If you’re wondering if planes can fly in thunderstorms, the answer is yes.

Planes can fly in thunderstorms, though will likely be prevented from taking-off and landing during a thunderstorm due to the danger involved.

But there’s much more to know about how thunderstorms can affect flying, including:

  • Why they can be dangerous
  • How thunderstorms affect planes during takeoff, cruising, and landing
  • Whether the size of the plane, and type and severity of the thunderstorm makes a difference
  • How likely flight cancellations due to thunderstorms are

Can Planes Fly in Thunderstorms? (Takeoff, Cruising and Landing)

Takeoff

Planes on the ground yet to takeoff will usually be prevented from doing do if there is a thunderstorm.

This is because, taking-off is one of the most challenging and dangerous aspects of flying.

When you combine this with an adverse weather event, such as a thunderstorm, the risk of taking off is not worth not waiting for it to pass.

In particular, microbursts, which occur during thunderstorms, can be very dangerous during takeoff.

If the pilot has reduced power and lowered the nose in response to the headwind, when the wind switches to a tailwind, it can be difficult to recover.

The cause of the Delta Flight 191 crash, which killed 136 of the 163 occupants onboard, was due to loss of control due to a microburst, resulting in runway undershoot.

Cruising

It’s one thing to completely avoid a thunderstorm by not taking off, but when a plane is already in the air and in the midst of a thunderstorm, then what happens?

Well, the good news is that the risk of danger can be minimized. A plane can typically safely fly in thunderstorms due to the following:

  • As modern airplanes are designed to withstand adverse weather conditions, such as thunderstorms, even if a pilot is forced to fly through one, it is unlikely to pose an issue.
  • A plane can rise above thunderstorms by climbing to an altitude that is above turbulent cloud tops
  • Aircraft are equipped with advance weather radar systems, so pilots have time to spot thunderstorms and fly around them

Landing

Planes can and will land in thunderstorms, though this is by no means the norm and will depend on the severity of the storm.

The biggest issues a pilot will experience when trying to land a plane are microbursts and wind shear.

Just imagine how dangerous a strong downdraft can be when a plane nears the ground for landing – it may slam into the ground at high speed or even flip over.

The crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 was caused by trying to land in a thunderstorm.

5 Ways Thunderstorms Can Be Dangerous for Flying

Even though most pilots and planes will safely be able to handle thunderstorms, this isn’t to say that thunderstorms pose no risk whatsoever.

Investigators concluded that thunderstorms played at least somewhat of a role in the crashes of flights Air France 447 and AirAsia 8501.

Thunderstorms can be dangerous for flying for the following reasons:

Lightning

We don’t want to scare you, but it’s likely that you’ve flown on a plane that has been hit by lightning before.

You probably never knew because planes are well-equipped to deal with lightning strikes due to the tails and wingtips (where lightning tends to strike) being fortified and able to evenly distribute charge.

However, lightning can still cause damage to an aircraft’s skin and interfere with the aircraft’s electrical systems.

Related: What Happens If Lightning Strikes a Plane?

Hail

Hail can form inside a thunderstorm, which can be particularly dangerous if it goes inside a plane’s engines and then bends or breaks some of the inlet guide vanes or compressor blades.

While this sounds scary, take comfort in the knowledge that engines are thoroughly tested to ensure that even if hail does get into the engine, it is unlikely to cause a problem.

A more likely issue that may occur is if hail hits the windshield and damages it.

This could make it more challenging to land, though a pilot should still be able to safely land by using the plane’s instruments.

Related: Do Planes Have Windshield Wipers?

Icing

Ice can be dangerous for flying for several reasons. Ice can destroy the smooth flow of air, increasing drag while decreasing the ability of the airfoil to create lift.

Ice can cause a plane to stall or roll or pitch uncontrollably. It can also cause engine stoppage.

Thunderstorms can also contain “supercooled water droplets”, which are water droplets that exist in liquid form at temperatures below 0°C and can be even more dangerous.

Wind Shear

Wind shear is defined as a change in wind speed and/or direction over a short distance.

It can occur either horizontally or vertically at high or low altitudes.

The most hazardous form is encountered in thunderstorms.

The problem with wind shear is that severe, sudden wind change can exceed the performance capabilities of even the most sophisticated aircraft, including commercial airliners like the Boeing 747.

Microbursts

A microburst is a strong downdraft that, while relatively small in scale, can rapidly change the performance of an aircraft and disrupt its altitude.

At just a moment’s notice, a microburst can switch from a tailwind to a headwind or vice versa thereby affecting an aircraft’s airspeed and performance.

The Effect of Thunderstorms on Small Planes vs. Commercial Airliners

Thunderstorms can be much more dangerous for smaller aircraft, as they neither have the climbing ability nor the ceiling (maximum altitude it can fly to) to handle most storms.

Small planes also lack ice protection, which can be hazardous to even commercial airliners.

Additionally, smaller aircraft, which are operated by private pilots, are not as well-equipped to deal with the damage thunderstorms can cause.

Considering that private pilots are not as well-trained as commercial pilots, they may not also be as well-equipped to deal with the problems and dangers that thunderstorms can bring too.

Does the Type of Thunderstorm Make a Difference?

There are three types of thunderstorms: single-cell, multi-cell, and supercell, with supercell being the most severe.

Inevitably, the more severe the thunderstorm, the more dangerous it will be to fly in and the more atmospheric conditions for the pilot to contend with, including microbursts, wind shears, icing and hail.

Can Thunderstorms Cancel Flights?

Thunderstorms can cancel flights, but it is much more likely that there will be a delay while waiting for the storm to pass.

The delay can either be short or long depending on how long the thunderstorm takes to pass and thus just how bad the domino effect will be.

It’s possible that there can be flight disruptions for hundreds of flights, causing flight delays over several days.

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