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May 11, 2018

Crabbing and Slipping: How Pilots Land in Crazy Crosswind

It’s hard to image what it would feel like to land an airplane on a runway with crazy crosswind. Take a look at this video from Germany, shot during the powerful storm to hit the country in over a decade. Winds reached 86 miles per hour.

That’s extreme crosswind, and the pilots certainly were not enjoying themselves much more than their passengers. As for your garden-variety crosswind, however, pilots actually don’t mind it much at all. Turns out they downright enjoy it. There’s no way around crosswind, really. In the air pilots can avoid turbulence by rerouting. The runway can’t be rerouted. It is where it is.

When there’s a lot of crosswind on the runway, pilots either have to land, wait for conditions to improve, or divert to a nearby airport. Landing is the most common solution, and that’s thanks to two skills called crabbing and slipping that make even landings that seem dangerous a piece of cake for a seasoned pilot.

To ‘crab’ is to point the nose of the plane into the wind, either to the right or the left. The plane flies sideways, similar to how a crab walks. When the pilot is around 100 feet from the ground but before they lift the nose , they ‘slip’ using the rudder pedals to swing the fuselage back parallel with the runway. Then they use the ailerons on the wings to bank the aircraft to the left or right. Different planes are cleared to land at different maximum crosswind speeds.

Pilots practice crabbing and slipping so much right from their earliest days in a cockpit that dealing with crosswind during landing is second nature. They hardly have to think about it. Some crosswinds are simply too extreme for any planes to land in, of course, which explains why storms sometimes cancel thousands of flights at a time.

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