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Decisions, Decisions...

If you fly to an uncontrolled airport that has a single runway and that runway has a direct crosswind, which direction should you land?If you fly to an uncontrolled airport that has a single runway and that runway has a direct crosswind, which direction should you land? With a wind directly across the runway you must make a crosswind landing either way, so which way is best?

Plan A: Listen on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). There may be other airplanes already in a traffic pattern. You will want to join the flow of traffic so that the question of “which runway” is answered for you by the other pilots.

Plan B: If there are no other pilots, use a 'preferred' runway. Some airports always use the same runway when the wind is either calm or a direct crosswind. They use a preferred runway because it may have a larger clear area beyond the runway. This would give you better safety and more options in an emergency. A runway may also be preferred so that the airport can be a good neighbor. New home construction may be off one end of the runway, so we takeoff going the other way whenever we can. Call on the CTAF and ask if there is a preferred runway.

Plan C: If there is no preferred runway, choose the pattern that will provide a headwind on the base leg. There are some important reasons why...

  1. A tailwind on base means you will have a faster than expected groundspeed while on base. The time it takes to fly the base will be less and overshooting the runway centerline is likely.
  2. If you overshoot, there will be the temptation to steepen your base-to-final turn so that you can make it around on time. A steep turn increases the stall speed -- and you are already at a slow speed.
  3. The other temptation is to reduce the bank angle, but to push the nose on around with the rudder. This can set up the 'cross control' stall. You are applying rudder on the inside of the turn and aileron to the outside of the turn – the controls are crossed, and the airplane is uncoordinated. You are pushing your luck. If you stall like this a low altitude spin entry will follow and you might have a very bad day.
If you overshoot: The best thing is to make a go-around and be smarter next time. If you must accept a tailwind on base due to other traffic, the lay of the land or a preferred runway, you must anticipate the overshoot and lead your turn sooner. But if you have a choice, plan your pattern to have a headwind on the base leg and this will prevent the dangers that can arise from an overshoot.

Editor's note: The airline pilot's union announced in early July, 2000 that they will accept LAHSO requests, but only when the other aircraft is an airliner -- an interesting comment on their opinion of GA pilots.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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