Headwinds vs. Tailwinds and How They Affect Flight

Headwinds vs. Tailwinds and How They Affect Flight

By on Mar 19th 2018

There are a lot of natural occurrences that can affect an airplane's flight. From geese and drones to snow and fog, a plane's takeoff or landing can be delayed.

But what about headwinds and tailwinds? One works with and the other works against a plane's flight. Ever wonder why, for example, a return flight takes either less or more time than it took to get to your destination? It all has to do with the wind.

How Headwinds and Tailwinds affect flight

Headwinds are what work against an aircraft because these winds blow against an aircraft's flight path. Planes flying against headwinds are essentially slowed down by that wind. Think about running into the wind: it's much harder to run into the wind than with the wind (more on this later). However, these headwinds assist with both takeoffs and landings because they help to create lift.

Tailwinds, on the other hand, work with an aircraft because they blow in the direction of the flight path. When a plane is flying with tailwinds, the speed of those winds is, in a way, added to the speed in which the aircraft is flying. This is what's happening when a return flight takes less time than the destination flight. Here, we're running with the wind.

Fun fact: Tailwind a woodchuck who disappeared during an attempted flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Read more here

How else does this impact flights?

While we cannot control the wind, we can use it in planning flight paths. It's not just about the speed a plane travels here. These also both influence planning and taking a look at jet streams (narrow bands of strong wind). Pilots strategically fly near or away from these streams in order to either use them to fly faster (saving time and fuel) or staying away from them so they aren't fighting to fly against the wind as much.

Air traffic control will typically monitor winds and use runways that provide headwinds for pilots. Flying into the wind for takeoff will help an airplane lift sooner than if it were flying through still air. Because the plane is flying against the wind, it will travel a shorter distance, therefore taking off faster/in a shorter distance. It will also lead to a steeper climb path which can help planes clear obstacles.

Learn more about how crosswinds affect landings in this post!

Landing into the wind helps in all the same ways-the plane will use less runway to land and it will get done at a lower speed. This helps with operations at the airport as the next plane can land sooner than if the plane before it was landing with the wind or with no wind.

It's amazing to take a look at everything that goes into planning a plane's takeoff, landing, and even flight path!


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