Crosswind Landings, Theory & Practice

by Richard Morey
© Copyright 2022. All rights reserved!
Published In Midwest Flyer Magazine February/March 2022 Online Issue

You never forget your first solo. Mine happened nearly 48 years ago, March 24, 1974. I remember the day quite clearly. It was my 16th birthday, it was below zero, and the wind was howling from the north. In those days, decades prior to the City of Middleton acquiring the airport and improving it, Morey Airport’s one paved runway, 13-31, was just under 3,000 feet long and about 38 feet wide. In the spring, the runway was generally surrounded by mud. As you can imagine holding centerline on landing or takeoff was very important.

I remember driving out to the airport with my father, Field Morey, who was my instructor. We had started lessons in February with the goal of me soloing on my 16th birthday. The strong winds had me apprehensive. I don’t remember pre-flighting our old C-150 Aerobat, N8340M. I do remember going around the patch three times with dad. As I recall, my landings were not good. After three landings, dad told me to taxi into the ramp. I was devastated, as I was sure I was not going to solo that day. Instead of telling me to shut it down, dad exited the aircraft. “Do three full-stop landings, then tie it down,” he said. I could not believe it! I went from making poor landings with dad onboard, to wonderful landings on my own, despite a 70-degree crosswind and gusts up to 20 knots. Dad had faith in my abilities, more so than I did.

In reviewing my logbook, I can understand why my father had confidence. I soloed on my 10th lesson and had all of 7 hours and 25 minutes of dual. This was not all that unusual for the time. Before the FAA sensibly added the current requirements, solos generally happened around 10 hours. Of those 10 lessons, five had been focused on slips and crosswind landings. Dad knew I could hold centerline on landings during strong crosswinds.

I do not wish to be controversial, but it is my experience that pilots who learn at airports with multiple paved runways seldom truly have a grasp of crosswind technique. Pilots who learn at airports with only one paved runway learn crosswind landings simply because they must. Another observation is that the narrower the runway pilots train on, the better they are at crosswind landings as well.

Aviation skills are perishable to a greater extent than most skills. We tend not to practice what we have difficulty with. This often results in pilots losing proficiency in the very skills they need to be safe; crosswind landings are no exception!

Many pilots look at the windsock and opt not to fly that day. Knowing our limits is essential for safe flying, however increasing skill level and expanding our limits is something every pilot should be striving for.

How can we gain proficiency on crosswind landings? If you are like most pilots, you learned to initiate a “slip” once the aircraft is aligned with the runway on final, slip the aircraft throughout the glide, round off, flare, and into the landing. This is a basic technique that has the advantage of giving the student more time to be in a slip, and to practice offsetting drift through varying wind strength. Wind strength tends to diminish as altitude is reduced requiring less bank angle at lower altitudes.

The downside to this technique is also its strength; you spend a long time in a slip, which is uncoordinated flight. Uncoordinated flight is uncomfortable, both for the pilot and very much so for non-pilot passengers. There are options that make crosswind landings both more comfortable, and in my estimation, easier.

First, let us define a slip, or more accurately a “side slip,” a “crab,” and the reason they are used in crosswind landings.

A side slip is an uncoordinated state of flight where the pilot banks the aircraft and keeps the nose straight with opposite rudder. This results in the aircraft slipping through the air sideways in the direction of the bank. In a crosswind landing, the pilot sets the bank angle to the extent necessary to offset the wind drift. We use a slip to keep the nose aligned with the aircraft’s track. This is essential on touchdown, but not necessary at any other time during the pattern or landing.

A crab is simply flying with the nose slightly into the crosswind in order for the aircraft to track a certain path.

We all remember flying ground reference maneuvers as a private pilot or figuring out wind drift angles for our solo cross-countries using the trusty E6B for our dead reckoning navigation. We can use a crab on final to track the centerline of the runway on which we are landing.

Slips can be uncomfortable to fly, but necessary for a crosswind landing. How do we get comfortable flying slips? We practice them! I use “Dutch Rolls” as a means to practice slips. To do a Dutch Roll as I teach them, you pick a reference spot in the sky near the horizon. Distinctive clouds, smokestacks or a tall radio antenna are options for reference points. Fly directly at the reference and slowly bank the aircraft while adding opposite rudder to keep the reference spot in the same place on the windscreen as you started. This is harder than it sounds. Start out by slowly banking to no more than 15 degrees one way, then slowly level the wings, and then try a bank in the opposite direction, all the while keeping the nose straight with rudder. Do not be discouraged if your first attempts have you all over the sky laterally. Dutch Rolls teach that in uncoordinated flight, the rudder is there to keep the nose where you want it to be, and that the ailerons are there to bank the aircraft. We are used to coordinated flight where rudder and aileron act in harmony. Uncoordinated flight has rudder and aileron working in opposition to one another to achieve the result you wish. You will be surprised at the amount of rudder pressure needed to keep the nose straight, even with small to moderate bank. Eventually you will be able to keep the nose straight while slowly varying the bank angle. Being comfortable with Dutch Rolls translates into comfort in slips and their variable nature during gusty crosswind landings.

Dragging the runway is another practice that will help pilots get comfortable with slips. This is not a practice I recommend doing alone, but rather it is best done with a flight instructor onboard. Dragging the runway means flying the length of the runway in a slip, ideally just above the runway. The flight instructor handles the throttle to make sure the aircraft stays airborne which allows the student to focus on the slip. Looking long through the horizon is required to allow the pilot to see the lateral drift caused by the crosswind. Looking short, as in focusing on the centerline, minimizes the ability to perceive drift and sink.

Crabbing the aircraft on final and setting up a slip on short final, round off or flare is a much more comfortable way to make a crosswind landing. I also feel that it allows crosswind landings in stronger winds. The technique requires being competent in going from crab to slip. This is easily practiced.
Set up on a longer-than-normal final approach and crab the aircraft into the wind. With rudder, pull the aircraft nose in alignment with the runway extended centerline. Bank the aircraft into the wind to the extent required to hold centerline, while adding enough opposite rudder to keep the nose in alignment. Once the slip is established, release rudder and go back to a crab. You can often get three or four crab-to-slip practices in prior to landing or going around.

The “crab-to-slip” transition can also be practiced at altitude much as Dutch Rolls are. Start with the aircraft nose offset from your reference point. Pull the aircraft nose to the reference point with rudder, then start banking the aircraft as you would for a Dutch Roll. I suggest that my students transition from crab-to-slip on short final. As they get more comfortable with the transition, I suggest they delay until round-off or even flare.

The landing is not over until you tie the aircraft down. This is often said of tailwheel aircraft but applies equally to tricycle gear aircraft, especially in a crosswind. The goal is to touch down in a slip. This means that the upwind main wheel should touch down first, followed by the downwind main wheel and then the nose wheel. Follow through is imperative. The pilot must, upon touch down, smoothly and steadily continue to apply upwind aileron. This keeps weight on the upwind wheel, allowing the pilot to continue to hold centerline. It only takes one gust that blows or almost blows the aircraft off the runway to make a pilot a believer in follow through! If the downwind wheel lifts off the pavement during follow through, it simply means that aileron was applied more vigorously than required.

In summary, crosswind landing skills are very perishable. Due to a number of factors, crosswind technique may not have been fully established in a pilot’s training, and by their nature, tend not to be practiced to the extent necessary to maintain proficiency. By practicing both at altitude and in the pattern, it is fairly straightforward to develop competence in slips, and in crab-to-slip transitions. By practicing crosswind landing techniques, a pilot can both increase their skill set and become safer and more proficient with crosswind conditions that would otherwise have kept them on the ground.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Morey was born into an aviation family. He is the third generation to operate the family FBO and flight school, Morey Airplane Company at Middleton Municipal Airport – Morey Field (C29). Among Richard’s diverse roles include charter pilot, flight instructor, and airport manager. He holds an ATP, CFII, MEII, and is an Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic (A&P) with Inspection Authorization (IA). Richard has been an active flight instructor since 1991 with over 15,000 hours instructing, and almost 19,000 hours total time. Of his many roles, flight instruction is by far his favorite! Comments are welcomed via email at
Rich@moreyairport.com or by telephone at 608-836-1711.
(www.MoreyAirport.com).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual, and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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