When it comes to modern air travel, there is a common misconception that there are few things that can hinder our journeys.
However, there are still many environmental factors that can cause problems to the inner mechanisms of modern aircraft, one of them being snow.
But just how well can planes fly in snow, and what damage can it cause?
Air Travel & Snow: The Facts
Once they are up in the air, planes can operate perfectly well in snowy conditions, however, during takeoff and landing, it can be a different story.
Takeoff & Landing
If there has been excessive snow at either the departure or arrival destinations, then modern aircrafts will struggle to do either process safely, with a distinct risk of brake failure, a lack of appropriate speed, or a loss of control on icy runways that could result in fatalities in the worst case scenario.
If there is severe snow or ice on the runway of the landing destination, modern airplanes are not allowed to land under rule of law – unless it is an emergency, there is not enough fuel to reroute, or if no other alternative is available, such as in rural or remote regions.
For them to be able to take off and land, appropriate preparations must be made by the ground crew.
This usually involves deicing the runway before takeoff and landing, and ensuring checks are made to both the wheels and the road surface before doing so.
Cruising Altitude & Snow
Where once airplanes would have experienced difficulties in snowy conditions, modern aircraft fly at a cruising altitude much higher than they used to.
Modern aircraft fly at altitudes much higher than the clouds, which means that snowfall poses no threat once they are at their cruising altitude.
Commercial passenger planes cruise at an altitude of 30,000 to 36,000 feet, while private jets go even higher, usually sticking around the 41,000 feet mark.
If you are familiar with air travel, then you will have probably seen the clouds pass by during takeoff and landing, and you will have hopefully noticed that above the cloud level, there isn’t any weather – other than sunshine, wind, and of course darkness when flying at night.
Types Of Snowfall
Of course, the likelihood of uninterrupted travel depends entirely on the amount of snowfall that you are experiencing.
If the snowfall is only light, then most flights will usually go ahead uninterrupted. The same goes if the ground is too wet for the snow to settle, or if the temperature is too warm for frost to form.
In these cases, the snow is seen as inconsequential, and in most cases will pose no delay to flights or other proceedings.
Heavy snowfall, on the other hand, is when you are most likely to experience delays, or see planes canceled completely.
Heavy snowfall can dangerously reduce visibility, making both the takeoff and the landing too risky to attempt, which is usually when most flights are grounded indefinitely.
Heavy snowfall can also cause problems for ground staff, snowing in support vehicles, damaging equipment, and making the area too cold or unsafe to be working outdoors.
However, as mentioned above, most airports have deicing measures in place.
Types Of Aircraft
Of course, the size and model of the aircraft will also be a determining factor on how snowfall affects their efficacy.
It is a relatively well known fact that light aircraft have a poor safety record in general – you only need to look at the number of crashes and failures that occur – and thus their effectiveness in snow is very limited.
Lighter aircraft fly at lower altitudes, meaning they are below or within the cloudbank during snowstorms, meaning they are susceptible to poor visibility.
They also have much weaker engines, and have limited capacities for thrust and speed, meaning they often don’t have the strength to hold the course and maintain a straight trajectory during heavy wind conditions or poor weather.
These weaker engines can also experience component failure or damage during extreme weather, which can cause them to seize, freeze up, or overheat, leading to failure and loss of attitude.
As mentioned above, due to the altitudes they fly at, larger commercial aircraft are more than capable of flying during light to moderate snowfall, aided by their radar and electronic guidance systems, which mean they are not as reliant on visibility and sight as their smaller counterparts.
Accumulation Of Snow
You might be wondering what the effects of snow accumulation would be on vital parts of the fuselage during flight – afterall, everything has its limits, right?
During even strong snowfall, the engines on larger aircraft are not affected, and can usually resist things like frost due to the temperatures they reach during motion.
However, what can really cause damage to a plane’s engines is when water droplets get into the oxygen inlets to the engine, which then freeze due to the altitude and weather, which can then reduce oxygen to the engine, build up, and cause it to catch fire.
It is worth noting though that these ‘flameouts’ are rare, and most modern aircraft have anti-ice valves that feed hot air to the engine.
Snow and ice can possibly build up on the wings, causing problems with airflow during flight. However, most modern planes have systems in place – such as specially designed electric blankets – implemented within the wings to keep them warm enough.
And there we have it, everything you need to know about air travel and the effect snow can have.
In most cases, airports are more than equipped to deal with icy conditions, meaning interruption due to the weather is now relatively rare. However, as we all know, there is nothing as unpredictable as the weather.