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
Table of Contents
Can Planes Take Off in Thunderstorms?
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.
Ground operations, such as fueling, baggage handling, and passenger boarding may all be affected by thunderstorms before takeoff, too.
Can Planes Cruise in Thunderstorms?
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
Can Planes Land in Thunderstorms?
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.
How Bad Does a Thunderstorm Have to Be to Delay a Flight?
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 at airports.
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.
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.
Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.
Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.
Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).