Playing with the wind: The big circle

It is said that when making a round trip any wind is a disadvantage.  While you may have a tail wind in one direction, you will have a headwind in the other.  You will spend more time in the headwind then in the tailwind so overall, the wind will increase your trip time and increase your fuel burn.  I have found sometimes this is true, other times it is not.


Today’s pilot has powerful weather tools to help fly safely and sometimes more efficiently.  Now if your only going up for a few minutes perhaps it is good enough to just look up and decide if the weather is ok to fly. If you’re planning to be out for a while, a little research before leaving can cut your fuel costs and perhaps make the trip more interesting.  If you're planning a multi-day trip, learning what the weather is expected to be and keeping an eye on the weather during the trip is a must.


I use a variety of tools depending on what type of flight I am taking.  I always use the NOAA Graphical Forecast no mater what type of flight I am taking.  It is exceptionally easy to use.  It’s great for checking today’s “local” weather or examining the expected weather over a multi-day cross country adventure.


I also like Runway Finder.  You can check official aviation charts, Goggle terrain, Google Satellite, Goggle road maps, airport weather, terminal area forecasts, and airport information.  A simple route planer is also included for checking distances.  It also has links to AirNav for additional airport info including fuel info.


For detailed winds aloft data, it’s hard to beat Flight Path Tool. Once you learn how to use it, this is the tool that may let you beat the wind.


Last weekend I flew several hundred miles south then back north again.  I used flight path tool and noticed that the wind was blowing to the south at all altitudes.  By climbing up high where the wind was strong I was able to fly south with a 50 MPH tail wind.  This gave an average ground speed of 148 MPH with an average RPM of only 2,665.  On the way home I stayed down on the deck and suffered only a 10 to 15 MPH headwind.


Today’s flight was quite interesting.  I flew in a large circle for nearly 5 hours.  I covered 467 miles and had a good tailwind most of the day.  I got 25.9 statute miles per gallon while averaging 99.3 MPH.  Average RPM was 2,280.


“Flew in a large circle and had a tailwind most of the day”?  How is that possible?  This morning I noticed, while using Flight Path Tool, that the winds below 6,000 feet in north/central California were depicted as rotating in a large counter clockwise circle.  I simply flew the circle and sure enough, that is what I found.


And now for some pictures.


Here is the big circle I flew today

I flew over Travis AFB


New Bullards Bar Dam

Here is the fateful sight of my off-field landing a few weeks ago.  Yes I did land at the first available spot and yes, I was out of time (oil pressure) when I picked it

And finally I spotted this little lost 750 up in the clouds just south of Cloverdale.  The guy sure looks familiar.



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Comment by Tim Garrett on May 10, 2011 at 8:59pm
Steve, great story. I use Foreflight on my iPhone and now iPad for flight planning. It will do all the things you described and I recommend it.

My dad was stationed at Travis AFB in 1969 to 1971 or so. I was 10. The C-5 Galaxy was just becoming operational there and I watched them while riding my bike all around the base.

As always, great pictures!
Comment by Bob Pustell on May 10, 2011 at 8:40pm

Back in the Viet Nam era, I was in command of a USAF C-141A that got assigned a mission supporting embassies and such that essentially circumnavigated the Pacific Ocean, starting and ending in California. It took a week to make that loop, and just by unfortunate cooincidence of storm systems and weather fronts and their movement, we had a headwind all the way around. Every leg of that trip was a headwind. Good thing I was not paying the fuel bill personally! Fond memories (sort of).


Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking post, Steve.

Comment by Brad DeMeo on May 9, 2011 at 9:39pm
Great info, Steve.  Thanks for all of your adventures and writing.  It is very fun to read and very useful for all of us.
Comment by Stephen R. Smith on May 9, 2011 at 7:17pm

Well Shafid,

I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation.  See, you took off from Motueka “international” airport on runway 02 instead of 20, like you intended to, and then, you just kept going.  When you got north of the equator, all the high and low pressures were rotating in the opposite direction.  This probably disoriented you just a bit.  Heck it could happen to anyone.

But really, either you or Doug should change your paint scheme.  Otherwise how will the 601 pilots (who NEVER get lost) know how to tell you apart when you come drifting by, looking for directions?


Comment by Shafid Khan on May 9, 2011 at 6:53pm

I don't know how I ended up there Steve, I took off from Motueka, New Zealand for a short flight ???? Must be the wind. . .

Comment by Stephen R. Smith on May 9, 2011 at 9:38am

Hey, don't mention it.  I am always glad to share my wisdom, blarney and whatever else I am full of...



Comment by Doug Dugger on May 9, 2011 at 9:32am
Great flight steve i had no idea where i was those darn winds had blown me about 2 miles away from my home airport and without you and all your wisdom of wind and sky i might not have found my way home so tanks a lot.
Comment by Rebecca Anne Shipman on May 9, 2011 at 9:15am
Bullards Bar and the Marysville road - brings back the memories when I used to pedal my bicycle all over Northern California. I would like to get back to northern CA with both an airplane and my motorcycle, and enjoy the surroundings. Really looking forward to getting my zodiac finished and fly it to the west coast. Maybe next year sometime?
I like your attitude towards wind - I often try to figure out the best altitude for each direction. Since right now I'm just a renter, and the prices are wet, I don't go to any great efforts to minimize fuel burn, just time in the air.
Comment by Sebastien Heintz on May 9, 2011 at 8:28am
Great info and post!

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