Wind shear is a change in wind speed and/or direction over a short distance. It can occur either horizontally or vertically and is most often associated with strong temperature inversions or density gradients. Wind shear can occur at high or low altitude.
Not all fronts have associated wind shear. In fact, shear is normally a problem only in those fronts with steep wind gradients. As with so many things associated with weather, there is no absolute rule, but a couple of clues tell you that wind shear may occur: • The temperature difference across the front at the surface is 10 o F (5 o C) or more. • The front is moving at a speed of at least 30 knots. You can get clues about the presence of wind shear during the weather briefing by checking these two factors. Ask the briefer and, if these factors are present, be prepared for the possibility of shear on approach.
Wind shear is just one of the many unpleasant aspect of thunderstorms. The violence of these storms and their winds are well documented. The two worst problems outside actual storm penetration are shear related. These are the “first gust” and the “downburst.” The rapid shift and increase in wind just before a thunderstorm hits is the first gust.
Gusty winds are associated with mature thunderstorms and are the result of large downdrafts striking the ground and spreading out horizontally. These winds can change direction by as much as 180 degrees and reach velocities of 100 knots as far as 10 miles ahead of the storm. The gust wind speed may increase by as much as 50 percent between the surface and 1,500 feet, with most of the increase occurring in the first 150 feet. The implications for a shear on approach in such a case are obvious.
The other wind problem mentioned previously, the downburst, is also downdraft related. It is an extremely intense, localized downdraft from a thunderstorm. This downdraft exceeds 720-feet-per-minute vertical velocity at 300 feet AGL. The power of the downburst can actually exceed aircraft climb capabilities, not only those of light aircraft, but, as is documented in one case, even a high-performance Air Force jet. The downburst is usually much closer to the thunderstorm than the first gust, but there is no absolutely reliable way to predict the occurrence. One clue is the presence of dust clouds, roll clouds, or intense rainfall. It would be best to avoid such areas.