Have you ever had a delayed flight due to bad weather, then wondered to yourself “Can planes fly in thunderstorms?” Maybe the most obvious answer is a simple “no”, but it is not as straightforward as it seems. To understand if planes can fly in thunderstorms, what storms are must first be understood.
A thunderstorm is a term that describes a condition of heavy rain, heavy snow/hail, lightning, severe winds, supercooled water droplets, and thunders caused by convective clouds, and pilot refer to those clouds as ‘CBs’ or Cumulonimbus clouds. This storm can be caused by either a single Cumulonimbus cloud or a line of multiple Cumulonimbus clouds.
Cumulonimbus is a weighty and dense cloud of extensive vertical extent in the form of a peak or huge turret.
Three conditions led to the formation of the Cumulonimbus cloud.
- unstable air
Triggering mechanism that rises warm moist air by orographic uplift or front forcing air upward.
Types of Cumulonimbus Cloud
Convection Cumulonimbus Cloud
Cumulonimbus Cloud formed by the heating of the layer of air close to aircraft surface, cause single Cumulonimbus Cloud rather than a cluster of Cumulonimbus Cloud cells, normally avoided by flying around them.
Orographic Uplift caused by going up of ground air normally due to moist and unstable air when passes over higher territories and avoiding these Cumulonimbus Cloud is challenging.
Mass Ascent caused by weather front forces the air upward and Cumulonimbus Cloud surrounded aircraft from the front and present a challenge to navigate aircraft from the front.
Can Planes Fly in Thunderstorms
Yes, Planes can fly in thunderstorms with defenses such as planning and awareness to avoid or tackle them but thunderstorms can be hazardous to commercial aircraft as thunderstorms comprise of heavy hail, extensive rain, a lightning strike on aircraft, heavy ice, severe winds, and supercooled water droplets all of these conditions are hazardous and dangerous that may cause extreme damage to the aircraft.
Moreover, they have caused crashes of many jets and commercial aircraft in past and could contribute a major part in a crash in the future.
Related Accident and Serious Incident Reports
- A321- Vienna Austria, year 2003
- A343- Toronto Canada, the year 2005
- AS32- North Sea UK, the year 2002
- AS50- Hawaii USA, the year 2005
- B734- Brisbane Australia, the year 2001
- B752- Girona Spain, the year 1999
- D228- vicinity Bodø Norway, the year 2003
- DC10- Tahiti French Polynesia, the year 2000
- MD82- Little Rock USA, the year 1999
Hazardous conditions of thunderstorms
It can cause vertical movement up to 50kt within cumulonimbus Clouds. Turbulence due to severe surface wind is variable in direction and strength this is hazardous, especially in takeoff and land. The difference between updraft and downdraft can cause wind shear that can crash an aircraft.
In-flight icing conditions can be worst especially in higher levels of cumulonimbus Clouds that can reduce speed which led to increases the stalling speed of aircraft and it can increase weight and drag which led to more fuel consumption. Most commercial aircraft are certified to fly through light to moderate icing but severe and moderate icing levels can limit the control surfaces movement that led aircraft in the worst condition.
Aircraft flying in cumulonimbus Clouds vicinity may experience a lightning strike and Commercial aircraft commonly get hit by lightning a few times a year, the average lightning strike ratio is 1 strike per thousand flights that can cause electrical disturbances affecting in navigation systems and communication systems of aircraft. Moreover, it can cause temporary and permanent blindness of crew along with the damage of aircraft.
A microburst is a process that occurs in the Cumulonimbus cloud that causes a strong downward draft due to severe change in wind direction over a small area. An aircraft flying over a microburst to be expected large surge in airspeed surveyed by a dramatic reduction. If the aircraft is near to landing speed or stalling speed, a sudden and dramatic decrease in airspeed led to the crash of the aircraft.
Large hailstones in large thunderstorms cells can cause structural damage to the aircraft and its engines. They mostly cause damage to the leading edge of the wings and nose Radom as well as crack the windshield and damage the engines. Hailstones can be large as a ball size of golf and can cause broad damage to airborne aircraft or aircraft on the ground.
Updrafts / Downdrafts (Wind Shear)
Upward and downward drafts can dislocate the aircraft’s flight path, airspeed and potentially cause the aircraft to over speed. It can also drive the aircraft toward ward to the ground especially at stalling speed, wind shear can lead aircraft to crash.
Defenses Against Thunderstorm for the same Operation
Prediction of CB clouds is hard but it is possible to predict conditions that will initiate the formation of CB clouds, the flight crew is informed by the forecasters about the time, location, and direction of these clouds to avoid them as much as they can inflight. Moreover, the flight crew is advised to carry extra fuel in case of re-routing to avoid storms and burn additional fuel in deicing and anti-icing.
Awareness of conditions that develop Cbs, awareness of signs that indicate proximity and types can help controllers and flight crews to plan operations to avoid associated hazards to enhance safety.
In addition to visual acknowledgment, Weather Radar is a predominantly valued aid to avoiding Cb clouds. Aircraft weather radar permits the flight crew to recognize the areas of the storm cloud which have the major water droplets region, which specify the areas with the toughest updrafts.
The area of the cloud where updrafts link up the downdrafts becomes severe to avoid, therefore the pilot must evade flying through the edge of the areas of Cumulonimbus cloud with the leading water droplets.
Normal advice to pilots to remain at least 20 nautical miles expatriate from the Cumulonimbus clouds. The hazards from Turbulence, Wind Shear, hail, and icing associated with CBS Cumulonimbus clouds are far superior to the threat of Lightning.
In certain conditions or situations navigating through a line of Cumulonimbus clouds is the only option for the flight crew. In such situations, the aircraft captain will need to judge the least dangerous track to follow through the line of cumulonimbus clouds.
Lightning strike Avoidance
If flying in the area of cumulonimbus clouds if lightning is seen nearby aircraft, then review the manufacturer’s guidelines to perform an action in the event of a lightning strike. If the aircraft is fitted in with a gyromagnetic compass, it is suggested that a compass should be selected to gyro where there is a risk of lightning.
A thunderstorm is due to a cumulonimbus cloud that is a weighty and dense cloud of extensive vertical extent in the form of a peak or huge turret, that can led Aircraft crash. For operation under thunderstorm first priority is avoidance of thunderstorm, planning and weather radar can enhance safety.