Ask the Expert: Wind and Runway Use

Wind conditions have a major influence on where airplanes fly, how airport runways are used and even how airports are designed. The direction of the wind will ultimately dictate how often certain runways are used and which neighborhoods will experience overflights. Wind is often the main topic of discussion when we engage with residents. 

Dr. John H. Cain, Associate Professor of Aeronautical Science and Aviation Management at Florida Institute of Technology explains that wind has been a driving factor in aviation beginning with the very first flight.

"The Wright brothers selected Kill Devil Hills, NC for their first controlled, powered flight because of the predictable winds over the sand dunes. The brothers recognized that headwinds, i.e., winds blowing from the opposite of the flight direction, are highly desirable for takeoff and landing."

Dr. Cain has 24 years of experience teaching aeronautical science and aviation management programs. Cain is also a former United States Air Force Colonel and career fighter pilot and served as a "Top Gun" instructor pilot. 

According to Dr. Cain, "Headwinds reduce both takeoff and landing distances, contribute to better aircraft control, and lead to less noisy approaches and departures. Conversely, tailwinds, i.e., winds blowing in the same direction as the flight direction, dangerously increase takeoff and landing distances and these increased distances can easily exceed the runway length. Finally, crosswinds, i.e., winds blowing perpendicular or across an aircraft’s flight path present rather severe aircraft control problems for pilots in the landing phase of flight. Bottom line: Taking off and landing into the wind, i.e., a headwind, is an undeniable requirement for safer and quieter approaches and landings."

Winds can affect all aircraft in flight, regardless of size. A recent difficult crosswind landing in Germany involving the largest commercial service passenger aircraft, an Airbus A380, can be seen in the following video: