A thirty year mystery solved—icy runways and crosswinds

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Thank you Mac for finally resolving a perplexing mystery for me—after all these years! In the early 90s, our company purchased a TBM 700 to grow our business in North America. In addition to my duties as VP Sales & Marketing, I created the company aviation department and by default then became the chief pilot (a dream job by any stretch of the imagination!).

Not the best runway for ice and crosswinds.

Our airport at RIE (closed in 1996) had a very narrow (35 ft. if I remember correctly) 3,000 ft. asphalt strip with no crosswind runway. Typically, prevailing winds would be at their strongest and gusting from the north and west behind the passage of a cold front. Lining up on final (runway 36) during these challenging crosswind days taught me that I could land the TBM without diverting if I could track the runway centerline with rudder and aileron deflections at or close to their opposite limit stops on short final.

On the cold winter day in question, a significant ice storm had passed through the area the previous night and the modest airport had nada ice-mitigation capability while being reported as ice covered and slippery. I lined up with runway 36 as I had often done in the past, only to find that I had little to no control deflection remaining (full left aileron and full right rudder) with strong winds gusting out of 270 degrees. With a full cabin of customer-passengers in the other five seats coming for a two-day factory visit and tour, my macho, risk-tainted bravado at that time told me to press on with landing—which of course I did.

We touched down close to the arrival numbers as I had always prided myself in turning off at the 1,500 ft. ramp access with no taxi-back required from either end. The hair on the back of my neck erected instantaneously when I realized that the TBM 700 had become an unguided projectile skating down a 35 ft. wide strip of ice with absolutely no braking capability. Quickly realizing that I had irrevocably committed to this landing as we had become too slow to contemplate a go-around and yet too fast to activate reverse thrust (my mind and my hands were full!), we inexorably began to weather vane into the strong westerly wind while concurrently pointing (and inching) toward the huge snow banks piled along the west side of the runway.

For whatever unknown reason, I unconsciously reacted by hastily shifting my rudder and the ailerons to the opposite stops (full right aileron and full left rudder). In retrospect, my reflex reaction seemed more akin to driving a car on ice by turning into the skid, knowing that I had to “turn right” to stay on the narrow runway while skidding to the left. This reaction saved me, the airplane, my by now very humble demeanor, and a few very important customers from the deep and possibly catastrophic humiliation that would have occurred had I not reacted in that manner by shifting the ailerons to the downwind side.

I’ve contemplated, in private, this fortunate non-incident over and over in my mind for almost 30 years now without ever understanding why my contrary reactions on the controls that day saved us—until I read Mac’s column about crosswind landings in Air Facts! Mac speaks of momentum and mass aligned with the runway during crosswind landings which I did have (although barely by any measure), but his real nugget that helped everything fall into place for me was his comment about, “…rudder authority diminishing while slowing in a crosswind and pushing the tail away from the wind direction.”

Snow on runway

Icy runways are bad enough; add in a crosswind and things can get ugly.

At touchdown on ice-covered runway 36, I had the ailerons cranked full over to the left into the westerly wind while the rudder was cranked to the stops on the right side as we slid down the runway. As we slowed, the ailerons began to exert more directional authority (than the rudder), thus pointing us into the upwind (left) side of the runway. My kneejerk reaction to reverse the controls—with no basis whatsoever in training, experience, or otherwise—changed the slide trajectory of the TBM and its precious contents ever so slightly to the downwind side of the runway as we finally slid to a stop well past the 1,500 ft. ramp turnoff.

Based upon Mac’s exceptional insight in his article, I now realize that reversing the ailerons hard-over to the downwind side while sliding resulted in just enough aileron control authority to halt the westerly trajectory, thereby keeping me from catapulting off of the runway into an ignominious heap alongside (or even inside) an ice-covered snow bank. And I further surmise that even though reflexively positioning the rudder hard-over (to full left) into the crosswind at the same instant, that rudder control had further diminished as we slowed thus not able to point us back into the prevailing wind.

LESSON LEARNED: It’s very difficult to control an airplane on an ice covered narrow runway while landing in a strong crosswind!

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