Smooth takeoffs are great, as is a nice level-off precisely on the assigned altitude. A set of steep turns which cut the horizon precisely while maintaining altitude and airspeed could almost be construed as a form of art. However, in this writer’s opinion, nothing demonstrates a pilot’s skill as eloquently as a truly well-flown crosswind landing. Managing airspeed, altitude, lateral drift, longitudinal alignment and the roundout and flare, all incurring varying control movement requirements as airspeed decreases, all the way to a successful touchdown is truly a marvel, when done by a skilled pilot. Conversely, a crosswind exposes weak piloting skills immediately; even a slight crosswind can turn a reasonable flight into a clown show in no time: wallowing down the runway, attempting to “steer” the airplane with the ailerons, and merely hoping the airplane will somehow end up straight and centered generally yields less-than-amazing (although predictable) results.
I am of the opinion that, while it’s not a guarantee, a pilot who can land well in a significant crosswind (landing “well” here meaning the airplane tracking straight down the runway with no lateral drift, longitudinal axis aligned with and over the runway centerline, touching down on the upwind wheel first, and maintaining crosswind correction throughout the landing roll-out) is much more likely to be a skilful pilot in all flight regimes. On the other side of this coin, a pilot who cannot land correctly in a crosswind is missing essential technique and skill, which will bleed over into other operations requiring stick and rudder skills. The unfortunate truth is that if you can’t land well in a crosswind, you are simply not a very good pilot (yet). The good news is that we can fix it! Well, at least we can improve it and get you moving on your way to crosswind mastery.
So, what to do about this conundrum?
As uncomfortable as it may be to bring to light, it’s my opinion that poor crosswind technique is both the inevitable result of sub-standard instruction, and also is one of the more difficult bad habits to break, as it is ingrained from an early stage of pilot training. One tell-tale sign of a pilot is unlikely to be a crosswind star is a slight, unconscious “steering” of the airplane with the yoke during ground operations; through the taxi, turning onto the runway and even during the takeoff roll. Observed in all sorts of pilots in all sorts of equipment (including turboprops and jets), this tendency has never yet failed to indicate a pilot who is short on crosswind technique.
The pilot with poor crosswind technique either does not understand, or can not yet properly apply, effective control inputs to mitigate the effects of a crosswind on the airplane during takeoff and landing. However, it is likely that he or she can recite what the proper inputs would be, as if through rote memorization. So, what causes the disconnect between the simple description of proper technique in the textbooks and the application of these principles in the real world?
The answer, or at least one of the answers, is simple, but not easy to correct: a lack of proper separation between the yoke and the rudder pedals, and their functions. Our example pilot simply has not had enough training, or received poor training early on, in the proper use of these flight controls. Through poor practice and substandard instruction, a subconscious and insidious tendency to try to control the airplane solely with the yoke is born, and will propagate throughout our poor pilot’s aviation career. It’s evident in the unwillingness to accept a proper crab angle after takeoff, and the wallowing way in which the airplane is coaxed to fly approximate headings (precise control is unlikely). This poor unfortunately soul missed out on the benefit of a strong instructor early on. A solid CFI could avoid this troubling tendency in his or her students by identifying it early in training, and by focusing on it exclusively until it was mitigated. Dutch rolls, ground reference maneuvers, slow flight and proper stall entries all work to build a pilot’s competence in flying coordinated….but only if they are taught by a conscientious and detailed flight instructor. An instructor who is not truly invested in the student’s progress may not notice, or worse, may not care to correct a lack of aileron/rudder coordination.
Is there a cure?
Maybe. As with so many skills, the very best practitioners don’t necessarily have any secret techniques or tricks when compared to the beginner. They simply execute the fundamentals with extreme proficiency. There is nothing new in crosswind technology….it still works the way it has always worked. So, to improve your basics, you have to go back to the beginning, or what should have been the beginning:
Dutch Rolls: I have taught dutch rolls in everything from Cessna 150s to King Air 350s, and they are equally effective throughout the aircraft fleet in separating aileron and rudder inputs. To do them, place the nose on a visual point on the horizon. Begin to roll in left aileron; after the bank is established, the nose will start to follow to the left. Your job is to maintain the nose on your selected spot, by feeding in right rudder. Continue to apply these cross-control inputs until the rudder is on the floor, keeping the nose on the selected point throughout (while respecting any airplane limitations and maintaining a safe airspeed, of course). Now, begin to ease your control inputs back out, keeping the nose on the selected point on the horizon throughout. Eventually, the ailerons will be back to neutral and you can start moving them the opposite direction. Once you have practiced a few times, you should be able to smoothly transition from left aileron / right rudder to right aileron / left rudder, all while the nose remains fixed on your aiming point.
Students and pilots who are proficient at Dutch Rolls seem to have a much higher propensity to control the airplane all the way through the landing, instead of putting in crosswind correction and then “freezing” while they wait for the airplane to land. Good crosswind technique (and good crosswind landings as a result) come from pilots who know that the airplane only reacts to what they tell it to do, and who also understand that the slower the airspeed, the more control deflection is required in order to do the same work. So it’s not enough to input the proper correction once; the inputs must be varied based on the results achieved, and the control deflections must increase as airspeed decreases (as it does upon landing).
So, are Dutch Rolls the only option? Of course not. There are many other useful coordination exercises which will help with crosswinds; for example, low approaches in ground effect, Eights on Pylons and even Turns Around a Point can help. However, I have found Dutch Rolls to be the most applicable to crosswind skills directly.
So if you suspect that you may not exactly be Chuck Yeager when it comes to crosswind technique, go out and give some Dutch Rolls a try; you might like the results.