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If you've noticed how differently planes behave when in flight, you will probably have wondered if tailwinds make planes go faster.
Much has been said about tailwinds and headwinds, but what impact do they have on how fast a plane travels in flight? Do tailwinds impact ground speed or airspeed? These questions require answers.
Yes, tailwinds do help planes go faster. By pushing the aircraft forward, tailwinds increase ground speed by propelling it more quickly such that ground movement relative to the aircraft's air mass becomes irrelevant.
While that explanation simplifies the answer to this question, it doesn't end there. This phenomenon is much more complicated than that. For one, a plane is not an athlete. You might wonder, should winds even affect something this heavily built, like a Jetstream? Those are just some of the mysteries to be uncovered in this guide.
To unlock the key to finding answers to these mysteries, I'll examine key industry facts on tailwinds and flight speed. Then, to make these analyses more relatable, I'll break them down into everyday analogies to give you a perfect understanding of the subject.
What Exactly Is Tailwind?
To put it simply, tailwind is the wind coming from behind the aircraft and moving in the same direction as the plane. This is the direct opposite of a headwind, which is the wind blowing from the front of the aircraft against the direction in which it's heading. Both tailwind and headwind are significantly different from the crosswind, which is wind blowing sideways.
Why Winds Affect Planes
Winds are significant in aviation, but how important are they? Many people who travel on passenger planes usually fear the worst when facing strong winds. However, as crucial as winds are in the scheme of things, they rarely result in fatal accidents where commercial planes are concerned. Instead, the most common effect is delayed estimated flight time.
In extreme examples, though, for example, crosswinds blowing at 35-40 mph right angles in the direction of take-off or landing can cause a commercial flight to be delayed or even canceled.
However, with light aircraft, it's a different situation. Such planes are easily affected by gusts of winds due to their size, weight, and engine strength. As a result, they face more risks from the winds than commercial aircraft.
Sudden bursts of wind can cause changes to the direction in which a plane travels. They can be considerably dealt with by larger commercial aircraft, but smaller planes may not be able to carry out the sort of maneuvers necessary to overcome such situations. That's why it's not advisable to risk flying in such conditions.
With light aircraft, even tailwinds can become dangerous. Wind shears occur when tailwinds or headwinds suddenly move in a different direction. It would help if you got the plane back onto the right path in such a situation following the RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minima) principle. Inability to do so can result in accidents.
The key takeaway is that the impact of winds on planes varies from commercial to light aircraft. It also depends on their size, weight, and other specifics. Thus, it's not so much as the wind itself but in conjunction with other components.
Take Off, Landing, or In-flight: Where Are Tailwinds Most Effective?
Tailwinds are the most effective in-flight. This is where it can maximize its benefits as much as possible. With the wind from behind the plane helping propel the aircraft towards its destination, the plane's speed is significantly increased.
Here's one way to look at it. Imagine and compare two scenarios of an athlete running in the direction of the wind and against it— who do you think will be faster? Of course, the athlete running against the wind will find it more difficult.
For round trips, most pilots and air controllers find tailwind more favorable during the outbound flight than return trips. The absence of tailwind is mostly why an outbound flight is usually more extended and bumpier than its return flight.
However, the same does not apply to landing and take-off. Headwinds, not tailwinds, are generally preferred during take-off and landing. This is because they help considerably slow down the plane to generate the required lift or descend as slowly as possible.
To take off, the plane needs to generate a lift. The plane's engines are expected to produce powerful thrusts to create a lift. It's beneficial to the process that the airfoil finds opposition in front of it— in this case, a headwind. If it is strong enough, it will generate a lift easier than a plane running into tranquil air.
It's similar to landing. The pilot must move at a reduced speed to ensure the plane touches down with as little speed and friction as necessary. A strong headwind is essential to this. When the headwind is stronger than the tailwind, flights can land and take off on/from shorter runways. Also, you'll need longer runways when there's no headwind.
This is why airports are designed so that the take-off and landing runways are situated in positions encouraging solid headwinds. A typical aviation musing says that each knot of headwind reduces the runway length required by 1.5%. This goes on for as much as 20 knots of wind.
Tailwinds Impact On Ground Speed Vs. Airspeed?
A plane's speed is categorized into two— ground speed and airspeed. Groundspeed is an aircraft's speed in connection with the earth's surface, while airspeed is proportional to the air it flies in.
To simplify this, groundspeed determines how quickly an aircraft can get to its location, while airspeed measures the air around it and how much it can make it fly. So to find the ground speed of an aircraft, you have to sum up the wind speed and airspeed.
The effect of tailwinds on a plane is more ground speed than airspeed. With headwinds, the opposite is the case. Here's an example. A plane is cruising at a speed of 500 mph. It is expected to cover a distance of 2,000 mi.
Without any form of wind, ground speed and airspeed would remain fixed at 500 mph; thus, the flight will be expected to last four hours. However, if you add 100 mph headwinds to the equation, the plane will maintain an airspeed of 500 mph, but its ground speed will be reduced by 100 mph. As a result, the estimated landing time will now be one hour slower.
If you remove the headwind and add 100 mph tailwinds to the original equation, the airspeed will maintain its original value, but the ground speed will receive a boost of 100 mph. With the plane now traveling at 600 mph, it is expected to arrive in three hours, twenty minutes. That's nearly an hour short of the initial estimate of four hours.
This analogy explains why many air travelers go to lengths to avoid unnecessary headwinds and sometimes tailwinds. It is also why a plane can appear to be traveling very fast, yet the speed that matters—airspeed— is truly below par.
Before take-off, pilots must determine the headwind/tailwind constituent of local wind and the crosswind.
Besides Speed, How Else Can Tailwinds Help?
Having established how tailwinds help aircraft fly faster when in flight, we look at other ways tailwinds can help a plane.
Strong headwinds often cause flight turbulence, slowing the plane down and increasing flight time considerably. With little opposition to a flight, and a strong tailwind helping it on its way, the aircraft can travel as fast as possible and arrive at its destination in less time than expected. However, this might not always be a positive thing.
Less Fuel Consumed
When a plane is faced with little resistance during a flight, it shortens the flight time and allows the plane to take a breather. Moreover, with the plane in such a state, cruising on autopilot with minimal functionalities deployed, it automatically reduces fuel consumption.
This is in sharp contrast to a scenario where you battle strong headwinds and have to generate more powerful thrusts with the engine, leading to more fuel consumption. A potential downside to this is that if you arrive at the airport with too much fuel, you're unable to land.
When in-flight, reasonable tailwinds can help to steady the plane. With little or no headwinds to battle, it makes for a stable flight experience for passengers and crew.
A Pilot's Delight
No pilot goes into a flight hoping to spend the entire journey battling solid headwinds. Unfortunately, the reverse is usually the case. With good weather and steady tailwinds helping to push the aircraft towards its destination, you can concentrate on other aspects of the flight.