Air flows from areas of high pressure into areas of low pressure because air always seeks out lower pressure. The combination of atmospheric pressure differences, Coriolis force, friction, and temperature differences of the air near the earth cause two kinds of atmospheric motion: convective currents (upward and downward motion) and wind (horizontal motion). Currents and winds are important as they affect takeoff, landing, and cruise flight operations. Most importantly, currents and winds or atmospheric circulation cause weather changes.

Wind Patterns

In the Northern Hemisphere, the flow of air from areas of high to low pressure is deflected to the right and produces a clockwise circulation around an area of high pressure. This is known as anticyclonic circulation. The opposite is true of low-pressure areas; the air flows toward a low and is deflected to create a counterclockwise or cyclonic circulation. [Figure 1]
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 1. Circulation pattern about areas of high and low pressure
High-pressure systems are generally areas of dry, descending air. Good weather is typically associated with high-pressure systems for this reason. Conversely, air flows into a low-pressure area to replace rising air. This air usually brings increasing cloudiness and precipitation. Thus, bad weather is commonly associated with areas of low pressure.

A good understanding of high- and low-pressure wind patterns can be of great help when planning a flight because a pilot can take advantage of beneficial tailwinds. [Figure 2] When planning a flight from west to east, favorable winds would be encountered along the northern side of a high-pressure system or the southern side of a low-pressure system. On the return flight, the most favorable winds would be along the southern side of the same high-pressure system or the northern side of a low-pressure system. An added advantage is a better understanding of what type of weather to expect in a given area along a route of flight based on the prevailing areas of highs and lows.
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 2. Favorable winds near a high pressure system
While the theory of circulation and wind patterns is accurate for large scale atmospheric circulation, it does not take into account changes to the circulation on a local scale. Local conditions, geological features, and other anomalies can change the wind direction and speed close to the Earth’s surface.

Convective Currents

Plowed ground, rocks, sand, and barren land absorb solar energy quickly and can therefore give off a large amount of heat; whereas, water, trees, and other areas of vegetation tend to more slowly absorb heat and give off heat. The resulting uneven heating of the air creates small areas of local circulation called convective currents.
Convective currents cause the bumpy, turbulent air sometimes experienced when flying at lower altitudes during warmer weather. On a low-altitude flight over varying surfaces, updrafts are likely to occur over pavement or barren places, and downdrafts often occur over water or expansive areas of vegetation like a group of trees. Typically, these turbulent conditions can be avoided by flying at higher altitudes, even above cumulus cloud layers. [Figure 3]
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 3. Convective turbulence avoidance
Convective currents are particularly noticeable in areas with a land mass directly adjacent to a large body of water, such as an ocean, large lake, or other appreciable area of water. During the day, land heats faster than water, so the air over the land becomes warmer and less dense. It rises and is replaced by cooler, denser air flowing in from over the water. This causes an onshore wind called a sea breeze. Conversely, at night land cools faster than water, as does the corresponding air. In this case, the warmer air over the water rises and is replaced by the cooler, denser air from the land, creating an offshore wind called a land breeze. This reverses the local wind circulation pattern. Convective currents can occur anywhere there is an uneven heating of the Earth’s surface. [Figure 4]
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 4. Sea breeze and land breeze wind circulation patterns
Convective currents close to the ground can affect a pilot’s ability to control the aircraft. For example, on final approach, the rising air from terrain devoid of vegetation sometimes produces a ballooning effect that can cause a pilot to overshoot the intended landing spot. On the other hand, an approach over a large body of water or an area of thick vegetation tends to create a sinking effect that can cause an unwary pilot to land short of the intended landing spot. [Figure 5]
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 5. Currents generated by varying surface conditions

Effect of Obstructions on Wind

Another atmospheric hazard exists that can create problems for pilots. Obstructions on the ground affect the flow of wind and can be an unseen danger. Ground topography and large buildings can break up the flow of the wind and create wind gusts that change rapidly in direction and speed. These obstructions range from man-made structures, like hangars, to large natural obstructions, such as mountains, bluffs, or canyons. It is especially important to be vigilant when flying in or out of airports that have large buildings or natural obstructions located near the runway. [Figure 6]
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 6. Turbulence caused by manmade obstructions
The intensity of the turbulence associated with ground obstructions depends on the size of the obstacle and the primary velocity of the wind. This can affect the takeoff and landing performance of any aircraft and can present a very serious hazard. During the landing phase of flight, an aircraft may “drop in” due to the turbulent air and be too low to clear obstacles during the approach.
This same condition is even more noticeable when flying in mountainous regions. [Figure 7] While the wind flows smoothly up the windward side of the mountain and the upward currents help to carry an aircraft over the peak of the mountain, the wind on the leeward side does not act in a similar manner. As the air flows down the leeward side of the mountain, the air follows the contour of the terrain and is increasingly turbulent. This tends to push an aircraft into the side of a mountain. The stronger the wind, the greater the downward pressure and turbulence become.
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 7. Turbulence in mountainous regions
Due to the effect terrain has on the wind in valleys or canyons, downdrafts can be severe. Before conducting a flight in or near mountainous terrain, it is helpful for a pilot unfamiliar with a mountainous area to get a checkout with a mountain qualified flight instructor.

Low-Level Wind Shear

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. 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 Figure 8: During an inadvertent takeoff into a microburst, the plane may first experience 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.
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 8. Effects of a microburst wind
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.

Wind and Pressure Representation on Surface Weather Maps

Surface weather maps provide information about fronts, areas of high and low pressure, and surface winds and pressures for each station. This type of weather map allows pilots to see the locations of fronts and pressure systems, but more importantly, it depicts the wind and pressure at the surface for each location. For more information on surface analysis and weather depiction charts, see Chapter 13, Aviation Weather Services.
Wind conditions are reported by an arrow attached to the station location circle. [Figure 9] The station circle represents the head of the arrow, with the arrow pointing in the direction from which the wind is blowing. Winds are described by the direction from which they blow, thus a northwest wind means that the wind is blowing from the northwest toward the southeast. The speed of the wind is depicted by barbs or pennants placed on the wind line. Each barb represents a speed of ten knots, while half a barb is equal to five knots, and a pennant is equal to 50 knots.
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 9. Depiction of winds on a surface weather chart
The pressure for each station is recorded on the weather chart and is shown in mb. Isobars are lines drawn on the chart to depict lines of equal pressure. These lines result in a pattern that reveals the pressure gradient or change in pressure over distance. [Figure 10] Isobars are similar to contour lines on a topographic map that indicate terrain altitudes and slope steepness. For example, isobars that are closely spaced indicate a steep pressure gradient and strong winds prevail. Shallow gradients, on the other hand, are represented by isobars that are spaced far apart and are indicative of light winds. Isobars help identify low- and high-pressure systems, as well as the location of ridges and troughs. A high is an area of high pressure surrounded by lower pressure; a low is an area of low pressure surrounded by higher pressure. A ridge is an elongated area of high pressure, and a trough is an elongated area of low pressure.
weather theory of aircraft and Wind and Currents
Figure 10. Isobars reveal the pressure gradient of an area of high- or low-pressure areas
Isobars furnish valuable information about winds in the first few thousand feet above the surface. Close to the ground, wind direction is modified by the friction and wind speed decreases due to friction with the surface. At levels 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the surface, however, the speed is greater and the direction becomes more parallel to the isobars.
Generally, the wind 2,000 feet above ground level (AGL) is 20° to 40° to the right of surface winds, and the wind speed is greater. The change of wind direction is greatest over rough terrain and least over flat surfaces, such as open water. In the absence of winds aloft information, this rule of thumb allows for a rough estimate of the wind conditions a few thousand feet above the surface.