At one time crosswinds mattered a lot. The first landing fields were—well—fields. Pilots could opt to land into the wind because the airport was just an open space.
When paved runway airports were built multiple runways were included where space allowed. Even small general aviation airports usually had a short “crosswind” runway, even if it was sod instead of paved. And when the military built hundreds of airports during World War II most had three runways arranged in a triangular shape so no matter which way the wind blew the crosswind component was minimal.
But as traffic intensity increased it became clear that intersecting runways—or intersecting final approach and departure paths—put strict limits on airport capacity. The only way to maximize airport capacity is to make all runways, or at least the primary runways, parallel. As for crosswind, that’s the airplane designers and pilots problem.
One of the first modern, actually on purpose major airports to be built in the country was Washington Dulles. In the late 1950s Congress authorized construction of a new Washington area airport and the new airport would reflect the latest in design as the world was entering the jet age.
Planners recognized that a new airport would need lots of room and not be confined by the cities that had grown up around the existing airports so Dulles was located far west of Washington in what was then pretty much pasture land. The long runways were oriented north and south and more than a mile apart so simultaneous operations could be conducted on each. As a sort of throwback Runway 30-12 was stuck out to the west of the main part of the airport, but clearly the focus would be on the parallel north-south runways. The extra land that was included in the original plan had room for more north-south parallels and a third runway opened a few years ago.
Since Dulles was built a few other from scratch airports have been constructed including DFW, MCI and DEN. And at other major airports close parallel runways have been built to existing parallel runways so airplanes can depart on one close runway just as soon as another airplane is down and rolling on the other.
My point is that at many, and maybe soon, most airports, you will have some crosswind for every takeoff and landing because the runways all point the same way and it’s rare for the wind to blow right down the one and only runway direction more than a few days a year.
The eternal crosswind on modern airports has made for lots of great YouTube videos of airline pilots landing with fierce crab angles, tires smoking, airplane swerving to a stop. I’m not sure what begat what when it comes to airline jet crosswind landings. Did airport designers do away with crosswind runways because airplanes can land with a strong crosswind, or did airplane designers create airplanes with more crosswind tolerance because runway limitations demand it? Whatever happened first, pilots now routinely land with crosswind components that would have been unimaginable in the DC-3 days.
The reason I was thinking about crosswinds and how common they have become is because I wanted to land on Runway 27 here at Oshkosh the other day. I always want to land on 27, or the other way on Runway 9 because it is a very short taxi into the EAA Weeks Hangar north of the runway. It takes forever to taxi in from Runway 18-36. The wide separation between the two primary runways here at Oshkosh is unusual, and it is one of the many design aspects of the airport that make it work so well as host to AirVenture.
The wind was reported at 330 degrees, 14 knots, with gusts to 20, when the controllers told me to expect Runway 36. I really wanted to land on 27. I didn’t look up the actual crosswind component on the graph in my pilot’s manual, but I guessed that the angle was about two thirds of the way to a direct crosswind so the 20 knot gust would be a crosswind component of 14 knots, about two thirds of 20 knots. When I checked later the crosswind component in the 20 knots gust was more like 17 knots, but still well below the Baron’s demonstrated crosswind capability.
So, I thought, real pilots land in much more crosswind than this all of the time. The airplane can handle it, and after so many hours and years in the same airplane, so can I so I asked to land on Runway 27 and the tower approved. With flaps at approach instead of full down the landing was just ordinary.
Every airplane has a crosswind limit, and it can be very low in light taildraggers, for example, but for many of us a crosswind is just another day. And if airport planners have their way, the oddity will be a landing without some aileron and rudder action.