When flying, one thing that crosses most peoples’ minds is the risk of a thunderstorm occurring.
But what about taking off in a thunderstorm?
You may be surprised to hear this, but taking off - or landing - in a thunderstorm is more dangerous than flying through one.
A thunderstorm is far more likely to delay your take-off or landing than it is to cause turbulence while the plane is cruising, as it makes it more difficult for the aircraft to climb or descend.
On the other hand, flying through a thunderstorm is unlikely to cause issues (other than a few bumps).
So what about other weather conditions?
In this article, we’ll be discussing some of the adverse weather conditions and the extent to which these impact a plane’s ability to take-off, fly, or land.
Are updrafts dangerous?
Updrafts are upward-moving air currents that can be the result of several causes. The heating of the ground can sometimes increase surface air temperature, which becomes much warmer than the air above, and, because warmer air is less dense, it rises easily and gets replaced by descending cooler air.
This causes a vertical ascending current - known as a thermal - which is capable of reaching altitudes of 3 km (2 miles) or more. The greater the thermal’s radius, the higher it will rise.
Updrafts and downdrafts can also be a result of thunderstorms, with updrafts usually present early on in the storm’s development, during which warm air rises to the level at which condensation begins and precipitation is formed.
Updrafts can be dangerous for planes, as when the updraft comes into contact with the aircraft it can push it upwards, and in some cases will cause it to reach dangerous altitudes.
Because updrafts have the potential to put a plane’s safety in jeopardy, usually flights are canceled if very bad thunderstorms occur.
Can a plane fly through a storm?
Modern aircraft are equipped to handle all kinds of weather, and most thunderstorms will not cause too much risk to a cruising plane - whether it features heavy rain, lightning strikes, or high-speed winds.
Many people have a major fear about their plane being struck by lightning, however, most commercial aircraft have been struck by lightning at least once, and these planes are designed to be fortified in the areas the lightning tends to strike - such as the tails and wingtips - so they’re usually able to distribute the charge from a lightning strike.
Contrary to what you might think, rain, wind, ice, and snow can pose a greater threat to a plane than lightning, while tornadoes and other cyclonic activity can also be dangerous.
Thunderstorms, however, are far more likely to delay your take-off or landing than they are to cause turbulence to your actual flight, as modern planes are equipped to handle thunderstorms - as is your expertly-trained pilot.
Can planes fly in heavy rain?
Aircraft are ‘lifted’ through the design of their wings and engines, which allow the plane to move upward off the ground by changing the direction and pressure of the air. Generally speaking, rain doesn’t affect this process, and so in most cases, planes can fly in the rain with no issue.
The other thing to consider is that most rain occurs at lower altitudes in the atmosphere, and therefore even if the weather is wet on the ground, this is less likely to impact the aircraft when cruising at altitude, which is approximately 35,000 ft.
When it comes to heavy rain, the issue is not so much as to whether the plane can fly, but more so a question of visibility and auxiliary weather conditions. Very heavy rain can impair the pilot’s visibility, which may mean it’s unsafe for them to take off. In very rare circumstances, heavy rain can also trigger a “flameout” in the plane’s engine, though this can usually be re-ignited.
Rain that falls at high altitudes poses more of a risk to aircraft, as this occurs when temperatures are much colder than at ground level, which can cause rain to freeze on a plane’s wings in rare circumstances. This poses the risk of a stall, meaning a reduction in lift, that, if not regained, can cause the plane to fall from the sky - though like we said, this is very rare.
Is it safe to fly in bad weather?
It would take a lot to bring down a plane, but nonetheless, precautions have to be taken when it comes to bad weather. It’s also worth remembering that air traffic controllers will always direct aircraft above or around severe storms so they can avoid substantial turbulence or any potential damage to the plane.
The risk of flying in bad weather largely depends on the type of weather - and its severity, as generally, aircraft will be able to handle most weather conditions so long as the pilot’s visibility is not impaired.
A combination of adverse conditions - such as heavy rain, wind, and lighting - is sometimes enough to ground a plane, especially if temperatures are below freezing, which can cause the ground to freeze and will create slick, unsafe runway conditions which make take-off risky. As we discussed above, frozen rain can also stick to the plane itself.
Pilots and air traffic controllers take all the necessary precautions, and if there’s a risk that your plane can’t get to your destination safely, it won’t take off in the first place.
Can planes fly in 15 mph winds?
Most planes can still take-off and land in high winds. The National Weather Service defines winds of 15 to 25 mph as “breezy”, and above 25 mph as “windy.”
In addition to the fact that modern planes are fortified to handle strong winds, you can also rest assured that pilots around the world have to demonstrate that they can fly with skill in windy conditions before they can earn their license.
So, winds need to be pretty strong to pose a barrier to planes, and 15 mph winds are unlikely to be an issue unless they’re combined with other adverse weather conditions.
Can planes take off in high winds?
High winds are extremely frequent, and most flights will deal with these at some point in their journey - usually during the climb or descent.
For the most part, planes can take-off and land in most high winds. Strong winds may sometimes prevent a take-off or landing and cause turbulence at altitude, though this is rarely serious.
Horizontal winds - which are also known as “crosswinds” - above 34-40 mph are generally prohibitive of take-off and landing. It usually depends on the stage of the flight, for example, if crosswinds are strong while the plane is grounded, air traffic controllers may decide to delay departure.
When it comes to landing in strong crosswinds, the pilot may decide to abort a planned landing at the last minute if they feel it is unsafe to go through with. However, landing in crosswinds is something pilots are trained to do, and these are very rarely disastrous.
Flying can be unnerving, especially in weather conditions that are less than ideal. However, the important thing to remember is that modern aircraft are designed to be highly strong and resistant to adverse weather conditions, and it takes a lot to prevent them from flying.
The same goes for pilots. Pilots have undergone significant, intense training which covers flying in every weather condition, so pilots always know the best course of action to take if a weather event occurs - whether on the ground or in the air.
Planes can even fly during a thunder and lightning storm, and they’re equipped to fly in most high winds. If there’s a serious risk of turbulence or damage to the plane, air traffic controllers will cancel your flight - or divert it if you’ve already taken off.
The same goes for poor visibility levels due to snow or heavy rain. The key thing to remember is that the weather is being monitored continuously, and pilots and air traffic controllers will always respond to weather conditions with passengers’ safety at the forefront of their interests.