Wind shear is a sudden, drastic change in wind speed and/or direction over a very small area. Wind shear can subject an aircraft to violent updrafts and downdrafts, as well as abrupt changes to the horizontal movement of the aircraft. Today, we’ll go over the basics of this common weather phenomena, with excerpts from the new edition of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.
While wind shear can occur at any altitude, low-level wind shear is especially hazardous due to the proximity of an aircraft to the ground. Low-level wind shear is commonly associated with passing frontal systems, thunderstorms, temperature inversions, and strong upper level winds (greater than 25 knots).
Wind shear is dangerous to an aircraft. It can rapidly change the performance of the aircraft and disrupt the normal flight attitude. For example, a tailwind quickly changing to a headwind causes an increase in airspeed and performance. Conversely, a headwind changing to a tailwind causes a decrease in airspeed and performance. In either case, a pilot must be prepared to react immediately to these changes to maintain control of the aircraft.
The most severe type of low-level wind shear, a microburst, is associated with convective precipitation into dry air at cloud base. Microburst activity may be indicated by an intense rain shaft at the surface but virga at cloud base and a ring of blowing dust is often the only visible clue. A typical microburst has a horizontal diameter of 1–2 miles and a nominal depth of 1,000 feet. The lifespan of a microburst is about 5–15 minutes during which time it can produce downdrafts of up to 6,000 feet per minute (fpm) and headwind losses of 30–90 knots, seriously degrading performance. It can also produce strong turbulence and hazardous wind direction changes. Consider the figure below: During an inadvertent takeoff into a microburst, the plane may first experiences a performance-increasing headwind (1), followed by performance-decreasing downdrafts (2), followed by a rapidly increasing tailwind (3). This can result in terrain impact or flight dangerously close to the ground (4). An encounter during approach involves the same sequence of wind changes and could force the plane to the ground short of the runway.
The FAA has made a substantial investment in microburst accident prevention. The totally redesigned LLWAS-NE, the TDWR, and the ASR-9 WSP are skillful microburst alerting systems installed at major airports. These three systems were extensively evaluated over a 3-year period. Each was seen to issue very few false alerts and to detect microbursts well above the 90 percent detection requirement established by Congress. Many flights involve airports that lack microburst alert equipment, so the FAA has also prepared wind shear training material: Advisory Circular (AC) 00-54, FAA Pilot Wind Shear Guide. Included is information on how to recognize the risk of a microburst encounter, how to avoid an encounter, and the best flight strategy for successful escape should an encounter occur.
It is important to remember that wind shear can affect any flight and any pilot at any altitude. While wind shear may be reported, it often remains undetected and is a silent danger to aviation. Always be alert to the possibility of wind shear, especially when flying in and around thunderstorms and frontal systems.