Santa Ana winds
9 min read

Before I received my Private Rotorcraft Certificate, my training was in line with the typical helicopter training regimen. Our work focused on picking apart the PTS, and working the various tasks and maneuvers associated with it. Minch, my instructor, would not let us fly if the wind was over 15 knots, and no solo flights if the wind was over 10 knots. This made sense, but it also subliminally made me not want to fly in any wind. Minch told me the restrictions were due to the students’ (my) lack of experience dealing with the wind. Of course, we went over the actual wind restrictions based on the manufacturer’s recommendations as well.

Pinnacle landing in helicopter

Wind takes on a whole new meaning during a pinnacle landing in a helicopter.

One evening, I went in for instruction, and everything was normal. We were working on pinnacle landings, which was still fairly new to me. Pinnacles can be difficult due to the difference in terrain, obstacles, and local wind conditions. At an airport, with long, flat areas like runways and taxiways, the wind tends to be fairly consistent. The FAA usually removes all obstacles that hinder operations, including ones located within the RPZ (runway protection zone). My pattern work at the local airport was fairly predictable in terms of winds.

Pinnacles, until you learn to read the terrain, are not as easy to predict. My pinnacle training consisted of several orbits to determine local wind conditions, obstacles, and a suitable landing area. Then on final, you take all of that information, and use it in order to accomplish a successful landing.

I was already stressed out. This was my first time taking the helicopter up to do a landing at 5,000 feet MSL. We were going to work on run-on landings. To briefly explain: there is a point in which the density of the air becomes such that the power required to keep the main rotor blades in the green is greater than the power available. So, a pilot needs to utilize several tricks in order to land. Of course, there is a time when the tricks won’t work, so aborting is always an option.

So, we were doing pinnacle landings above 5,000 feet for the first time in the mountains. Understandably, there was a lot on my mind. I executed the first few landings without much grace, but with success nonetheless. On my third try, the wind decided to abruptly change. I was caught off guard and had to abort the landing because my approach was not comfortable due to the wind change. After that, we were running out of time, so we headed back to the airport, and I was beat.

Windsock at airport

The helicopter has no idea what the windsock is saying.

My look of exhaustion was apparent. I had about 20 flight hours at this point, so I should be used to an hour and a half flight. However, I did not like the wind, and I let the chief pilot (not my instructor) know about it. He seemed confused. “The helicopter does not know the wind is blowing,” he would say. What?!? “The next time the wind is howling, I want to take you out.” Great, I thought. Suicide by helicopter.

So, I took that home with me and thought about it. I still hated the wind. Living in Southern California, we tend to get a lot of wind. We have high deserts and mountains, so when there is a temperature/pressure difference, the wind flows from one area to the other through the passes, and sometimes over the tops of the mountains. Although the temperature and weather are usually great for flying, there almost always is wind, especially where the airport is located, at the mouth of the Cajon Pass, one of the most famous roadways through the mountains in the United States (think Route 66).

It wasn’t long before the Santa Anas kicked up and we had a tremendous wind. I came in for a lesson, and Minch, my instructor, was off for the day. The chief pilot, Pat, was licking his chops. He saw the wind, knew Minch was out, and was ready to take me up. I was lacking his excitement! But, with over 25,000 hours in helicopters, I figured I better suck it up and listen to the master. First, he explained his theory on wind. Sure, there are limitations. If the wind is blowing so hard that the hangar door cannot be opened, then don’t fly. Everything else is fair game. Today the hangar was open, the helicopter was out and the wind was blowing 25 knots. Arrrggghh…

We talked about the limitations to the rotor system spooling up. There is a chance that the wind could pick up suddenly, and do damage to the dampeners or the droop stops or other components. They would be vulnerable until the rotor rpm was in the green, letting centrifugal force do its job. So, after spooling up, we were ready to go. I was briefed that I was already in translational lift, and I had not even left the ground! My pickup was exciting… my knuckles were white, as I may have squeezed the cyclic grip a few centimeters smaller. The feel of the cyclic and collective in high winds is pretty much the same as regular flying, except you have to be on your toes and expect the wind shifts to be faster.

Pedals in helicopter

Get ready to dance on those pedals.

The pedals are the issue. Because the pedals control yaw (tail rotor thrust), this is where the workout is. Turns out, I wasn’t bad in the wind – it’s just that my feet were under-practiced. I found that out during my first hovering 360. The helicopter wants to weathervane into the wind. It is made that way to facilitate more comfortable flying (straight and level) for obvious reasons. When you fight that, you really have to do the “pedal dance” to get the helicopter to do what you want it to. Picture a boat traveling up-current sideways in a river. I had never pushed the pedals that far before!

After losing two pounds of sweat, I was instructed to head north to the dry wash, to do a few landings. Pat likes to create real-world situations, in preparation for the Part 135 or 133 jobs that a commercial helicopter pilot will see. He told me that we were “support crew” for a local off-road race, and my friend just blew a tire. We had one, and we needed to land to get him that tire. I was to find a suitable location, make good judgments in terms of the local conditions, and make a landing. This was starting to get fun!

I completed the “tire delivery” and Pat said, “Now they need a driveshaft, and they are over there on that hill,” pointing to the hill above the wash to the north. I took off, and was assessing the new landing zone. At the last minute I saw a yucca plant that had sprouted a 15-foot stem that was about to take out my tail rotor. Keeping the nose into the wind, I hovered sideways and found a more suitable landing spot. Invisible driveshaft delivered.

OK, that was not too bad. I was sweating less, relaxing on the cyclic, and my feet were starting to get the general idea of what they needed to do. Pat sensed this, and upped my ante. Let’s go do some pinnacles…. arrggghh times two!

We headed north again, in search of some pinnacles in which to practice. Pat showed me how to use a headwind to increase altitude without losing manifold pressure or airspeed. He taught me a few more tricks, but they are proprietary! (“I could tell you but I would have to kill you” type of stuff) We found the pinnacles that he wanted to work; I did my orbits and set up for an approach. Holy cow! The wind was really whipping! I had to really ease the ship down; the closer I got to the ground, the more unpredictable the winds got. I was able to gently set the helicopter down and Pat burst into applause and high fives! I was just relieved to be alive!

Santa Ana winds

The Santa Ana winds can really make life interesting.

Pat then gave me one of the best helicopter lessons ever. We talked in depth about how to read the bushes, grass, hills, etc. His 45 years of flying helicopters in SoCal (and all over the country) really shined. I tried to soak up as much as I could. My next landing was still very difficult, but quite uneventful compared to the last few. I was learning to read the wind, and make adjustments as needed. I was starting to “see” the wind flowing around the bushes, hills, and knolls. As we took off back to the airport, a hunter in bright orange appeared beneath us, wondering what the heck we were doing in these hills with all this wind! We waved hoping he wouldn’t decide to take aim at our loud, deer-repelling bird.

Making our way back to the airport, we had one final task. Pat wanted me to hover taxi downwind! What!?! We NEVER did that! Especially in a 25-knot tailwind! Hovering downwind places your rotor wash in front of you, and flying through the “dirty” air with the wind howling was even more challenging. Once again I heard, “The helicopter does not know the wind is blowing!” So, the pedal dance began again…. Fred Astaire here I come! Man, do I remember working those pedals. In essence, at a hover, the helicopter was flying backwards at 25 knots. But, it was totally doable. We also did downwind quick stops, and even a no (horizontal) motion autorotation. Fun!

I was able to do this because of the experience of my instructor – these maneuvers are obviously not recommended for the beginner. I am really glad we practiced this, because when I did my checkride, the wind was blowing 15 knots. We were really on the edge of canceling because of the wind. But, my confidence (and safety) were strong, so I flew. The DPE was somewhat surprised I chose to continue, and he made me hover downwind first to make sure I could cut it before we went out and tried more difficult maneuvers. I was working it, but was able to maintain great control… thanks to Pat, Minch, and my training.

Since that time, I have worked in the high winds, with confidence. Of course, I am aware of what the winds are doing, and not taking risks outside of the capabilities of the machine. But, instead of being afraid of the wind, I welcome the challenge. After all, the helicopter does not know the wind is blowing!

Douglas Williams
Latest posts by Douglas Williams (see all)
3 replies
  1. Michael Cowan
    Michael Cowan says:

    Loved this article. We flew choppers out of MCAF Santa Ana in the ’60s. And we did a lot of RALS. I also used to motorcycle the fire trails as well.

    Wind seemed to always be an issue out there. I can remember on more than one occasion flying to Vegas when cars passed us driving the grapevine and we were indicating 125knts above them.

  2. Andreas Eissler
    Andreas Eissler says:

    Strong winds are a different matter in helicopters than when flying fixed wing airplanes indeed, and You had a really great opportunity to learn from the experienced ones, and to overcome an irrational “respect” from flying helicopters in windy conditions. But a healthy amount of respect and awareness won’t hurt either.
    I don’t agree to the statement: “The helicopter does not know the wind is blowing.”
    In which helicopter type did You do take that stormy ride? The critical issue here are wind sheers and variable wind directions, including turns in constant wind. Surely they can be handled by an experienced pilot up to a certain degree, but a phenomenon falsely described as “LTE” (loss of tail rotor effectiveness) has been the reason for a number of helicopter crashes already. In fact the tail rotor won’t loose effectiveness, but above certain wind speeds (airflow in relation to the helicopter) from either 7-9 o’clock (if mainrotor is turning clockwise) or 3-5 o’clock (if main rotor turning counter clockwise)directions the tailrotor can’t produce enough thrust to prevent the helicopter from turning. Once turning, the inertia i.e. cinetic energy of the turn adds to the effect, and if You don’t have any pedal travel left, there’s no way to to recover or prevent a loss of control. The vulnerability to “LTE” depends on the helicopter type, but trying to hover downwind, or for example turning right into winds of 25 knots or more at low airspeed in a Jet Ranger or a Robinson grants a certain outcome.
    Now if You tell me that You did that just in a Bell or a Robinson, I guess You were just lucky that by coincidence the wind never hit You from the critical angle above certain wind speeds.

  3. JP
    JP says:

    I did all my flight training in San Diego KSEE as well, and can relate to those wind days in the mountains keeping the hair on the back of neck spooked, heheeh. In AK it was were the winds really made fun of me, but I survived among those mountains.
    But now, flying on the GOM the 25-30 knots winds make me cery confy to land on the plats (specially when I am close to max gross weight). Taking off without wind?! Oh geee, no please.

    Great article, tks.

    Fly smart, fly safe.

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