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When you're training for a new certificate or rating, you practice. A lot. And whether that practice is short-field landings for your private pilot checkride, or full-procedure ILS approaches for your instrument rating, you usually get to point where you feel like you can do them in your sleep.
But after you pass your checkride, how often do you practice maneuvers and procedures? The reality for most pilots is "rarely". That's not to say you aren't learning when you fly. Flying cross-countries and taking passengers on flights from A to B is always a learning process. But those raw stick-and-rudder and procedural skills fade over time without practice.
When you look at accidents in general aviation (GA), it's often the basics that get pilots into trouble. And when you look at the stats, a higher-than-normal crosswind on landing is often times all it takes to cause problems.
According to the FAA, the #4 most common cause of accidents in GA is low altitude operations, and the #1 cause is loss of control in flight. Unfortunately, crosswind landings put you in the bullseye for both of those operations.
Take this landing accident, for example:
The private pilot reported that, just before touchdown while conducting a personal flight, the airplane encountered a wind gust that pushed it sideways toward the grass adjacent to the runway. The airplane subsequently landed hard, which resulted in substantial damage to the wings and fuselage. The weather conditions reported at the airport included wind from 50 degrees off the runway heading at 9 knots gusting to 19 knots. The pilot reported no abnormalities with the flight control system. Based on the available information, it is likely that the pilot failed to maintain airplane control while landing with a gusting crosswind.
The winds weren't light, but they weren't unusually high either. They were 50 degrees off the runway, 9 knots gusting to 19. But it was enough to catch the pilot off-guard.
Could the same thing happen to you? When's the last time you practiced crosswind landings? What's your personal limit for crosswind? And do you remember how to calculate crosswind component in your head? (30 degrees off the runway is approximately 50% the wind velocity, 45 degrees is about 75% the velocity, and 60 degrees is almost 100% the wind velocity).
If you don't live in a windy area, it's easy to get rusty on crosswind landings. And crosswind touchdown technique isn't the only thing you might feel rusty on. Not having enough wind correction in the pattern can lead to problems, and going-around can be dicey too, if you haven't practiced it in awhile.
So what's the solution? It's pretty simple: practice. The next time the winds kick up, head out and practice some patterns. Start with the landings themselves, because that's usually the area that suffers with time quicker than anything.
If you aren't comfortable handling the winds on your own, grab an instructor. They aren't just an extra set of eyes in the cockpit, they can also help you pick out bad habits you might have picked up along the way, and give you some tips to improve your landings (after all, who doesn't want better landings?)
Once you've done that, spend time on the other problem areas, like getting slow in the pattern. When's the last time you practiced stalls? With a few repetitions, you'll refresh yourself on the warning signs of a stall: buffet, control mush, and the stall warning horn. And, you'll knock the rust off your recovery technique as well.
And finally, practice a few go-arounds. Remember that when you start your go-around, you might not start climbing immediately, especially on a hot, high density-altitude day. That's why it's so important to stay on runway centerline during your go around, so if you do touch down, you hit the runway, and not the grass (or whatever else) is next to the pavement.
It's a new year, and part of your resolution for 2017 should be to stay sharp on one of the biggest problem areas in GA. So get out there, practice up, and keep your patterns and landings looking good, no matter where the wind is blowing from.
Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.