What About Tailwind Takeoffs and Landings?
By Jason Blair, ATP, CF-I, MEI-I, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, AGI
Many CFIs and fellow pilots will extol the hard point, “you shall never take off or land with tailwind condition.” But, is it that hard and fast?
Yes, and no.
Some risks come with operating at an airport with a tailwind for either takeoff or landing. For sure. But in some cases, doing so might be mitigating other potential risks and in that case, it comes down to pilot decision-making. It is going to be up to the aircraft operator to evaluate if they should operate with a tailwind. Of course, if you happen to find yourself in a position where a tailwind is something you are considering for a runway, there is always the option of delaying to another day, especially for a takeoff. If you are already in the air, going to another airport to land may be the better option.
There are many reasons to avoid a takeoff or landing with a tailwind. These range from the fact that takeoff and landing distance requirements will be longer to reduced climb gradient due to higher ground speed over distance. Landings tend to float more; takeoffs take longer to get off the ground and increased stopping distances. With these considerations, pilots operating with tailwinds often try to rotate too soon, or might even force the aircraft into climbs that cause stalling conditions. During landings, they might be floating longer than normal and force the aircraft onto the ground before all energy is bled off for a full stall landing, which might result in a bounce, porpoise or worse. Even just landing too long can cause a pilot to over brake or even run off the end of a shorter runway. None of these things are good, and not having a good understanding of the dynamics of a tailwind takeoff or landing can lead a pilot to conditions that can become dangerous or cause damage quickly.
With that said I won’t be the person that says you should NEVER do a tailwind takeoff or landing. There are some cases to be made where, with proper mitigation and understanding of the risks and dynamics of performance happening, a tailwind takeoff might actually be safer.
Here are a few reasons some pilots might consider using a tailwind takeoff or landing.
One-Way-In, One-Way-Out Runways
There are definitely runways that you would consider one-way-in, one-way-out. You would land facing one direction, and need or be best advised to take off facing the other way. This might be something required for obstacles, rising terrain in one direction, or even in the event of an up- or down-sloping runway.
These considerations aren’t just ones that apply to backcountry or bush flying. There are lots of public, commonly used runways around the country that fall into one of these categories.
A couple of examples of these I have been into in my life include Granby, CO, and Culebra, PR. In the case of Granby, the 09-27 runway I have approached landing on runway 09, but taken off using runway 27 instead. This is a consideration I have made based on the fact that to the east of the airport if you were to take off on runway 09, there is significantly rising terrain. While Granby’s airport elevation is 8207’ MSL, there is ever higher terrain topping out well over 13,000’ MSL within 20 miles. Taking off headed west instead gives a pilot lower terrain over which a climb can be made before then turning back east if that is the direction they are heading.
In the case of Culebra, it is typical for pilots to approach the 13-31 runway and use runway 13 even if there is a slight tailwind. A shorter runway, 2600 feet long, it requires pilots to approach the runway over higher hills and descend steeply, even between a couple of hills, for the execution of a short field landing. Why the steep approach to a short runway over hills? Well, the consideration here is that if you need to go around, you will then be doing it over much lower water of the bay to the southeast instead of into rising terrain on an upsloping short runway. This consideration gives a pilot an “out” they might not have if they approached from the 31 end of the runway.
Obstacles on One End of the Runway or in the Airspace
Many times, pilots choose to use slight tailwinds to avoid having to take off toward obstacles. Those obstacles might be trees, houses, buildings, or even airspace in a particular direction.
There are a few airports that I have visited that are closely situated to neighboring airspace at which pilots will frequently use a preferred runway, even if there is a slight tailwind, to avoid encumbering or needing to talk to ATC in that airspace. I can see the logic here and have even done it a few times in my flying experience, but also advocate just talking to ATC instead if the practice will create any additional risk.
Obstacles are something else. They typically can’t be moved. Taking off or landing over obstacles can cause a pilot to need to adjust their normal flight paths and may actually be a greater risk than a slight tailwind in some cases. This is something you are going to have to judge based on the local characteristics, but it might be something a pilot considers a reasonable reason to operate with a tailwind.
Airport Noise Considerations
In a few cases, a pilot might choose to use a “preferred” runway at an airport for noise considerations. Many larger airports with busy airline operations have designated evening hours runways to mitigate noise to neighborhoods in the area. This can also be the case at airports that are closely embedded within residential areas.
When this happens, a pilot might choose to use a runway with some degree of tailwind component to comply with local noise mitigation practices. The type of aircraft you are using might also be something to consider here. Some aircraft definitely make more noise than others; some might not really even be noticed by local neighbors to the airport in a single takeoff or landing operation. That being said, I have gotten a letter in the mail once from a grumpy homeowners association because I took off on a non-preferred runway in a Bonanza at 11pm one night.
This is something to consider carefully, but not always a mandatory requirement that a pilot use a specific runway. Frequently, “preferred” runway use local policies are recommendations, not necessarily FAA requirements. Make sure that if you are going to disregard preferred runway operations backed up by a NOTAM closing a runway or other permanent procedures.
You wouldn’t want to choose a preferred runway for noise considerations if it was going to make your takeoff or landing unsafe, but you might choose to do this when such a choice doesn’t present a safety concern and risks can be mitigated.
Bad Reasons to Takeoff or Land with a Tailwind
There are also reasons that pilots takeoff or land with a tailwind that I don’t consider good reasons.
I have seen pilots get themselves into trouble using tailwind operations just because “it was easier and didn’t require them to fly a pattern.” Think about a pilot taking off on a particular runway because it will align them with the direction they will be heading, require a shorter taxi on the airport, or landing a particular direction because they can fly a “straight-in” approach from their enroute environment. This is kind of a lazy-pilot reason for ending up in a tailwind operation. The extra time that you might take to taxi to a runway more aligned with the wind, make a turn to get on course to your destination, or just fly the pattern to a landing might be the short little bit of extra time that helps you avoid some of the risks of tailwind operations.
Flying a pattern to a runway where a tailwind will be experienced commonly happens when a pilot approaches an airport and other traffic happens to be using such a runway. Periodically, this even happens at tower-controlled airports.
Perhaps the winds have changed direction over time, or an approach is being used to bring aircraft to the airport, but in either case it does happen that an “active runway” at tower-controlled airport is experiencing a tailwind condition. This is a great time for a pilot to request to use a different runway, one aligned with the winds, from the controller. Frequently, the tower controller will take note of this and even switch the operations at the airport to the runway now more closely aligned with wind conditions when a pilot makes this request.
When you are at an airport without a tower, you might just choose to delay your traffic pattern until other traffic is cleared. Communicate with them on the CTAF if there are any potential questions of traffic conflict, but don’t just follow the lead of another aircraft into using a runway that presents risks to your flight you can otherwise mitigate. You might even just fly around a little bit outside of the traffic pattern area to kill some time and let traffic clear if they will be using a runway you prefer not to use.
These are reasons that pilots sometimes use tailwind operations that can easily be mitigated by exercising pilot-in-command decision-making and mitigating risks. Operating with tailwinds in these cases isn’t a case of making a calculated, safety-oriented, risk-mitigating decision, it is being lazy. Don’t be that pilot.
While tailwind takeoffs or landings are not something that I will ever advocate as a normal procedure, there may be a time and a place in a pilot’s flying operations where they do come into appropriate use. If you are going to do this in your flying, don’t do it on a whim. Consider some training and some factors that might make your skill in the conduct of a tailwind takeoff or landing safer.
Some aircraft POH / AFM documents will even publish performance information for limited tailwind components. In these, they will typically increase required runway distances significantly. In absence of published data, I personally consider any tailwind component up to and including 10 knots requiring at least 50% more runway length than I would normally consider. I personally won’t do a tailwind takeoff or landing at anything over 10 knots of component.
Consider the strength of the tailwind, whether it is directly on the tail of the aircraft, or if it is a quartering component. Carefully evaluate if it is gusty or a constant wind. Think about the weight of your aircraft compared to the wind. A 10-knot tailwind in a Gulfstream V will have a very different effect than a 10-knot tailwind on an Aeronca Champ. Know what your aircraft is really capable of before you make a decision.
Even on a one-way-in, one-way-out strip, there will eventually be a calm day. Just because the wind seems to be driving a tailwind condition on a day, or for multiple days, you can always wait until the wind isn’t a factor and is calm. I have waited multiple days in a couple of cases in my flying career to get an aircraft out of a runway because wind conditions weren’t right on the originally planned days. It might mean getting up early in the morning or waiting until evening to get “the right conditions,” but that will always be better than forcing a takeoff or landing that might turn out less than favorable.
Never forget that not going is also always an option.
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Jason Blair is an active single- and multi-engine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 6,000 hours total time, over 3,000 hours instruction given, and more than 3000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. In his role as Examiner, over 2,000 pilot certificates have been issued. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations with a focus on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes over 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason has published works in many aviation publications, a full listing of which can be found at www.jasonblair.net.
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