Headwinds On West Bound Flight Over Nebraska


On 10/15/07, we flew from Chicago to Orange County on an American Airlines 757 flight 1071. We knew the ascent after take off would be a little bumpy due to clouds and incoming storms in the area, but no one, including the pilot, apparently knew everything that was in store for us.

We were supposed to get to a cruising altitude of 34000 feet, but instead, the pilot couldn’t get past 28000 or so due to turbulence. Around 20-25 minutes or so after take off the pilot came on and said that we had encountered an “unexpected rather large unstable air mass” which was centered over Omaha. Since we were SW of there, he couldn’t figure why we were still getting thrown around so much. However, this wasn’t anything they hadn’t seen before and he was told once we got past Lincoln, we would be fine. The flight attendants were to stay strapped in.

I don’t know exactly where we were when it all stopped, but it was 90 minutes after take off before we stopped getting bounced around. The pilot came back on and said that we had unexpectedly encountered 140 knot headwinds that lasted longer than they thought it would once they discovered them. Apparently, no one had warned anyone else about them, although there were thunderstorms all across that part of the country. He apologized for the bumpy ride and said he would let us know our new ETA. He also said to watch the news that night because this was so large and unexpected. No news outlet we saw in L.A. that night covered it though.

As it turns out, we still landed on time. Looking at the flight tracker here, the pilot kept slowing down and speeding up, descending and climbing in an effort to get through the turbulence. I had a window seat, and more than once, when made myself look out, I could see the plane being forced a bit sideways as we flew along. As someone who is trying hard to get over a fear of flying, this was quite an experience.

One big question I have. Obviously we got through it, but at what point is is too much headwind? 140 knots seems like quite a lot to try and slog through. Thing is, once you’re up there, it doesn’t seem like it would be all that easy to land or turn back. Given the way we were being tossed around, it seems even a wide turn would be difficult to pull off. Does this happen enough to where it is considered just one of those things?


Not quite sure I understand your question, but what you describe sure sounds like a normal event in the world of flying, while more extreme then normal, normal in all respects.

By this, headwinds are a part of flying just as dense fog is a part of driving. Adverse weather can and will be encountered the further the distance you traverse. A pilot, just like a driver of a car just deals with the cards that were dealt to them.

For my little plane, too much headwind is when I don’t have enough ponies to progress forward. All kidding aside, I evaluate the time it takes for me to get to point A to point B.

If headwinds are 75 knots and I plan for 110 knots, that only gives me a 35 knot ground speed. Obviously driving will be in order since the car makes better forward speed. With jets, this headwind consideration will not be as “exponentially” large in time considerations.

While it’s possible, I personally have never heard of a flight cancelled due to too much headwinds, as different altitudes yield different ground speeds.

Also note, turbulence for the most part is predictable. The closer you are to the “jetstream” the larger the chance you will encounter turbulence due to the more extreme difference in windspeeds at relatively short distances.

Just sounds like your flight was near the jetstream. Looking at hpc.ncep.noaa.gov/dailywxmap … 71015.html I’d say turbulence is not a surprise considering the location of the low pressure.




I don’t see anything unusual on the track or time of your flight. It took alot less time then the one that’s about to land. West bound flights tend to be more bumpy. The only thing I noticed are some altitude changes from 320 to 280 to 240 then back to those and eventually up to 360. I’ve seen alot of flights on that track that divert all over the place for weather.

What they heck were you doing flying a 757 into SNA? Now that’s crazy!


There’s been 757’s at SNA since at least 1993, probably way before the. With the exception of some Fedex and UPS 767, A300, and A310 aircraft, the 757 is the largest aircraft operating into SNA.

The 757 is a good aircraft for SNA. It’s got a fairly large capacity and, in consideration of the stupid noise abatement procedures, ideally suited for the airport.


Nothing that unusal at all DonK58. The Jet Stream tends to move to lower latitudes this time of year and that in combination with an unseasonably strong weather system that moved across the central and southeastern states this past week, created alot of atmospheric instability. The captain most likely stayed at lower altitudes initially to avoid the even rougher air up higher that would’ve been caused by the horizontal shear of air moving at different speeds around the Jet Stream core pushing ahead of the weather front. The airplane would appear to be flying a little sideways as you mentioned to stay on course by turning into the wind a bit to counteract its sideward push. As for the “speeding up and slowing down” the track log just shows the speed moving across the ground. While the airspeed of the aircraft probably remained pretty constant, the groundspeed reflects the changes in the windspeed that was being flown through.

Once he settled in at 36,000 ft. further westward, and was flying on the backside of the frontal system, the wind became more of a direct headwind creating the slower ground speeds as indicated by the track log. Additionally, as you flew closer to southern CA. ATC may have directed the crew to fly at a slower speed for traffic sequencing into the busy socal airspace.

Just another day at the office for the crew. During preflight planning the crew works closely with dispatch to understand what weather conditions may be encountered to ensure that the worst of the weather can be avoided, altitudes are planned to account for the winds, that there is plenty of fuel on board, and that there are contingency plans for the unforeseen…While the conditions that were encountered were maybe a little more than expected, they were by no means unmanagable…


Way to reassure a fearful flyer there wazzu :stuck_out_tongue:


For a few of us on the flight, when you hear we’re flying directly in 140 knot headwinds you think we’re flying into 140 mph hurricane force winds and you wonder what you’re doing there. Keep in mind most people on a flight aren’t pilots, and more than a few probably couldn’t even explain what’s behind the concept of flight. So on the surface to the uninitiated, it’s seems like a pretty big deal.

For myself, as I learn more, this flight was a good educational experience, if you will. It amazes me what planes are able to handle. One question- one person on the flight (not me!), was concerned that the plane would be blown towards a vertical position or at least a 45 degree angle to the ground. Concerned enough to start saying it loudly, which did nothing to help some get through the bouncing. At the risk of really looking stupid, what are the chances?


Remember the environment you are in. No “friction” per se, just like a boat, you are in a fluid environment. Explanation in the simplest of terms, the airplane doesn’t care if there is a head wind or a tailwind just like boats does not care if there is a current in the water, only people care :smiley:

You are right, thus pilots use english friendly words such as bumps instead of turbulence, and descending instead of going down.

Modern technology at it’s best! It amazes me just on my lil ole plane what it can handle.

Anything is possible, but 45 degrees is not terribly steep.

60 degrees is considered steep by pilot standards. Soooo, steep is relative so to speak, so for passengers, yes you may feel like you are falling to the opposite side of the plane, but after all, that’s what seat belts are for. :smiley:

Hope this helps!



Just stop for a minute and consider the fact that the maximum ground speed your aircraft experienced was 471MPH. Ergo, the wind going past it at that point was far in excess of the 140KT headwind you experienced and no damage to the aircraft resulted. Flying in multiples of “hurricane force winds” is commonplace for modern aircraft.

A headwind can only hurt you to the extent that the pilot may fail to consider it when calculating the flight time and fuel requirement, or if the headwind experienced is greater than the maximum speed of the aircraft you’re flying you wind up going backwards!

Turbulence is a different matter entirely and is best given a very wide berth when possible.


Compare those bumps to driving a pick up down a farm* road. It’s usually not much different except we get used to the EXTRA smooth ride the plane offers most of the time.

*For those of you on the coasts, a farm is a place where real food comes from, things like vegetables, fruits, milk and meat. They have a lot of them in Nebraska. Sometimes you can spot them from the air. They look like big squares and circles, usually green sometimes brown or striped green and brown.


That’s basically what a Southwest pilot said to the passengers on a flight I was on from OAK to RNO: just consider yourself driving over a bumpy road.

I’ve been on flights from the mainland to Hawaii that were as much as an hour late because of headwinds.



…unless you’re in an Avanti. :stuck_out_tongue:


Where I’m from those things come from the store on the corner.

I’m kidding, I’m a farm kid.






Don I would have preferred to be in your place with all that power than in a Cessna 150 with a powerful tailwind - you feel like you are totally at the mercy of the wind & you wonder how in the heck you even manage to keep your wings stable or from flipping over & over & over like a cartwheel.

The only time I ever became somewhat unnerved in an aircraft. I kept looking down at all the little airports & grass strips wondering if we could/should land - I was right seat. To top it off we could reach no altitude that was not rough/turbulent & can you believe we stopped on our way home & ate Mexican food at KPNC/Ponca City Airport/Enrique’s - now that is pushin it somewhat but it was smoother from there to Wiley Post/KPWA.

I believe I would have rather been in your shoes than at the mercy of the wind in a C150 - all that power is so much more reassuring in the winds aloft (is that how you say it?).

Enrique’s: http://www.swaviator.com/html/issueSO02/Restaurant91002.html


CIMSS is a blog that dissects satellite weather photos, and they have all sorts of neat stuff.

The entry for October 16 shows where the weather you flew you flew through the day before ended up. I haven’t found a satellite photo for October 15, but I bet a nice mountain wave from the Rockies was washing across the Plains states that afternoon.



Just sounds like another day in good ol Nebraska :smiley:

Like every one else has been saying there isn’t much to worry about as far as being the passenger. I guess the pilot could have used a little discretion announcing the 140 knot winds.

DonK58 it sounds like you are getting a good understanding of how flying works. Personally I think the best way to get over the fear of flying is to understand the science of it. If you have questions on some of the things I’d be glad to explain details or get into the nitty gritty of things for you.