Crosswind landing airliner

It was one of those early spring days when the lows were very low, the high pressures very high, and in between the wind was howling. As is often the case on these days, the sky was clear and the flying conditions good—until it was time to land.

I was waiting my turn to go on runway 16 at Chicago Executive—the place many of we old timers still call Palwaukee—and the wind was blowing from 250 degrees at 22 knots, with gusts to 32 knots. In other words, it was exactly a direct crosswind. Ninety degrees to runway 16-34, the main runway, and the only runway realistically usable by turbine airplanes.

Pilots of the piston airplanes were wisely waiting out the blow so I got to watch a parade of bizjet pilots tackle the crosswind velocity that was near or above the demonstrated—but must always add not limiting—capability of their airplanes.

Each pilot was carrying a huge crab into the wind down final approach. And the air was bouncy, so wings were dipping up and down. And no doubt the indicated airspeed was bouncing around. Reports of gains and losses of five to 10 knots airspeed on final were common.

As each pilot descended close to the pavement they attempted a de-crab maneuver by lowering the upwind wing, or in some instances simply ruddering the nose away from the wind with the wings more or less level.

Tires smoked at touchdown, and the airplane noses jerked back toward the centerline. Despite a crosswind at the limits, nobody that I watched came close to having serious control problems after touchdown.

Crosswind landing airliner

How do they do it?

We’ve all seen this movie before on countless videos of airline pilots attempting to land in extreme crosswinds. Sometimes the wind wins and the crew goes around when they can’t stop the drift. But more often than not, the amateur videographer captures the jet touching down in a significant crab angle to the runway, tires smoking, and the airplane nose pivoting back toward the runway centerline.

How is it possible to land in such extreme conditions? There are several factors that matter, but the most important is that the pilots are holding a track over the ground that aligns with the runway centerline. It’s not where the airplane is pointed but where it is going, where the mass of the machine is traveling, that allows it to remain on the runway after touchdown.

In little airplanes we are taught that in crosswind landings using the aileron and rudder to align the nose of the airplane with the runway centerline is essential. And if conditions allow that, it’s an excellent and predictable landing technique.

But when the breeze is up, keeping the nose pointed exactly at the far end of the runway can be difficult—and at some wind velocity, impossible—and the airplane will slide downwind. And when that happens, it’s pretty much game over for a predictable landing because the airplane will touch moving sideways which means its mass, its energy, will be heading off the runway instead of down the runway.

The essential technique is to keep the airplane tracking over the centerline, even when that requires a crab into the wind. If the airplane track is true to the centerline, the inevitable swerving after touchdown can be controllable because the momentum of the airplane is down the centerline.

With tricycle landing gear the center of mass of the airplane is ahead of the main gear. That means when the airplane touches in a crab the momentum will pull the airplane back toward its direction of travel. Its ground track, in other words. If that track had been down the centerline, the momentum wants to continue down that path.

Of course, once the airplane is on its wheels the crosswind isn’t done with its evil efforts. The airplane is really a weathervane so the wind is going to push the tail away from the wind direction. Opposite rudder is the solution, but rudder authority is limited, especially as the airspeed slows. That leaves nosewheel traction and some differential braking as the tools to keep the airplane tracking straight on the rollout.

Crosswind landing

The goal is the same, not matter the airplane: stay on centerline.

Jets have several distinct advantages over piston airplanes in this regard. For one, jets sit on their gear at a negative angle of attack so when the nose comes down the lift is gone and the tires—most importantly the nosewheel—can grab the pavement. Light airplanes sit on their gear at a very neutral angle of attack, or perhaps even a little positive (nose up) in some models. That means the wing still is producing some lift after touchdown, robbing the tires of needed traction for control.

Another great crosswind landing advantage in jets are spoilers. When the airplane touches, the spoilers pop out, killing nearly all lift and planting the airplane on its gear. In light airplanes it’s easy to bounce, at least a little, and that requires yet another fight for control to keep the airplane tracking down the centerline.

And the wing loading in jets is many times higher than in a piston airplane. That means gusts of the same strength simply can’t displace the heavier airplane as much, no matter how good or quick a light airplane pilot is on the controls.

If you’re flying a taildragger, forget everything above. Taildraggers really need to touch down with the longitudinal axis aligned with the centerline and not in a crab. The reason is the center of mass is located aft of the main gear in a taildragger, so the momentum after touching in a crab will try to carry the tail beyond the nose. A ground loop, in other words.

So for those of us flying nosedraggers on windy days, remember it’s tracking the centerline that matters most. If you maintain that track the touchdown and rollout can be a thrill, but you and your airplane can handle more crosswind that you may expect.

Latest posts by Mac McClellan (see all)
24 replies
  1. John Emerson
    John Emerson says:

    This was a very nice article that described a technique that I have been trying to explain to my very light jet student. The article said it far better, and I have forwarded it to him.

    My student had been flying a heavier Cessna 421, which can be a handful to land nicely, so it has taken him some time to “trust” the little jet’s very nice landing qualities.

    This somewhat explains that too.

    Very nice.

    Thanks

    Reply
  2. Jay Underdown
    Jay Underdown says:

    In a strong crosswind DON’T aim for the center line, aim for the upwind side of the runway and let the wind blow you back to the center as you flare. How much depends on how strong the wind is, and the width of the runway. This gives you a little more “wiggle” room if you encounter a short strong gust.

    Reply
    • Mac McClellan
      Mac McClellan says:

      Hi Jay,
      I disagree. If you are drifting sideways at touchdown, no matter if on the upwind side of the runway or centerline, control will be difficult. And if the drift rate is high you could collapse the downwind main gear. Landing gear are most sturdy in withstanding vertical and fore and aft loads. Side loading is the least robust margin.
      Establishing and maintaining track on or parallel to the centerline is the key to crosswind landing success.
      Mac Mc

      Reply
      • Vincent
        Vincent says:

        I see and agree with both sides of that argument. However, if you are in a crab even if you’re tracking straight down the Centerline when you land there is a significant element of sideloading on the gear at that point as well.

        Reply
      • Sven
        Sven says:

        I kind of agree with Jay – the thing is, if you’re perfectly tracking centerline in a crab, taking out the crab will take a couple seconds, and that’s enough to drift downwind. Therefore it makes sense in my opinion to track a slight offset into the crosswind.

        Reply
        • Jerry Fraser
          Jerry Fraser says:

          I am with Mac. You always want to be controlling the airplane. If the wind precludes that, go around, or maybe even go somewhere else. What I do with students is try to work in light x-winds to develop technique and build confidence. The key is tracking straight down the runway. Establish a slip with the nose aligned with the centerline, then focus on the having the upwind main touch down on the upwind side of the centerline, but don’t force the airplane down. As the airplane slows, the downwind main will touch down on its own, so keep the aileron deflected.
          The student is often surprised at how readily crosswind technique transfers as the he/she tackles incrementally stronger breezes. By the same token, x-wind skills, like most others, will atrophy. So fly more!

          Reply
    • Warren Webb Jr
      Warren Webb Jr says:

      Jay Underdown. No way. Tracking down the centerline gives the better margin for error (in either direction) and momentum in the proper direction. Then get the wheels pointed on your ground track with rudder and use the ailerons to stop drift.

      Reply
  3. Macon
    Macon says:

    Definitely good explanation in the article. Of course, understanding the procedure, and actually putting it to use, can be two different animals.

    I’d never actually encountered crosswind landings of more than perhaps a 10-15 degree component at maybe 10 knots. But, the day came when I was visiting a friend in southern New Jersey, and we decided to rent a PA28-161 at the little strip in Laurel, NJ to go have some fun. Of course, the FBO owner wanted to make certain this visitor from Arkansas wasn’t gonna bend his pretty airplane. So, we all climb in so I can demonstrate “a few maneuvers and a couple landings”.

    After an apparent satisfactory demonstration of slow flight and such, we head back to the strip to do the landings. To make a long story a bit shorter, once I lined up with the strip on final, the effect of the direct crosswind was quickly evident, and I guessed the total component was at least at the safe limit for the plane.

    But, I knew I could always revert to a go-around if I felt overwhelmed (at the time, I owned a PA28-161, so I knew it had enough power.), so on short final I was in an extreme crab into the coastal breeze, and rode it down on the centerline. Just a touch of extra power because of the gusts. Somewhere between crossing the threshold and touchdown, maybe 10 feet off the surface, I put in some pretty extreme left rudder, lowered the right wing, and let the plane settle in. To my surprise I had coordinated it perfectly, and we continued to track the center of the runway. I heard the owner say, “Watch the wingtip”, but about that time, the stall warning let out a little squeak and simultaneously the right main rolled on… just like it was a procedure I did every day. I eased the left main on down, and breathed a very silent sigh of relief. The owner decided one landing was enough. I was delighted, because I’m not certain I could ever repeat that landing again… nor would I want to try. Fortunately, I don’t think the owner realized that.

    By the time my friend and I returned from boring some holes in the sky sightseeing, the wind had calmed, so I didn’t have to repeat my “able airmanship” a second time.

    I suppose, if my adventure has a point, it’s best to practice such landings at ever-increasing crosswind components to learn the limits of which you’re competent, and increase your competency if only to demonstrate it to yourself, rather than figure it out in a situation such as mine… or maybe have to rely on the help found in the movie “Always”.

    Reply
    • Tom Edwards
      Tom Edwards says:

      Use of cross-control in a cross-wind has always been my “go-to” when landing with a cross-wind. Of course, I’m only a low-time student. Anyone have an issue with use of cross-control over crabbing? Thanks

      Reply
  4. Mookie
    Mookie says:

    I fly an Aircam.
    No one was mentioning light twin engines.
    You should use the upwind engine with some power to help you keeping the center line.

    Reply
  5. Dave
    Dave says:

    Back in the early 1970’s I was a private SEL pilot with a total time of 110 hours. For reasons not important I had occasion to purchase a 1954 C-45H Twin Beech (D-18) and found an instructor in Grand Rapids, MI who agreed to take me on for the MEL rating. Things went well for 15 hours or so. Then one day with a 20-25kt cross wind from the west using runway 36 another instructor fresh back from flying DC-3’s in Viet Nam offered to take me out for cross wind training. I started the take-off roll using what I had learned so far with full power on both engines. The wind immediately cocked the tail to the right and we headed off the runway into the grass on the left. Then I over corrected and went back across the runway to the grass on the right side. Then back again to the left. After several of these transitions with both me and the check pilot grabbing for different controls, one of us in the confusion finally pulled the power off and we got stopped back on the runway. The tower immediately called and asked how many runway lights we had taken out.

    Fortunately we had somehow missed them all strictly by luck. After a few minutes sitting still on the runway while at least my heart rate returned to normal the check pilot asked me if I wanted to go back and try again. Using the old adage of getting back on the horse after being bucked off, I somewhat unsteadily agreed. This time around, my instinct was to use differential engine power although I’m not sure why except that I had already learned to steer the plane during ground taxiing in this manner. At any rate, using about 6 inches of differential manifold pressure (left engine high), we got started straight down the runway and took off with no problems.

    Now, of course, came the next piece of the puzzle – getting back on the ground with the cross wind still blowing. It occurred to me that the same procedure using differential manifold pressure might work in this case also as I had also learned pretty well how to wheel land the D-18 and get immediately on the brakes. With this power differential and the left wing low we got back on the ground safely on the first try. Later flights in the notorious for ground looping Twin Beech were never again a problem at least in this regard.
    I came to love the plane but circumstances only allowed me to keep it for a year or so accumulating 100 or so hours mostly flying in the Bermuda Triangle. It was sold eventually to a flying service in the Dominican Republic and lasted only a short time before it was totaled during a landing ground loop.

    Dave Miller now flying a home built simulator using Cessna 340 and Beech D-18 planes in X-plane.

    Reply
  6. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    The good news for tailwheel airplanes is that they generally have more rudder authority than tricycle airplanes. So they can handle the same winds.

    Reply
    • Mac MCCLELLAN
      Mac MCCLELLAN says:

      Hi Max,
      I have not flown a Vans RV7A, but I can’t imagine it responds differently than other lightly wing loaded airplanes. To me the most difficult aspect of landing light airplanes in strong crosswinds is to eliminate, or at least minimize, a bounce. So I would think touching down in a moderate or less crab would make it easier to not bounce than a using a steep side slip to control drift.
      Mac Mc

      Reply
  7. Bruddy Cravens
    Bruddy Cravens says:

    Outstanding! Well written and explained in a way that put me in the left hand seat of nearly all the aircraft I’ve flown. Spoken and concise! I was taught with the see one, do one, teach one approach and applying this follows the technique.

    Reply
  8. The Great Waldo Pepper
    The Great Waldo Pepper says:

    Read most of the comments, I’d say the best one was Macon’s on landing a Pa28-161.
    The method described works for tricycles or conventional (crab on final until about 10′ AGL then smoothly transition into a sideslip into the wind with longitudinal axis aligned down the runway and touch down at near stall on the upwind main). Crabbing on final gives a very good indication of how much side slip will be needed to land and won’t alarm passengers as much as a side slip. This also would work for big jets ,even 747s, as long as the bank angle doesn’t cause dragging of engines or wing tips. The latter is the reason for the invention of the crab de-crab method.

    Reply
  9. John Scherer
    John Scherer says:

    Good article Mac!
    I flew C-5’s for a number of years. We always crabbed down final. Approaching the flare in a strong crosswind, I taught to straighten the nose with the rudder (The C-5 had a HUGE rudder) by pushing out the crab as the upwind rear truck was about to touch down. We were limited to 5 degrees of bank at touchdown to prevent the #1 or #4 engine from scraping the runway. By using partial flaps that gave us a Vref of about 15-20 knots faster, we could take quite a bit of crosswind. You may remember Barry Schiff’s article on this subject and I believe he advocated and taught something similar. The C-5 originally had crosswind gear, which was taken out while I was flying them. With the crosswind gear, we could take up to about 50 knots of direct crosswind as I recall. In 2300 hours of flying the C-5, I think I used crosswind gear twice. At 120 knot final, a 20 degree crab is a 40 knot crosswind component.
    I also flew the T-38 for 2,000 hours. Because of the very small wing and super fast approach speeds (155 knots or higher) we flew down final crabbed and touched down in a crab. The gear could take it. You simply couldn’t wing low the T-38 during landing. The downside is that this was hard on the tires. A pattern only sortie of 8 to 10 landings in a strong crosswind would require a tire change after the sortie.
    Thanks again for your great articles. John Scherer, Colonel, USAF (ret) ATP/CFII SMEL

    Reply
  10. Wayne Eleazer
    Wayne Eleazer says:

    My 1946 Ercoupe 415C is designed to be landed in crab for crosswinds. It does not have rudder pedals. The first time I ever landed it in a crosswind I felt like I was looking over the right wingtip on final. But in reality it’s a big nothing. You flare, making sure you are in the middle of the runway, the airplane touches down and straightens out. And that is that. Just be sure not to be holding the controls too firmly; you have to let it do what it wants.

    The one thing I can’t figure out is that I turn final and then the airplane turns to offset the drift and line up with the runway. How it knows where the runway is, I do not know. But it has been flying since before I was born and knows what it is doing.

    Reply
  11. Doug Rozendaal
    Doug Rozendaal says:

    Mac you are absolutely correct that having the momentum of the aircraft pointed straight down the runway is critical, but slipping to point the nose down the runway if possible is a much more elegant solution that will reduce sideload on the landing gear, and the passengers, even if it can’t be completely resolved. But what is also really important, even in many jets, is rolling aileron into the wind on rollout to drag the downwind wing back with adverse yaw.

    Reply
  12. Robert Cone
    Robert Cone says:

    Flight instruction to a new student pilot learning the art of the cross wind landing. 50+ years ago as a relatively new CFI, I began cross wing training by first having the student align the plane with the runway while I controlled the elevator and aileron controls. The student quickly learned the feel and amount of rudder input required. Then reverse the process and let the student learn to control the drift while I kept the plane somewhat straight don the runway. Anybody else try this?

    Reply
  13. Kathleen Bangs
    Kathleen Bangs says:

    Fun article, Mac.
    When I was a simulator instructor and check pilot at the Northwest Airlines Training Corporation (NATCO) in Minnesota, there was nothing I loved better than dialing up the crosswinds to 40+ and watching the fear of god beads of sweat roll down the pilot’s strained faces.
    One, because the sim is harder to fly than the real jet.
    Two, because in the real-world flight crews don’t often get the chance to practice landings at that strong of a breeze, AND as a direct or near-direct crosswind.
    Agree with some of the other posters that in those cases, aiming on the upwind side of the centerline was much more productive for a controlled landing on the centerline. Whatever drift could not be arrested was okay because you had a little extra runway width to play with using that technique.

    Reply
  14. Enderson Rafael
    Enderson Rafael says:

    Very nice points. I notice this specially on the heavy jets. The 737 with crosswind still required a significant amount of input, but the 787 finds its way very easily: up to 10kt of crosswind, even in dry runways, it is just like you said: as long as the up to 190t maximum landing mass is tracking the centerline, the jet will follow, even if you do not de-crab at all (not saying that I wouldn’t if I noticed, because it obviously put a lateral load on the gear and make the ride unnecessarily uncomfortable for the ticket payers – but sometimes, especially at night, is not so easy to judge the ammount of rudder you need). Of course there is a lot of flight control system magic happening on the back stage: a video from the front, will show the ground spoilers deploying on the upwind wing and being delayed on the downwind wing, the way the fly by wire has to give the crew what they are asking from the airplane. This beautiful symbiosis of modern jets is something that the more I study and experience, the more I like it.

    Reply
  15. Nils Pearson
    Nils Pearson says:

    I fly a Cessna 180. Two actions help me in a strong crosswind:
    1) For takeoff (especially on a wide runway), it helps to start the takeoff run on the downwind side of the runway and point the nose a bit into the wind – thus decreasing the xw angle.
    For landing the same angle also holds true with the touchdown on the downwind side. The wider the runway, the more room you have.
    In either case, you also have more room to regain control if things get “rich).
    2) With the 180, a wheel landing allows you to lift the tail for a negative angle of attack. This puts more weight/pressure on the main gear – giving enhanced differential breaking capability.
    Of course these techniques require a certain level of capability and experience by the pilot.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *