Can Planes Fly Through Thunderstorms and Hurricanes?

Sep 20, 2018

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Whenever a large storm front develops somewhere in the world, air travel gets a bit more complicated than usual. Air routes are closed, holding patterns are established, flights get delayed and some are unfortunately cancelled. Thunderstorms present a massive problem if they are standing between you and your destination, even if the area they affect is relatively small.

Hurricanes, however, are a beast of a whole other nature. Hurricanes are massive, spanning hundreds or thousands of miles and affecting flights on a regional scale. While a thunderstorm may develop and move through an area quickly, the effects of a hurricane linger for days. Airports directly affected by a hurricane will close for obvious reasons, often for days. Airport closures due to hunderstorms tend to be much shorter. 

But what happens to all the flights that need to travel through a thunderstorm or a hurricane? First, airlines treat thunderstorms differently from hurricanes for flight-planning purposes.

The structure of a thunderstorm is drastically different from that of a hurricane. Thunderstorms and hurricanes are both convective in nature, but in different ways. Thunderstorms create massive cloud structures with tops that can reach over 60,000 feet, well above the cruising altitude of commercial airplanes, while hurricanes typically do not. Using their onboard weather radar or guidance from air traffic controllers, pilots will always navigate around thunderstorms — or simply turn around.

Hurricanes, however, are not always as disruptive to flights as a thunderstorm can be. “As far as aviation goes, most tropical systems and hurricanes are, generally, not as tall as traditional thunderstorms,” said meteorologist and pilot James Aydelott. “The tallest convection in a tropical cyclone is usually clustered around the central core of rotation, whether that’s just a low pressure, or in a hurricane, an eye,” he explained. This enables airlines to file flight plans that actually operate over parts of a hurricane.

Lightning is seen through the window of the Malaysian Airlines plane over the Kuala Lumpur city on November 29, 2010. Lightning is generally produced by thunderstorms, and occures through the discharge of charged electrons in the atmosphere. AFP PHOTO / Saeed Khan (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Lightning through the window of a Malaysia Airlines Airbus A330 over Kuala Lumpur in  2010. Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

For obvious reasons, no commercial aircraft is ever going to penetrate the eyewall of a hurricane. We leave that distinct honor to the brave men and women on board hurricane-hunter aircraft of the US Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As you get further away from the eye of the hurricane, though, flight conditions become more and more manageable. Unlike with many thunderstorms, flights can safely navigate over the top of a hurricane or tropical storm with little impact.

“Each storm is different, but down low, near the eye, where the C-130 and P-3 ‘Hurricane Hunter’ flights fly, there is often turbulence,” said Aydelott. “High above, from all accounts I’ve seen, the ride is smooth. As far as flying goes, there should be no issues flying above a hurricane in an aircraft equipped to monitor radar echo tops.”

While Hurricane Florence was raging over the mid-Atlantic coast of the US, one particular flight caught the attention of aviation watchers. An Allegiant MD-80 operating between Bangor, Maine, and Orlando, Florida, took a shortcut over the top of the hurricane while all other flights went around the edges. This raised some eyebrows, but it was perfectly safe.

“Allegiant Airlines 2237 flew well above Hurricane Florence on Friday, September 14, and was not affected by the storm,” said Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson Paul Takemoto. “All air carrier flights file flight plans, and receive air traffic control service for the entire flight. Air traffic controllers direct flights around or above severe weather. They do not direct flights through severe storms.”

A screenshot from FlightAware of the Allegiant flight going over Hurricane Florence at 34,000 feet.

While flights above hurricanes can be perfectly safe, they do require a bit of extra planning and attention to detail. “If you needed a diversion for maintenance or medical, your options are a bit more limited, but from a cruise altitude, you have a lot of airports even further on the storm’s fringe to divert toward,” said Aydelott. While many flights will simply opt to travel around the storm, doing so is not actually required.

As weather predicting and sensing technology improves over time, and as pilots are able to receive more and more real-time weather data while in flight, navigating around and over storms can become more commonplace. For now, most flights will be routed around hurricanes while a few will opt to take a bit of a shortcut right over the top.

Featured image of thunderstorm clouds from an airplane by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

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