Cutting It Short

Rear cockpit.


Recidivist readers will recall last month I went on a bender over a breeze in Mojave and how a single chock saved the day. That is, in a steady 35-mph wind gusting well over 40 mph, a single chock proved sufficient to hold my otherwise untethered Starduster from wandering off on its own unsupervised investigation of the Mojave Air & Space Port.
I’m sure readers in the Midwest and other windy climes were amused by my recounting of just how much power the wind has. After all, a 35-mph blow is just another day in many parts of the country, and to hear one of those pampered West Coast softies caterwaul about a blustery afternoon is to be reminded of just how characterless fair-weather people can be. And to think we don’t get any snow, either.

Mojave airport aerial image
Seen from somewhere around the Starduster’s service ceiling, the Mojave Air & Space Port obviously offers more than generous takeoff opportunities, especially when pointed into a 35-knot breeze. (Photo: NASA)

There’s some truth in all that, as is my thought that one of the most two-edge developments in aviation was the invention of the runway. By designating a narrow strip as The Place for departing and, most significantly, alighting, we’ve boxed ourselves into a narrow bit of the compass with sometimes disastrous consequences.

Now, it’s true we get a lot fewer cow patties on our loafers these days and an A380 Airbus would require an exceptionally large pasture, but without the benefit of a square field we’ve invented and empowered that great evil, the crosswind. Early aviators didn’t much know about crosswinds as they had any point on the compass at their disposal, along with dirt to dig their tail skid into. Just think, brake and directional control all in one hickory stick. But today we have hard narrow strips and many fewer cows to work with.

And so we arrive at another point of the event recounted in last month’s column. The wind, strong and steady as it was, was blowing at 270 or a touch more north. The runway available was 26, so not much of a crosswind at all. We may not have had a square field to work with, but the bit we did have was at least favorably aligned.

Let’s also note the asphalt Runway 26 at Mojave is 7049 feet long and 100 feet wide, sufficient to get a three-cylinder Lancair off the ground on a hot day while carrying full fuel and president Taft. Add in 35 knots of free headway and it’s clear nothing short of a cement 747 was going to need much runway that day.

So, why in tarnation was everyone taxiing downwind about a mile to put the full length of the runway in front of them? I’m pretty big about the air above me and the runway behind me doing me no good, but really, taxiing in a windstorm had to hold more issues than giving up some of that 7000 feet.

Or maybe it didn’t. Klaus Savier, all around smart dude, the big spark at Light Speed Engineering and there that day piloting one of his two Rutan-design canards says his VariEze is “incredibly good” in crosswinds, and his Long-EZ almost as good except it has a lower wing loading and so is slightly more wind sensitive. Aside from getting the ailerons blown back and forth some in the downwind taxi, it was not that big a deal to the canard crowd.

I’m already on record as saying my Starduster Too Heavy (540 engine, three-blade aluminum prop, full interior and my expense-account fed corpus) was also easily controllable, except anytime I was cross to the wind it took about as much brake, power and rudder as either I had or wanted to use. It did, in fact, near uncontrollably weathervane toward a couple getting into their low-wing whatever as I went catawampus to the wind across the ramp. Big blasts of 540 power put me back on the path of righteousness.

On the other hand, I’m still thumbing rosary beads in thanks I hadn’t taken the Cessna 140A we also have in the hangar to Mojave that day. It’s got the wing loading of a sheet of paper, sproings on springy steel gear that drives like a pair of knock-kneed pogo sticks and, in sympathy with seemingly the rest of the general aviation fleet, is criminally underpowered. It’s a wonderful little airplane but can be overmatched by a mad house fan.

But I digress. As I sat there ready to call ground for taxiing, I knew he was going to tell me to go all the way to Barstow before turning around and facing the wind. And that I should tell him no, I want to go either from the closest runway access or even right from the ramp (pretty much SOP at Mojave on windy days). A helicopter took off just in front of me on the ramp; no reason I couldn’t too except it was admittedly still a little too populated right when I was ready to go.

But I didn’t say any of that. Figuring it wasn’t that windy (maybe) and how the controller fired off his instructions to me like an MG42 with a hot barrel and how I could see a regular parade of canard things wiggling their way to the end of the taxiway, I figured I would go ahead and be a good Cub Scout and get in line. So I did, and yep, used far less than 100 feet of that 7000 available to get airborne.

So here’s the point. Why didn’t someone else early on ask for an abbreviated-length takeoff and set a precedent? Why didn’t I? Or even better, how come the controller can’t volunteer the option? We know why—because if something goes wrong then somehow in court it’s the controller’s fault. That’s just dumb as under the conditions an abbreviated-length takeoff would have alleviated some definite taxiing risks for a minuscule increase in takeoff risk. And besides, we’re still the pilot in command, so even if we’re reminded—in a neutral way—that it’s legal to request an abbreviated length takeoff, it’s still up to us to make the decision and take the consequences.

Next time I’ll at least ask for the short taxi option. For now I’m reasonably at peace with my decision to make like a lemming and go with the crowd. It was fine windy-day practice, but I don’t necessarily feel like doing it again. Furthermore, there are plenty of low-wing-loading aircraft in the Experimental ranks, and it’s reasonable to assume they may not have such benign high-wind manners as the Long-EZs and one Starduster at Mojave that day. It would be good to keep in mind all your options in such an airplane when the wind blows.

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Tom Wilson
Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.


  1. Every instructor tells me to use the full available Runway length! The FAA and AIM seem to strongly encourage the same attitudes. If the engine quits it’s Monday morning quarterbacking nontheless!


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