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Is it possible to fly a plane backwards if you have a really really strong headwind? I mean when you are aloft, you have positive airspeed and airflow over the wings but you have negative ground speed.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, it's possible and I witnessed it with ultralights but you are missing two keywords steady and ** non-turbulent**, Otherwise a really string wind wind ill make you fly backward, upward, downward... $\endgroup$ – jean Jun 6 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ Backward with respect to which reference frame? $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag Jun 6 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ I some microlight pilots claim to have flown 'vertical circuits', taking off into a strong headwind, slowing on climbout so that they are pushed back along the length of the runway until they are in a position to make a very steep final approach $\endgroup$ – Dave Gremlin Jun 6 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ Prospective An2 owner detected... $\endgroup$ – Harper Jun 6 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ I once spent half an hour watching a raven doing this, apparently "just for fun". Start from perching on a stone wall, take off and climb at about 45 degrees going backwards, crab sideways at 90 degrees to the wind direction, then do a cross wind landing approach back to the starting point. It flew about 10 of these "circuits" before (presumably) it got bored and flew off somewhere else. $\endgroup$ – alephzero Jun 7 at 11:43

10 Answers 10

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Yes, certainly! If your airspeed is lower than the speed of the headwind, the aircraft will fly backwards relative to the ground. speed vector graph

Example videos:

However, note that headwind cannot cause a plane to fly backwards through the surrounding air. Constant wind does not affect airspeed.

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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely true. Considering now a takeoff condition the headwind is helpful to provide lift at takeoff, however it might be a very dangerous factor in case of wind shear. Imagine a headwind at takeoff that suddenly stops or changes direction you get into a perilous condition. In case of predictable wind shear conditions the flight is cancelled. $\endgroup$ – user40476 Jun 6 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ I think one of the first proofs of jet stream were discovered in such manner. $\endgroup$ – Giacomo Catenazzi Jun 6 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ "relative to the ground" is the key here. When I read the question, I thought the OP meant that the plane is flying backwards relative to the air - which would not be possible, except if the wing was reversed... $\endgroup$ – LinusGeffarth Jun 6 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ Important warning for the first video: start it muted! $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jun 7 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ @WGroleau Not necessarily, especially aloft. Winds aloft can be quite strong without being particularly turbulent. It's actually pretty common to have strong winds aloft and still have smooth flights. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jun 7 at 18:13
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Yes, I have done this many times in hang gliders, and at least once in a Cessna 152. In the latter case, the wind aloft was much stronger than at the ground-- it would be foolish to take off or even taxi in a ground-level wind strong enough to fly a light plane backwards.

You may enjoy this video of flight at zero groundspeed (I am not the pilot!) --

Note the lack of any obstructions that would create turbulence upwind of the glider. Also, the stable marine airmass, chilled from below by the cold ocean water, contributed to the smooth, gust-free conditions seen here. In many other situations it would be unsafe to maneuver near the ground at low airspeed in wind this strong.

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    $\begingroup$ I wasn't aware hang gliders are are also using pushback tugs :) $\endgroup$ – flawr Jun 7 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ In the UK this is called 'gale hanging', is it the same elsewhere? $\endgroup$ – Dave Gremlin Jun 7 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure Dave, that's a new one on me $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jun 7 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ @flawr Hmm... Since the hang glider's "landing gear" actually goes up onto the "tug" instead of using a towbar, does that make it a supertug? $\endgroup$ – reirab Jun 7 at 18:15
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Been there, done that. A poorly forecast cold front once had me flying backwards in a Cessna 172 over Altoona, IFR (instrument flight rules) at night. Center asked me several times to verify my heading. Then when it was clear to them, they asked me my intentions. I told them I had lots of fuel and could continue to wait things out for an hour or so. The winds let up in about 20 minutes.

The controller (and all the other big boys on center frequency) were kind of incredulous. The controller eventually gave me a EFC (Expect further clearance) time, which made sense.

On that trip the anemometer at Rocky Mount, NC broke at 140 mph, according to FSS (Flight service station). A secondary problem was mountain wave over the Blue Ridge mountains and to a lesser extent over Pennsylvania. That required a block airspace clearance because the updrafts exceeded my descent capability, and the downdrafts far exceeded the climb capability. There was however no problem maintaining the IFR (instrument flight rules) minimum altitudes and the MVA (minimum vectoring altitude) for center.

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    $\begingroup$ Must have been a rather interesting night! $\endgroup$ – Cpt Reynolds Jun 7 at 6:39
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    $\begingroup$ Pretty wild. As many folks may already be aware, one serious concern in an encounter with high-altitude wave is flutter, because succeptibility to flutter is basically a function of TAS, so staying below the ground-level Vne IAS won't always keep you safe. So there's a limit to how much you can prudently increase your airspeed for the sake of coming down. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jun 7 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ On that flight, the ride was smooth, but I reported the turbulence as severe, with a note that the ride was smooth. That got discussed a bit and the supervisor at FSS indicated that he thought that was the best way to report the ride. Vne was in my opinion not an option. I did not have a CS prop, and pulling power back to idle at -50F is not a good idea. So I kept about 1700 RPM, and had the VSI pegged at 2000 fpm. That was at least familiar territory. I had O2. $\endgroup$ – mongo Jun 7 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ Hi mongo, thanks for sharing your story. But I would like to ask 'IF'you are still flying backwards until you have no fuel, and there is no other places to land, what should you do? $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jul 18 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ BTW sorry for replying very late $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jul 18 at 10:18
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Yes. When aloft, an aircraft only cares about how the air is flowing over its wings; how fast the air is moving relative to the ground is irrelevant.

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Indeed. When I was a child in the 1960's I was fishing at a bridge off the eastern end of Isla Grande Airport (TJIG) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I saw a huge, dark and tall column of something turning and churning all the way at the other end of the airport, and flagged down a policeman walking his beat to tell him that I thought it was a fire. His eyes grew huge, grabbed me and ran for safety in the nearby Club Náutico marina building. It was a water spout -- a tornado coming in from San Juan Bay. I clearly remember seeing two aircraft trying to land on runway 27 and ending up flying backwards -- a PRANG Huey helo and a Cessna 172. One of them crashed somewhere else, but I don't remember which one or where. That was a sight I will never forget -- that and the one of my mom frantically looking for me because the spot where I was was now covered in zinc roofing.

At that same airport, many years later, I witnessed an Aeronca 7AC "Champ" trying to land in a strong headwind and coming to a dead hover over the water close to the runway 9 threshold. Try as he might, the pilot could not make any forward progress -- the engine was not powerful enough to develop enough airspeed. It was a very stupid landing attempt, IMO. He turned west and landed at Arecibo Airport (TJAB). Once the winds calmed he came back.

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Yes, if there are really strong winds, the aircraft can fly backwards relative to the ground, but never relative to the air. This is because an aircraft always needs a minimum wind flow over its wings in order to keep flying. If it's flying backwards relative to the air, there would be 0 flow or even negative wind flow over the wing.

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  • $\begingroup$ No, I mean that you are aloft, then you have headwind that is greater than the stall speed of the aircraft. You have positive airflow over the wing. Please check the meaning of 'airspeed' and 'ground speed' in aviation. But anyways, thanks for trying to help me. $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jun 7 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ @LeonardTan: "Please check the meaning of 'airspeed' and 'ground speed' in aviation." – This is the second comment in which you are assuming that the people on this site don't know what airspeed and ground speed are, yet, the question makes no mention of airspeed and ground speed, so they are completely irrelevant. $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag Jun 7 at 4:47
  • $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag I edited my question. Is it Okay now? If it is still not okay, you can edit my question. $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jun 7 at 7:22
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This can happen with a glider (sailplane) winch-launching into a strong wind. Once the glider is airborne, and up into the faster wind, the winch can be slowed to a stop, and even payed-out again. For obvious reasons, this is called 'kiting', or a 'kite launch'. Some pre-planning or radio communication between the winch driver and pilot is useful to get the maximum height out of this manoeuvre.

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  • $\begingroup$ I tried that once (winch launch in strong winds), miscalculated when returning and darn near landed in the trees just before the field threshold. $\endgroup$ – Juan Jimenez Jun 6 at 16:21
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Is it possible to fly a plane backwards if you have really really strong headwind

Definition of "fly backward": "tail facing direction of travel".

Yes, it's possible, even with a fast plane (jet) and light headwind; easier vertically.

Proof:

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  • $\begingroup$ thanks for your answer. My meaning of 'flying backward' means you have the airspeed and positive airflow but the ground speed is backwards. Please check the meaning of 'airspeed' and 'ground speed' in aviation. But anyways, your videos are cool thx! $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jun 7 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ @LeonardTan I hope that your question isn't a duplicate of this with the exception of the difference in speed (zero vs. backwards). Relative velocity but I wanted to clarify (for any naysayers) that I mean moving backwards as opposed to answer at Wikipedia. Glad you enjoyed the videos. I've seen a jet fly 15 feet above the ground forward (slowly) and backwards doing a tail stand but wasn't able to find an example video in the time available. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jun 7 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ youtube.com/watch?v=B0mcZEnnK_U $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jun 7 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ youtube.com/watch?v=fr1Jl1jwLDg $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jun 7 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ Above are some example videos $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jun 7 at 2:23
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It's not related to groundspeed as is being upvoted as groundspeed is simply the byproduct of the event.

IF the headwind is greater than the windspeed needed to create lift and no further propulsion is provided the aircraft will move backward while flying.

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No. The question asks "Is it possible to fly a plane backwards...", to which the answer is no, for all conventional aircraft (those that depend on airflow over the wing). Every answer including the word "yes" then goes on to talk about motion over the ground. Why? The aircraft is flying through the air and has absolutely no relation to the ground. The question did not ask about ground motion.

For anything flying in a steady wind, there is no such thing as wind. It is impossible for the aircraft to be affected by the wind, nor for any person or device in that aircraft to detect that wind, without an external frame of reference (observing ground motion, navigation equipment, stars...). The ground is moving relative to your flight path, yes, but you're not on the ground.

In a steady wind: You are flying in still air. The still air in which you are flying, is moving over the ground.

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    $\begingroup$ Normally you want to fly from point A to point B, flying backward in the question, obviously means moving away instead of getting closer to the destination, and this is true. $\endgroup$ – user40476 Jun 6 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ The term headwind implies ground as reference. $\endgroup$ – bogl Jun 6 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ @a.out yes you are right. In the terms of headwind is that there is no relationship to the ground. $\endgroup$ – Leonard Tan Jun 7 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ It's important to make a clear distinction between flying (through the air) and tracking (over the ground). Wind affects the latter but not the former. To mix the two terms feeds the misconception, widely held by the public and even by some pilots (and the downvoters), that wind somehow affects flight: the dreaded, and mythical, "downwind turn". So in absence of a reference to the ground in the original question (which has since beed edited by the OP to include it), the answer is "no". $\endgroup$ – a.out Jun 7 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ Downvoting because OP was in fact talking about ground speed, and "no such thing as wind" and saying wind doesn't "affect the flight" is way oversimplifying the question of reference frames. In everyday situations there are lots of concerns like winds aloft, gusts, windshear, sideslip and navigation concerns where insisting on everything in wind frame doesn't make sense. It's like saying we can't mention a "stall speed" when talking about stall, or saying either rotating reference frame or an inertial frame is superior for questions on wing loading in turns or the Coriolis effect. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Jun 8 at 0:47

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