There is an old saying by Pilots,"It is Better to be on the Ground wishing you were In the Air...than in the Air wishing you were on the Ground."
The windsock is straight out and constantly changing direction as it violently tugs at the mast it is attached to. Tumbleweeds roll quickly by on the taxiway, picking up speed as they are whisked away by gusts of wind. The parking brake is set and the gust lock is installed as I position the ladder from the fuel island next to the wing. I climb the ladder carefully removing the fuel caps and add a few extra gallons of 100LL octane fuel to each wing just in case our flight ends up being longer than expected if the weather gets worse. I feel the plane buck and jerk about in the wind gusts as I add fuel. An image of a gust getting under the tail feathers and flipping her over goes through my mind even though I know she weighs nearly a ton.
We were originally going to practice stalls today but it is perfect conditions to test my crosswind landing skills so the plan for today's training has changed. My instructor Jim asks me if I am up for flying in these conditions and he gives me the choice. I tell him that I wouldn't fly if I were by myself but I am up for it if he is. We get in the plane, fasten our seatbelts and start going through the checklists.
We listen to the AWOS (Automated Weather Observation System) and the winds are gusting from 5-25 knots. The clip in the video describing 9-22 knots is actually after we landed. Both of those are quite a range. At the lower end of that scale I am confident that I can perform crosswind landings easily. I also know that the crosswind component limit the Cessna 182 has been tested by the manufacturer at 20 knots for takeoff and 15 knots for landings. I also realize those tests were made under ideal conditions with a professional test pilot. I am not a professional test pilot and the plane I am flying today is over 50 years old and probably not as agile as it was when it rolled off the production line in 1965.
As we roll onto the runway the wind shifts to being almost a direct headwind so we take advantage of the timing and apply full power. I build up a bit more speed than normal to compensate for any gusts before I lift the plane off the ground. Before roll out the wind shifts again and blasts from the right and we crab into the wind as we leave the ground to keep the airplane flying straight down the runway. As we turn from Crosswind to Downwind I get an idea of how strong the winds are by how much farther I am being blown from the runway than normal. I crab the airplane back to the runway in order to fly a somewhat straight pattern.
There are two main landing configurations for crosswind landings, the side slip and the crab. I learned the side slip technique in my initial training so that is the technique that I use. As we are coming in I am trying to set up a stabilized approach. We are using a little bit higher airspeed. A general rule is to add about half of the gust to your airspeed on approach. We are also using a maximum of about 20 degrees of flaps so that we have more control authority and so that we won't have as much lift when we get close to the ground. That way a gust doesn't have quite as much of a chance to lift us back into the air when we are close to the ground in our flare.
In the side slip technique I am holding aileron into the wind to keep the airplane's path and track lined up with the runway and then using the rudder to keep the airplane's longitudinal axis in line with the runway. In the video you can see that I am a little low and have a lot of power in. That could be compensating for the loss of altitude in the side slip. Also, what doesn't show up in the video is that we are getting bounced around pretty good and it seems that to keep the airplane in line with the runway I am running out of rudder control every once in a while. The approach just doesn't seem stabilized enough for my liking so I opt for a go-around.
I used to think that it was somewhat shameful to do a go-around. I had that thinking until I started flying tailwheel airplanes and then I found them to be invaluable for assessing the conditions at an airport before actually landing. Also, there is less margin for error in tailwheel airplanes and things have to be lined up a lot nicer when you touch the ground than in tricycle planes. When I was doing my tailwheel training I did a lot of go-arounds so I got really used to doing them. Before that I tried to stick a lot of airplanes on the ground when I really should have just gone around. Now I say to myself, "If I don't have a stabilized approach on final in the air then it is only going to get worse once I am on the ground." Many backcountry strips don't have the option for a go-around but if the airport has the option I am not afraid to use the go-around if things just don't look or feel quite right.
After the go-around we hit some pretty major turbulence off the end of the runway. I cut some of that part out of the video but we were seriously considering flying to a different airport or at least trying to figure out a flight path that would take us away from the approaching storms. I remember thinking that I was really glad that I put an extra 20 gallons of fuel on board when we were considering these options.
Just then there was a lull in the weather and I thought it might just give me a big enough window to set it down. On this attempt the wind wasn't quite as strong and definitely not as gusty. You can see in the flight path that once we make that decision I hightail it to the runway to try to land before the wind picks up again.
The track with wind barbs shows an average of a 15 knot wind.
(Images Courtesy Jim Hudson)
We got the airplane down on the ground just in the nick of time as another storm rolled through the area. As I was opening the hanger doors Jim Hudson was in the airplane holding the brakes and adjusting the flight control surfaces to keep the airplane from being damaged. You can see the plane shaking around and me wrestling with the hanger doors trying to get the plane into the hanger. You will also notice a King Air that was also trying to get on the ground but does a missed approach due to the gusting crosswinds. We finally were able to safely tuck the airplane away in the hanger and get the doors closed.
Video courtesy of Jim Hudson:
This weeks flight training pushed my skills to the limit and I really was happy to be safely back on the ground again after this flight. It was good to prove to myself that I can land in such gusty crosswind conditions but I am looking forward to summer flying with green grass and clear blue skies.