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The reason strong winds don't delay air travel as much as you might think

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Tom Grossman explains how different air flow directions affect an aircraft during takeoff and landing. (WWMT/Will Haenni)

Drivers heading home to get their fill of turkey and stuffing gripped the wheel a little harder Wednesday as high wind warnings and wind advisories blanketed much of the Midwest.

Warnings from the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids mentioned southwest wind gusts in excess of 60 mph and the likelihood of scattered power outages. To put those gusts perspective, a thunderstorm is 'severe' when it is capable of producing wind gusts 58 mph or stronger.

Despite intense wind gusts across much of the region, national flight delay information from the Federal Aviation Administration showed general arrival and departure delays were 15 minutes or less at all airports. The delays may come as a hitch to some, especially anyone a bit weary of air travel.

Tom Grossman, the executive director of flight operations at Western Michigan University's College of Aviation, said there are a number of factors that determine whether wind would delay takeoffs and landings.

"If you have a 10 knot wind and then all of a sudden shortly thereafter you have a 40 knot wind you end up with wind shear, and that's the biggest concern to the pilot," Grossman said.

The bigger the difference in sustained winds and wind gusts, the more difficult the pilot's job in controlling the plane.

While at cruising altitude, it's not unusual for an aircraft to travel through wind speeds over 100 mph, so it's not so much the wind speed but rather the direction and fluctuations in speed that have the biggest influence.

Aircraft typically take off and land by steering into the oncoming wind. This headwind causes more wind to flow over the wings and generates more lift. On windy days, a pilot's best option is to take off and land on a runway closely aligned to the wind.

"The challenge comes when you transition that aircraft from flight mode to ground mode," Grossman said. "The objective of the pilot is to minimize ground speed. They do that by flying into the wind but at the same time they have to be aligned with the runway."

Different aircraft are rated to withstand a certain crosswind component, there's a difference in regional and the commercial aircraft. Airport runways are laid out in a way to compliment the region's prevailing wind, but other runways may be utilized by air traffic controllers in order to limit the crosswind felt by the aircraft.

Grossman said if airports in the region were dealing with snow removal on top of the wind, the delays would be much more significant. That's because the ability to clear alternate runways is crucial on days where winds differ from the prevailing direction.

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