My wife and I spent a wonderful evening with friends Saturday evening and then had to drive home north along Interstate 95. As we drove home steadily at 70 miles per hour, I looked up to my nine o’clock position high and noticed the position lights and rotating beacon of an aircraft which seemed to be flying in a loose combat spread with us. I could not believe someone would be flying so slowly.
“Maybe he is going slow because it is really dark up there and he is just being careful,” my wife joked. I was a little tired so it took me a moment to realize the poor Piper pilot or Cessna driver was bucking a major headwind. When I realized this, it made me think of Joe’s Maxim. I have long said that if I am the pilot-in-command or the one responsible for paying the fuel bill, there will always be a headwind.
Now, it does not matter if I had just fought a headwind 500 miles to my destination and it is time to return. Just prior to take off on the return flight, there will be frontal passage and I will have the opportunity to enjoy a headwind on the return trip.
The problem with headwinds is that they keep you flying at lower altitudes where the air is more prone to turbulence. A pilot could climb higher into smoother air, but then he or she has to pay the price of a higher headwind.
For the non-fliers reading this post, it really is a process of simple math. Assume your airplane is capable of flying at 130 miles per hour. Unfortunately, there is a wind blowing directly in your face at 50 miles per hour. Consequently, your groundspeed will only be 80 miles per hour. (130 – 50 = 80).
Occasionally, a pilot might “luck out.” Those are the wonderful times in which you are up there cruising along at 130 miles per hour with a 50 mph tailwind. (130 + 50 = 180)!
Now, instead of plodding along at 80 mph, you can be zipping across the ground at three miles per minute. You may even be able to fly this in the smooth air at high altitude.
Thinking back on a lifetime of flying, two flights stand out as remarkably fast trips. One was in a jet, so you would expect it to be fast, the other was in my little Cessna.
The jet trip was at FL 240 with 0.72 M showing on the airspeed indicator. With a jet stream pushing us along with 180 knots on the tail, we were well over 700 mph across the ground.
The Cessna flight came on a trip from Thomasville, GA back to Daytona Beach, FL. I was flying formation with another 170 and our trip back to Daytona was phenomenally quick. We shaved almost 45 minutes off a normally two hour flight.
As I recall, that was my one good deal for the entire decade of the 1990s.
© 2010 J. Clark