Wind on water
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11 min read

During my early flight training, not only did I not have a complete understanding of density altitude (see my previous story), I also missed the part about always being aware of the wind and being mindful of its effects on your airplane.

The only time it seemed I was concerned with the wind was during flight planning, when deciding which direction to takeoff and land, and when doing ground reference maneuvers. It was a few years before I realized something was missing in my wind knowledge—and that realization occurred at an embarrassing moment.

Lesson learned

Let me give you some background to set up my story.

My father-in-law was a bush pilot in Alaska from the 60s through 2010. He flew everything from Otters and Twin Beeches to Cessna 185s and Maules, on wheels and floats. He flew off-airport support for the seismic crews looking for oil, took people polar bear and wolf hunting (before it was outlawed), dropped tourists off on rafting trips, and hunters off to hunt caribou and moose. If it could be done with an airplane, he found a way to get it done. So anyway, I was kinda in awe of the man, who became a great friend.

My story begins on one of the only days I was able to fly him in my 172. We were going from western New York to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in eastern New York, near the Hudson River. The flight went well in light IFR, even with a couple of route changes and the accompanying challenge of finding the new fixes on the chart. Overall, I was feeling pretty good about having demonstrating my piloting ability. That is, until we were landing in Kingston.

Kingston airport

A simple airport, but with just enough terrain to make the wind a factor.

Kingston is located on the west side of the Hudson River. It is also one of the few places where a bridge crosses the Hudson River. The Kingston runway is somewhat angled to the northwest and just a little inland from the river. There is a tree-covered bluff rising from the river, and the bridge doesn’t actually end until about a half mile inland from the River. There is also a small ridge with trees along the eastern side of the runway.

We were landing to the northwest, so the approach was over the river and as I neared the runway on final I would fly over the bluff and the end of the bridge. I don’t recall what the reported wind was, but I don’t remember that it raised any concern in my mind.

All was well until my stabilized approach was disrupted as we flew through some turbulence as we passed over the bluff and the end of the bridge. As I continued the approach, the air smoothed out… until just at the beginning the flare, when out of nowhere we hit even stronger turbulence. It was strong enough that I aborted the landing and went around.

Well, so much for impressing my father-in-law with my piloting skill! I was pretty chagrined and little stressed while setting up for another landing, but I took the time to consider my next approach. I figured since we had turbulence over the bridge and turbulence at the end of the runway, if I stayed a little higher over the bridge and landed a little longer down the runway, I could stay above the worse of the turbulence.

And, for the most part, it worked. The turbulence over the bridge was reduced. As I got down to the runway on final, all was well at the beginning of the flare. Then, just as we were about to touch down, the turbulence hit again. Like the first landing, I was completely taken by surprise. Somehow, I wrestled the 172 onto the ground while still going somewhat in the right direction. And again, I missed the chance of redeeming myself with my father-in-law.

As we were taxing in, he looked over at me and said, “Ya gotta be able to see the air.”

See the air? I thought, what, the man can even see then air?! What a novel thought—and one that I was apparently completely ignorant of. How does one “see the air?”

At some point later, as we were talking, he explained that there were flags on the end of the bridge and that some were flapping in one direction and others were flapping in another. He also said that the leaves on the trees along the runway waving in the breeze indicated that air was flowing down the ridge and so would be burbling across the runway.

I was concentrating on my approach so was completely oblivious to all those clues concerning the wind anyway. Even if I had noted those clues, nothing in my training would have given me the knowledge or experience to interpret their effects on my approach and landing. I had no “wind awareness.”


There are plenty of clues about the wind—if you know where to look.

One of the articles I later found even included a description of a landing like the one I described above. A pilot was landing at a small airport on the windy plains of West Texas with a strong 90-degree crosswind. The wind favored neither of the two runways, and he could literally choose either one because conditions were within the demonstrated crosswind component of the Cessna 182 he was flying. Right above the runway in the flare, he got caught in a violent rotor that first pushed the 182 to the runway in a very hard landing, then pushed it in the direction opposite the crosswind. He stated that he salvaged the landing, but the wind was entirely unexpected. It shouldn’t have been.

It didn’t take him long to deduce what happened. There was a long, uniform line of trees and hangars on the windward side of the runway. They created a uniform obstacle directly across the flow of the crosswind which induced a violent, resonant roller. He even remembered noticing a plastic shopping bag carried on the wind proved it. At about 20 feet aloft, it hit the same rotor. It swirled down to hit the runway, blew backward across the runway in the opposite direction, flew back up into the air, and then continued onward across the field in the crosswind. But the significance of what that indicated wasn’t properly understood.

Since then, he has always been on the lookout, knowing that any strong crosswind flowing across a uniform barrier can create unusually strong turbulence.

Developing “wind awareness”

Do you have “wind awareness?” Do you know what to look for while you’re flying that will provide clues about the wind conditions? Can you foresee and judge the effect those conditions will have on your flight?

To include a basic discussion about wind for this article, I went searching for information concerning wind, reading the wind, and interpreting the effects of wind. I used information from the following websites for the remainder of this article:

Maybe unsurprisingly, I found an article referencing the lack of instruction in “wind awareness” during initial flight training, by Peter King: “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.”

So, after the situation I described above, someone told me that a good pilot always knows three things:

  1. Where is better weather?
  2. Which way is downhill?
  3. Which way is the wind?

Instructors may do a great job describing procedures, requirements needed to pass your test, and how to properly perform maneuvers. But, generally speaking, understanding and interpreting the wind is not part of the conversation. So it is likely that very few GA pilots really get the idea of what the wind is doing at an internalized, subconscious level.

Wind by lake

Seaplane pilots get very good at noticing where the water is calm.

Knowing where the wind is coming from, what obstacles it is flowing over and around, can provide clues to how it will affect the aircraft. This becomes especially helpful in anticipating turbulence, as in my case. But it is also important in the event of a precautionary or forced landing.

To begin to build a better awareness of the wind, we need to always be visualizing what the wind currents are doing by looking for and being aware of the clues. The easiest way to do this is remember that air behaves like a fluid, so think about how water flows.

Unobstructed straight winds, more precisely known as laminar flow, shouldn’t be much of a problem for most pilots. Wind that flows in a constant stream is easy to visualize. Turbulent flow occurs when laminar flow interacts with ground features, resulting in mechanical turbulence. The resulting turbulence often catch pilots off guard and can result in mishaps such as hard landings, ground loops, excursions off the runway, or overstressed airframes.

So we need to visualize air currents by using our understanding of how water flows over rocks, funnels through gaps, and pours over ledges. This can help predict what the wind might be doing before encountering the actual effect.

Before we can determine how the wind currents might affect us, we need to be aware of the speed of the wind and its direction. One aid to help visually determine wind speed is the Beaufort Scale, a scale of wind intensity that corresponds with specific wind speeds based on basic observable characteristics like trees, branches, leaves, waves on the water, or how choppy the water is, and then relating those observations to a speed scale. The scale has 12 stages or levels of wind force. Each stage is associated with a particular wind speed and specific observations: 0 = calm and 12 = hurricane. The scale is most useful for us from 0 through 6:

Beaufort scale

Once we have estimated wind speed, we need to determine wind direction. On the ground, the easiest way to observe true wind direction is by watching the clouds: typically, if the clouds are coming from the north, then it’s a north wind; if they’re coming from the west, it’s a west wind. In flight we can use smoke from fires or smokestacks, ripples/waves on a lake, large flagpoles, blowing dust, trees, grain fields blowing in the wind, etc.

The surface of the water can be a pretty good indicator of both wind direction and speed. The size and character of the ripples and waves on the water indicates wind speed. Since the wind is at 90 degrees to the wave line they also indicate wind direction.

  • No wind: calm and glassy surface
  • Increasing wind: wind will create tiny ripples on the water at around 5 knots
  • As the wind speed increases the ripples turn to waves—if you are seeing white caps on the waves, then the wind speed is close to 15 knots.

On inland bodies of water (lakes, ponds, etc.), as the wind blows across the ground the water will be calm on the side the wind blows from.

Dust is another good indicator. This is most prevalent when farmers are tilling the fields in the spring and harvesting them in the fall. The longer the dust trail, the stronger the wind

Wind blowing across a field of grain can be seen in the undulations of grain. although this clue isn’t useful until fairly low to the ground.

Smoke from fires and possibly smokestacks is an easily identifiable wind indicator. The more the smoke trail leans in a certain direction and the longer it is, the stronger the wind.

Your direction indicator (DI) is also a very useful instrument in determining wind direction. Pick an object or aiming point in the distance and take a note of the heading indication on your DI. Maintaining straight and level, with your aircraft in trim, keep flying towards the object. If you check your heading, you may notice that you have drifted off the original heading while still aiming for the same object. If you have drifted to the right, then the wind is coming from the left; if you have drifted to the left, then the wind is coming from the right.

To summarize, remember “Ya gotta be able to see the air.” Seeing the air allows you to anticipate what effect it will have on your aircraft. Consciously looking for the wind clues and considering their effects during each flight will eventually cause them to become second nature. You will have achieved “wind awareness.”

Craig Bixby
Latest posts by Craig Bixby (see all)
22 replies
  1. Dale C Hill
    Dale C Hill says:

    I was a T-38 check pilot in the Air Force and once had a Nigerian student give me a hint about winds. He told me cattle feed downwind, i.e., they face downwind as they graze. Flying in western Oklahoma ‘where the wind comes sweeping down the plains’ (thank you Rogers and Hammerstein) it wasn’t easy to find a body of water or trees to give you any hints. But, you could see a lot of cattle on those windy plains! Also, there were seasons when the local farmers were plowing or harvesting and you could see the dust they would kick up and, speaking of dust, when the crop dusters were out, you could get a hint from them as well. Thanks for the informative article!

    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Hi Dale
      Thanks for your reply!!

      Interesting, I have seen your reference to cows grazing facing downwind before!
      And, when I did, I got to wondering? Are there other known animal traits that could provide useful information to pilot’s and are they Fact or Fiction?????

      So, I began researching for an Article in our EAA Chapter’s Newsletter and Here are some more tidbits about animals to judging weather I found
      “Cows gather in the southwest corner of their lot when a storm is coming”
      “If cows are facing you on final you’re lined up for the right runway”
      “If Cows are lying down expect rain”
      “Sheep also graze into the wind”
      “A Buffalo will face into a storm”
      “Horses stand Facing the Wind”

      After looking for legitimate answer, the only sure thing is…….it is still hard to sort out Fact from Fiction

      One story told of a guy that had heard that Cows are supposed to face off wind in breezes. So he went driving around the hills trying to find some cows to try to validate whether it is fact or fantasy? What kind of cows are better indicators than others? Do Hereford’s “heave to” at 20 kts or 10 kts? Are Holsteins more reliable than Ayrshires in rainy conditions? He Found no definitive answer

      Some say “an animal grazes with its tail to the wind”. This is a natural instinct, so the animal may face and see an invader; and invader from the opposite side would carry out its scent to the cow, in the wind.

      Plus, I found that it seems that cows may not only indicate wind direction, they also may indicate Magnetic North and South

      A study of satellite images of more than 8,000 cows showed that cows face the same direction when eating. This suggests that cows sense the Earth’s magnetic field and use it to line up their bodies so they face either north or south when grazing or resting.

      Oh, and another tidbit about cows….. When you are below 500 ft agl you can see all four of the critters legs. Which Can be useful for judging height if/when your Altimeter Fails


  2. David
    David says:

    This is a great article. I agree that the ability to see the air, as fluid moving around and over objects is somewhat under-taught (and perhaps very difficult to teach). My primary instructor also pointed out smoke / steam from stacks around the airport as a strong hint as to what was happening at the surface, but I imagine building a mental model the airflow around you is an acquired skill for the area. Thanks for writing.

    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Good to hear from you.

      We did have a good turnout for his Memorial! Thanks for being there and thanks for your reply!


  3. Tom B
    Tom B says:

    I wish that more airports had small streamers at the ends of the runway. Wind can change a lot if the sock is in the middle of a 5000 foot runway. There is a ridge nearby at our home airport, and the AWOS (located near one end) can be very different from what the sock reports. And that can be very different from the air over the numbers.

  4. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    One of the first aircraft I ever flew was a weight-shift hang glider. My instructor said that I had to learn “micro-meteorology”, which is that every feature of the ground will influence the motion of the air you are flying in. It’s true for 30 pound hang gliders and everything else we fly. Great article!

  5. RichR
    RichR says:

    If dealing with birds near the runway that will probably flock airborne when you try to takeoff…and they’re too stubborn to be scared off…take off from their end of the runway so any potential encounters are low speed and on the ground instead of airborne at departure end…assuming wind/runway length doesn’t preclude that option.

    …and they face into the wind on the ground, but takes a better set of eyes than mine to make that useful on approach!

  6. Nick h
    Nick h says:

    Thank you for this great article! As a low hour pilot, I am thankful for this lesson early before it is needed!

    Thank you again!

  7. Paul Z
    Paul Z says:

    Well written Craig, and definitely worth reading.
    Experience is a great teacher.
    But let’s not disparage the lowly CFI too much. A good many of them are relatively inexperienced, trying to get that experience so they can pass on to “greener” pastures. The fact is, that what they are supposed to teach is so much more voluminous, and more involved, that what us old folks learned 40 or 50 years ago. Just take a look at the size of the current text books that the FAA alone provides. It is no wonder that many of the subtleties of piloting are missed in their presentations and explanations.
    Trees, grass, water, birds and even cows, if you can tell one end from the other, are definitely helpful in “seeing” the air and returning our craft safely to the ground. Imagination helps too.

    • Craig Bixby
      Craig Bixby says:

      Thanks for your comment!

      I had no intention to disparage anyone. I Just found it interesting that in my research for my story I found someone that had an experience similar to mine.

      Instructing is definitely an art. You are correct, the information required by the FAA is huge. Couple that along with the curriculum and time allowed for a lesson is sometimes driven by the flight school and not the instructor may unintentionally leave gaps in a students training or their understanding of a topic.


  8. Lee Dalton
    Lee Dalton says:

    I think pilots of small aircraft really took a hit when someone invented electric or gas clothes dryers.
    Once upon a time, laundry flapping in every backyard in America made flying a whole lot easier.


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