The Low Down On Wind

Strong stratification of winds can occur over the U.S. at any time of the year, but they are most common in the winter and early spring. And this has been one heck of a year for strong winds over most of the country.

The mission was to fly from my home base at Muskegon on Lake Michigan down to Kansas City. The general forecast called for temperatures at our home in Grand Haven, Michigan, to jump from around 30 degrees on Monday to well up into the 50s on Tuesday, and even higher on Wednesday. That just doesn’t happen in early March unless the wind starts really humping from the southwest to bring in the warm air.

The winds aloft forecast on the aviationweather.gov site that NOAA and the FAA operate called for an astonishing 60, 70 and even 80 knots of southwesterly at 3,000 feet for most of the way along my trip to Kansas City.

We are all geared up to think that winds at higher altitudes will be stronger than low, because that is the norm in a typical weather pattern. I dreaded checking the winds forecast at a usable IFR altitude but much to my surprise, the wind velocity fell off dramatically with altitude. By 9,000 feet the area of wind forecast to be at 80 knots at 3,000 feet was down to 30 knots. The 12,000 foot chart showed even lighter winds. It was a classic stratified wind setup.

I am no meteorologist, but I have spent thousands of hours slogging along in piston airplanes flying in the unpressurized altitudes of 12,000 feet and below. When the wind is markedly stratified you have lots of time to observe if you’re flying westbound in a little airplane because you will not be getting anywhere fast.

There are undoubtedly many ingredients necessary to create a powerful wind stratification such as I was encountering on my way to Kansas City, but the most important element is temperature inversion. When the air stops cooling with elevation—and often warms dramatically with altitude when the inversion is powerful—the winds and weather divert from their normal habits. With an inversion winds close to the surface can be much stronger than winds thousands of feet up.

I am sure the cold ground of winter and early spring add to the effectiveness of an inversion and help to channel strong wind into a narrow range of altitudes. Wind stratification can occur at just about any altitude, but this time of the year the lower altitudes are usually where you find the layer of highest wind velocity.

Powerful wind stratification usually creates turbulent layers where the high velocity layer of air transitions into the slower moving air above or below. And we all need to expect the possibility of windshear during takeoff and landing because the surface wind is usually many knots slower than the wind just hundreds of feet up. The terminal forecast for Kansas City had surface winds at 180 degrees at 18 knots, but the wind shear alert called for winds at 2,000 feet to be from 210 degrees at 60 knots. At St. Louis the forecast had the wind at 1,300 feet above the airport blowing at 50 knots while at the surface the wind was just 13 knots.

It turned out that the forecast was very accurate. On climb out from Muskegon the wind increased to 66 knots by 3,000 feet and the air temperature was 10 degrees C warmer than on the surface. I climbed to 10,000 feet where the air cooled off and the wind velocity was cut in half—but still on the nose.

The stratified wind condition was in full force at Kansas City as I approached to land at the big airline airport there, MCI. As I tracked the glideslope down to Runway 19R the airspeed began to increase dramatically. Even with the power at near idle the airspeed was up to 150 knots just to stay on the glideslope, and that is the gear extended limit speed. Increasing wind on approach is the classic warning of windshear because at some point that rapidly increasing wind is likely to end and the sinking will began. And it did.

Lucky for me the average wind direction was right down Runway 19 so the landing wasn’t all that dramatic, but an E-RJ behind me on approach apparently got an onboard windshear warning because the crew aborted the approach and climbed with that dramatic way nose up attitude all jet crews practice every year in the sim as the best way to escape a windshear encounter.

The stratified wind conditions were still in place when I returned to Muskegon the next day and at about 800 feet above the runway the wind was blowing 66 knots compared to gusts of 39 at the surface. Those last few hundred feet were a wild ride and tested the crosswind capability of a Baron. I hope the winds return to normal sometime soon.

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33 Responses to The Low Down On Wind

  1. Jay says:

    What could possibly be so important to necessitate launching a small GA aircraft in those conditions?

  2. PhD_aero says:

    Right on, Jay. If you got caught in such conditions, it’s good to have the skill (and luck) to survive. But to knowingly launch into such conditions indicates a severe lack of judgement. And to shrug it off as no big deal is journalistically irresponsible, especially when the readership will comprise some number of impressionable, inexperienced pilots. Mac, you’re in the wrong job. Please go somewhere else.

  3. Mac says:

    You guys surprise me. EAA is all about seeking adventure in aviation. Some do it by designing and building their own airplanes, others in flying aerobatics, others in restoring antiques. I find aviation adventure in traveling on the most reliable possible schedule and that means dealing with the weather is the most important factor in my flying. Airline and corporate pilots do it every day, and so can I, and so can you. Dumping on one pilots adventure as invalid or too risky is not what EAA is all about.
    Mac Mc

    • Beedo180 says:

      Aviation is about developing and using skill set. I personally would not launch into those conditons. I lack both the equipment and the weather skill-set to accurately judge the “flyability” of such wind conditions. Nonetheless I am perfectly comfortable launching into 15G25 and even 30kts if my crosswind skills are at their sharpest. No doubt some pilots would not be comfortable with that.

      The takeaway is that different pilots fly different conditions with different skill sets. Mac is probably in the upper 2% echelon that has the skills to do that flight. I am glad he wrote about this to illustrate the capabilities of general aviation. To criticize him because a 200hr Cirrus pilot might try to read this and thoughtlessly immitate is to show the expectation of a nanny state mentality that I thought we in aviation were pretty good at avoiding.

      Thanks for the write-up Mac. I have a long way to go before I could do a flight like that, but it is good to see skills I need to work for.

    • PhD_aero says:

      Nonsense! Taking foolish risks is not, and never has been, what EAA is about. Adventure does not involve foolish risks. There are lots of weather hazards that are known to be foolish risks, and you took a foolish risk and then tried to cover your ass. You did something very stupid, failed to admit it, and now are trying to cover up. You’re in the wrong job. Head of publications requires a professional attitude towards safety, deep knowledge of the field being covered, and a humility to admit mistakes. You are oh for three. Go find a job where you can succeed, before you damage EAA any further.

      • rdt7 says:

        “Foolish”, “stupid”, “go find a job…..”

        This type of talk has no place in EAA.

        • PhD_aero says:

          It absolutely has a place in EAA! It’s called accountability, responsibility, and leadership. Covering up poor attitudes because somebody has a big name or a big title is, unfortunately, part of American culture, but such coverups are indefensible. Safety doesn’t care what your title or name is if you violate common sense.

  4. Matt says:

    Mac, I’m having a hard time believing that you’re not crazy after that post.

    Adventure is one thing – knowingly taking off into foul conditions is quite another. What could be so pressing?

    A Baron is a terrific airplane with advanced capabilities. But deliberately maxing out your crosswind component when the conditions have been clearly forecasted? Nuts.

    Not long ago you were discussing the possibility of your tail falling off while crossing Lake Michigan – I’d be shifting my focus if I were you.

    Just saying.

    • Mac says:

      What’s important about flying aerobatics? What’s important about making the very first flight in an airplane you built? The challenge and adventure, that’s what. I don’t build airplanes, I only occasionally fly aerobatics, but I do have confidence in my IFR flying abilities that I have taken years to build.
      A strong cross wind? No reason to crash. If the rudder is on the floor and you’re still drifting just go around. Try again and the gust will probably be different. If not go to another airport. Some guy flying for Beech experienced the strongest crosswind during the certification program of the Baron and that value was recorded. Is he a better pilot than me? Did he crash? No.
      We all select our challenges in flying and going where I want to when I want to nearly every time is my thing, and mother nature sure can keep it interesting.
      Mac Mc

  5. Matt says:

    Agree, a strong crosswind is not a reason to crash – but come to think of it, neither are the majority of risks we take as pilots. Flying a single at night over hostile terrain? No reason to crash. Flying hard IFR without an autopilot? No particular reason to crash either.

    Mac, as you have counseled us over many years, flying is all about risk management. At the risk of stating the obvious, risk management is about minimising the identifiable risks in a planned flight. Not exactly rocket science.

    Flying where you want when you want all the time sure is a challenge. It could also be called Get-there-itis.

    • Mac says:

      In this case where strong winds were the only issue–ceilings were high and visibility good–the risk management begins with airport selection. The runways at my home are 6,500 feet long, and at the destination the runways are more than 11,000 feet long. And the runways are 150 feet wide. Wide open space makes handling a strong gusty wind easier than trying to get down, or up from, a confined runway surrounded by trees or terrain. Would I have made the same decision if the runway was 3,000 feet long with obstructions all around? No. But that’s why I base at an airport with lots of space.
      The wind shear threat is a consideration for any pilot, but is not the same threat to light piston airplanes like a Baron that it is to a jet. The smaller mass of the piston airplane allows it to accelerate more quickly when the wind shears in direction or velocity. The lower drag in the landing configuration on an airplane like a Baron also minimizes the threat. And nobody should use full flaps when landing in strong winds in an airplane like a Baron. Add in the quick power response of a piston engine compared to a turbine and wind shear can be managed better than in the large airplane. One of the few circumstances where the smaller airplane has an advantage in demanding weather conditions.
      So risks were considered and managed. Nothing I could do about the turbulence when transitioning the shear layers, but the airplane wasn’t going to break so you just tough it out.
      Mac Mc

      • Matt says:

        Have to say, that’s an impressive response Mac. Thoughtful and insightful. Fact based.

        I guess I was a little hasty in piling on.

    • Beedo180 says:

      Matt, I guess I disagree on one point. Get-there-itis is fed by a lack of information on conditions, the lack of skills to deal with conditions, and the irrational hope that things will get better. Mac did not experience or suggest any of that in his write-up. He knew what he was doing, and the risks tolerance equation balanced out for him. Obviously it would not for you and you would have made the smart descision to stay on the ground. My risk vs. skill trade also would have left me on the ground.

      Apparently our difference in thought patterns shows that I do not apply my current skill set to a pilot experienced grinding through hard IMC or wind anymore than I would expect a newly minted pilot to do what I could safetly and rountinly do.

      Once again Mac, thanks for the insights into your descision making process. By understanding what and why you did something, I can tweak, or not tweak my own decsion making process as required.

  6. Jay says:

    Mac, I never jumped on you as you wrote in your first comment. I just asked what was so important. I have a tail wheel plane so I would never dream of that launch. Also not sure I would do it in a Barron or similar small plane because i don’t enjoy having the daylights shaken out of me for long periods of time. Don’t mind turbulence but prefer smooth trips. To each his own.

    Fly safe.

  7. JL Vaughn says:

    Mac,

    I’m a student pilot in Chino CA. We have two types of wind conditions here. The dominant, calm to steady breeze, right up the runway. And Santa Ana wind conditions can be just about anything. This past few weeks, we’ve had several days of literally any wind speed from 0 to 10 knots in any direction on the ground with a shear at 200 to 1000 AGL, with a direction change of 30 to 180 degrees and wind speeds of 20 to 40 knots. (And on some days, that shear layer has touched the ground.)

    I’ve not gone up in the worst of it, but I’ve practiced in the pattern in some of it and have learned quite a bit doing so. We’ve been told add half the gust speed to your landing speed. Adding half the shear speed difference to your approach also appears to be good advice. And it’s good to know, from pilots with experience and skill, that the airplane really call handle what it is rated for.

    Thanks for relating your experience. It helps me to understand my own flying better both with my own limits and where I hope to eventually be.

  8. Sam says:

    Mac,
    Thanks for the straight forward discription of how you fly and what your personal “GO – NO GO” boundaries may be .
    It is helpful information and advise from a professional. And an encouragment for me as a pilot who finds that exploring the edge of my personal flying envelope makes me better prepared for those times when flying is not a smooth experience and may help me “walk away” from a not-so-smooth landing.
    For me , learning to feel the effect of relatively high (20-30 knot) wind on an airfoil while sailboarding gave me the confidence and “feel” to fly the C-182 at the limits of the POH , which I practice as often as I can , alone .

  9. Mark Helmericks says:

    I appreciate writers like Mac MacClellan taking the time to pen aviation articles for us flying but non-writing crowd. Agree or disagree, at a minimum we need to show courtesy for the effort. Simply lining up to dump insults on the author turns an exchange of information into a show of bad manners.

    Thank you Mac, and shame on the shrill.

  10. Frank R. Sandoval says:

    Excellent article Mac. Keep on writing about the true Spirit of Aviation. Knowledge, Wisdom, Experience, Skill, Good Judgement, Common Sense, assimilated into one equation will always equal sensible risk managing.

  11. Dean says:

    I think there’s a difference between the mindset of the local, weekend flyer and the cross-country traveler.

    I typically fly around 150 hours each year flying from Southern California all the way to St. Louis several times a year. And, I actually have different personal wind and weather limits for local/fun flying versus cross country travel. If I’m traveling and the winds are high and the turbulence moderate I’ll still probably fly (as long as the rest of the weather isn’t horrible). If it’s a local fun flight I probably won’t just because it’s not that much fun.

    That’s not get-there-itis because I still do not fly in weather conditions that I don’t think would be safe. Turbulence (except for the type from T-storms which I definitely avoid) doesn’t really bother me and my plane can certainly handle conditions that I wouldn’t want to be in.

    And, crosswinds don’t really bother me either. One secret my Dad (a long time Helio Courier pilot) taught me is if you’re landing or departing on a wide runway, you can start on the far right or left of the runway and then depart or land at a diagonal instead of trying to follow the centerline. This essentially reduces the crosswind component.

    And, flying an airplane with higher wing loading also helps. Higher wing loading means a better ride in turbulence. So a plane like my Meyers 200 or Mac’s Baron is much less of a chore than in something with lighter wing loading like a Cessna 172 when the winds and the bumps are strong.

    Bottom line though is that you should take that time honored advice from Clint Eastwood….. “a man’s got to know his limitations”. Know your own personal limits. If you want to expand them, go up with a competent flight instructor when the weather is outside of your comfort level and practice!

  12. rdt7 says:

    Wow, it seems some of you are just “spring-loaded” to jump on Mac. I do the same type of flying Mac does – light twin for business purposes – and I would have made the flight as well and not considered it outside the boundaries of prudent risk. I’m grateful Mac is here sharing his experience and wisdom. I find it very interesting and helpful.

  13. Frank Giger says:

    Sam’s comment is dead on – this is an article about personal minimums and how to approach them more than anything else.

    I’d never fly under those conditions, as my personal minimum uses the Golf Rule,* but Mac has loads of experience in those conditions as well as being intimately familiar with his aircraft. The key is that he was well versed in what he was facing BEFORE he took off, and so he had a plan and was mentally prepared for the journey.

    If it had been a “holy crap, I got caught looking” sort of story the frowny faces and stern words would be appropriate, but that wasn’t the case.

    * Golf Rule – if I wouldn’t play 18 pulling a cart on the course I won’t fly over it in an airplane.

  14. Pingback: Stratification of Winds | High Altitude Flying Club

  15. Scott says:

    Great article Mac!! Glad you had a safe flight and reaped the reward of another challenging flight. Just another day for us here in the Great Lakes state.

  16. Robert Braid says:

    Back when I was proficient in flying piston twins, I would have had no reservations about flying in the conditions that Mac describes and in fact, have done so. It would have been “just another day at the office”. I fly a jet for a living these days and would fly in those conditions but I wouldn’t dream of doing it in a piston anything, simply because even though I fly them occasionally, I’m not proficient in those types anymore.
    Part of being a smart aviator is knowing your limits and not exceeding them. The flying conditions Mac describes are acceptable for some and not others and only the pilot can make that call.
    The fellow telling Mac to move to another job is a smart aviator by staying on the ground in high winds because he obviously recognises the fact that he doesn’t have the required skill set to fly in those conditions. He should however stop bashing the people who do have them!

  17. Frank R. Sandoval says:

    Thank you Mac for sharing your knowledge and recent experience in your article. Varying atmospheric stratification over different types of terrain is a most interesting subject. It prompted me to do some research on vertical shear and thermodynamic profiles which confirmed the subject matter in your article for me. Although I have experienced varying degrees of wind effects on the journey of my flying career, but for the trigger in your article, I would not have understood some of the complex
    effects on mix-layer wind shear. I even learned about equivalent neutral wind speed, and that my friend, is what EAA is all about.

  18. Jay says:

    Hey rdt7 ,Robert Baird and Mark Helmericks, lighten up.

    • Robert Braid says:

      Jay, if you’ll reread my origonal post, I think you’ll find that it is directed at Phd_aero’s completely uncalled for comments of “Mac, you’re in the wrong job. Please go somewhere else.”

      Your question “What could possibly be so important to necessitate launching a small GA aircraft in those conditions?” was, I think, a legitimate one and has been answered by others sufficiently.

  19. Bruce Ziegler says:

    Nothing in Mac’s blog said no-go to me for a proficient IFR pilot in a well equipped twin like his Barron. Seems like he thoughfully evaluated the conditions and then flew the flight. Surface conditions probably would not have stopped me in my 172 either, but the winds aloft (and likely bumpy) ride at Skyhawk altitudes would have. We all need to evaluate our flights based on an honest assesment of our skills, prevailing conditions, and available alternates should conditions change.

  20. Chris St.Germain says:

    I’m stunned at some of the harsh comments above. As I live in Kansas City, I think I know which exact day Mac was discussing. The vis and sky were no issue, just wind, and that wind at the surface was within 10 degrees of most of our runways in this area. (Mac said as much that the wind was right down his Rwy 19.) Our AVERAGE wind speed is over 10mph, so if you learn to fly here, you learn to handle wind.

    While reading Mac’s blog, I never heard him suggest that others fly in similar conditions. If a reader doesn’t have skills up to Mac’s level, flying a aircraft with high wing-loading, perhaps the smart thing is for them to stay on the ground. But, they are out of line to decide someone else’s limits. Jeez, Mac didn’t say there were tornadoes and T-storms.

    I’ve been flying some Light Sport lately, along with heavier airplanes and helicopters. Some LSAs are “iffy” in 10 knots, and part of being a responsible pilot is knowing the limits of your own skills, as well as the capability of the aircraft in use that day. I enjoy reading other’s experiences, and learn from them, even if I can’t fly the same mission.

  21. Eugene says:

    Thank you Mac for your articles to share with us. Urge to expand your own limits someday could save situation and maybe life.

  22. Marty Schroeder says:

    Sorry, guys, I’m with Mac on this one. He needed to go some place, had the correct tools and capabilities, and demonstrated how it could be done-safely. Yes, wind shear at 1300′ AGL is annoying, but nothing like wind shear at 50′ AGL, which is dangerous. Thanks for the good article, Mac. And yes, I WOULD fly this mission in my turbo Saratoga if I wanted/needed to get somewhere.
    Marty Schroeder

  23. Mark J says:

    As a flight instructor and corporate pilot I always tell other pilots there are two things you have to evaluate when making your go – no go decision.
    1. Is the equipment I am flying today capable of flying in the current and forecast conditions? There are days that you would fly in a piston twin that you wouldn’t in a single. There are days you would fly in a jet that you wouldn’t fly in a piston twin.
    2. What is your level of proficiency as a pilot? Has it been 30 days or 3 days since you have flown? How close to your comfort level will the conditions be taking you?

    As with all flights, you always need a back up plan. If the crosswind is too strong, if the turbulence is unsafe, if your fuel reserves change due to the headwind, what is your backup plan?

    In the future, maybe these type of articles would be more educational if they included what the backup plan was. Along with this, you could explain why this flight was safe in the equipment it was flown in, but maybe not other aircraft.

    Learning is about finding out how other people accomplished a task that you are uncomfortable with and determining if can it be accomplished safely with different equipment, more training, or more proficiency. Everything everyone does isn’t safe, but that is why we study it.

  24. Gordon Arnaut says:

    Well, I have to say that the complete lack of basic courtesy shown by some guys here just really leaves me with a bad taste…

    Please guys…you are spoiling this blog for those of us who come here for camaraderie and discussion…If you don’t like Mac, the way he writes or the way he flies then go somewhere else…do not spoil the discussion for those of us who do enjoy Mac’s writing…that’s just plain old manners like we were brought up to practice…I hope…

    And I am sick and tired of hearing that Mac does not fit in with EAA…well says who…?…is there some grand poobah who decides what is and what is not EAA “material…”

    Aviation is a big tent and there is room for all kinds of interests…if you fly the big iron it does not mean you have the right to dump on ultralights and vice versa…

    As far as this article is concerned…it is a very good article and there is nothing wrong with launching into wind conditions if your airplane and your airman skills can handle it…

    Also let’s stop conflating a risk factor like lively wind conditions with things like IMC, icing, night flying, etc….they are not in the same league when it comes to risk…

    Really my hat is off to Mac for the dignified way in which he handled these attacks…it’s too bad that he has to be on the defensive here for something a lot of good airmen would consider a routine mission…

    Regards,

    Gordon Arnaut
    Ontario, Canada

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