The Impact of Wind Speed on Airplane Navigation

Effect of wind

As discussed in the study of the atmosphere, wind is a mass of air moving over the surface of the Earth in a definite direction. When the wind is blowing from the north at 25 knots, it simply means that air is moving southward over the Earth’s surface at the rate of 25 nautical miles (NM) in 1 hour.

Under these conditions, any inert object free from contact with the Earth will be carried 25 NM southward in 1 hour. This effect becomes apparent when such things as clouds, dust, and toy balloons are observed being blown along by the wind. Obviously, an airplane flying within the moving mass of air will be similarly affected. Even though the airplane does not float freely with the wind, it moves through the air at the same time the air is moving over the ground, thus is affected by wind. Consequently, at the end of 1 hour of flight, the airplane will be in a position which results from a combination of these two motions:

  • the movement of the air mass in reference to the ground,
  • and the forward movement of the airplane through the air mass.

Actually, these two motions are independent. So far as the airplane’s flight through the air is concerned, it makes no difference whether the mass of air through which the airplane is flying is moving or is stationary.

A pilot flying in a 70-knot gale would be totally unaware of any wind (except for possible turbulence) unless the ground were observed. In reference to the ground, however, the airplane would appear to fly faster with a tailwind or slower with a headwind, or to drift right or left with a crosswind.


Figure 1: Motion of the air affects the speed with which airplanes move over the Earth’s surface. Airspeed, the rate at which an airplane moves through the air, is not affected by air motion.

As shown in figure 1, an airplane flying eastward at an airspeed of 120 knots in still air, will have a ground speed exactly the same—120 knots. If the mass of air is moving eastward at 20 knots, the airspeed of the airplane will not be affected, but the progress of the airplane over the ground will be 120 plus 20, or a ground speed of 140 knots. On the other hand, if the mass of air is moving westward at 20 knots, the airspeed of the airplane still remains the same, but ground speed becomes 120 minus 20 or 100 knots.
Assuming no correction is made for wind effect, if the airplane is heading eastward at 120 knots, and the air mass moving southward at 20 knots, the airplane at the end of 1 hour will be almost 120 miles east of its point of departure because of its progress through the air. It will be 20 miles south because of the motion of the air. Under these circumstances, the airspeed remains 120 knots, but the ground speed is determined by combining the movement of the airplane with that of the air mass. Ground speed can be measured as the distance from the point of departure to the position of the airplane at the end of 1 hour. The ground speed can be computed by the time required to fly between two points a known distance apart. It also can be determined before flight by constructing a wind triangle, which will be explained later on this page.


Figure 2: Airplane flightpath resulting from its airspeed and direction, and the windspeed and direction.

The direction in which the plane is pointing as it flies is heading. Its actual path over the ground, which is a combination of the motion of the airplane and the motion of the air, is track. The angle between the heading and the track is drift angle. If the airplane’s heading coincides with the true course and the wind is blowing from the left, the track will not coincide with the true course. The wind will drift the airplane to the right, so the track will fall to the right of the desired course or true course.


Figure 3: Effects of wind drift on maintaining desired course.

By determining the amount of drift, the pilot can counteract the effect of the wind and make the track of the airplane coincide with the desired course. If the mass of air is moving across the course from the left, the airplane will drift to the right, and a correction must be made by heading the airplane sufficiently to the left to offset this drift. To state in another way, if the wind is from the left, the correction will be made by pointing the airplane to the left a certain number of degrees, therefore correcting for wind drift. This is wind correction angle and is expressed in terms of degrees right or left of the true course.


Figure 4: Establishing a wind correction angle that will counteract wind drift and maintain the desired course.

To summarize

1. Course :- is the intended path of an airplane over the ground; or the direction of a line drawn on a chart representing the intended airplane path, expressed as the angle measured from a specific reference datum clockwise from 0° through 360° to the line.

2. Heading :- is the direction in which the nose of the airplane points during flight.

3. Track :- is the actual path made over the ground in flight. (If proper correction has been made for the wind, track and course will be identical.)

4. Drift angle :- is the angle between heading and track.

5. Wind correction angle :- is correction applied to the course to establish a heading so that track will coincide with course.

6. Airspeed :- is the rate of the airplane’s progress through the air.

7. Ground speed :- is the rate of the airplane’s in-flight progress over the ground


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