to the other aircraft in the pattern. I actually built a sight-picture in my head. “Aha!” I thought, “This is situational awareness.” I almost didn’t need to look for traffic, because I knew in advance where it was. It was a revelation, and it only came after I had developed comfort and familiarity with the basics of flying.

Similarly, there was a distinct moment when I finally internalized wind drift. I had been flying for years, and was working on my commercial ticket when my instructor took me to Byron (C83) for crosswind practice. Byron is a non-towered airport with two runways laid out precisely at 90 degrees to each other. You can always find a crosswind there.

After 15 to 20 laps around the pattern (it was a very long lesson), I started to anticipate the wind and to plan my turns accordingly. My pattern became a little wider, and my wind drift corrections became more proactive and automatic. Everything became easier.

The funny thing is, I had learned all the ground reference maneuvers to earn my private pilot certificate, but somehow I had missed the big picture. Perhaps it was a shortcoming of my initial instruction that may be all too common in our industry: my primary CFI was so focused on teaching me the steps required to perform a textbook ground-reference maneuver, he lost sight of teaching me generally how to adapt all my low-level flying to accommodate the wind. I did not fully have wind awareness.

Any crop-duster can tell you all about the subtle nuances of what the wind does down low to the ground. These pilots who make their living at 10 feet AGL don’t just anticipate wind shear, they rely on it. For example, you can rely on the wind to decrease and to clock to the left near the ground.

Why is wind awareness important? A significant number of accidents happen during low-level maneuvering. A stall/spin at low altitude is particularly unrecoverable. We instructors are constantly talking and writing about how to avoid the stall/spin. But understanding the wind is not a thought exercise. You have to feel it to get it. I think very few GA pilots really get the wind at an internalized, subconscious level.

I was flying with a student last week during a healthy crosswind. He is an aeronautical engineer and probably understands the physics of flying and wind better than anyone I know. Yet, during a turn from cross- wind to downwind with a tailwind component on both legs, he looked at the ground, said the turn didn’t “feel right,” and input extra rudder to make it “look” better. When he cross-checked his instruments, he found himself in a full-blown skid.

Shortly thereafter, I confirmed he was not really considering the wind’s effect on his pattern as he established a downwind heading without any wind-correction angle and drifted away from the airport. We ended up flying a looooong base leg, let me tell you.

These are exactly the kinds of subconscious feelings that can get you into trouble. It is too easy for the sight picture of the ground to override more important informa- tion like airspeed and the slip/skid indicator. But once you incorporate the wind into your overall situational awareness, once you automatically start to predict how the shapes of your turns will change because of the wind, once you automatically start to expect an increase in ground speed downwind, you will no longer be quite so susceptible to ground picture illusions.

That is one path to becoming a safer, more proficient pilot. On a rip-snorting, windy day, go fly some ground reference maneuvers. Don’t get all hung up on conforming to the step-by-step textbook procedure. Focus instead on developing your ability to see your track over the ground and getting a feel for the wind. Learn to anticipate its effect on your ground speed and turns.

At the same time, recognize that low-and-slow is a relatively high-risk flight regime. Establish some safety limits, and develop a feel for what it takes to perform ground reference maneuvers within those limits: (1) Limit your bank angle to 30 degrees; (2) don’t let your airspeed get below VY + 10; and (3) don’t skid, period.

If you botch a maneuver, don’t force it. Go around and try it again while giving yourself more space. Too many times pilots try to recover a botched maneuver only to make things worse. Keep trying each maneuver until they become consistent and you are anticipating the wind.

One more suggestion: when you are inbound to an airport and you receive a wind report, don’t just consider the effect of the wind on landing. Also consider how the wind will shape your traffic pattern. Beware of any tailwind component on the base leg. If it exists, plan to fly a wider pattern.

Most importantly, have fun! Enjoy the ahas when they come, because they will, and you will be a better pilot for them.


Peter King is an ATP/MCFI. He produces courses about instrument flying for Flying Like the Pros,