Despite the advanced nature of modern air travel, there are still many environmental factors that can hinder, or even completely stop flights in their tracks.
One of the most detrimental environmental factors can be the weather, unpredictable in nature, and prone to immediate change.
Weather is the main source of flight delays, groundings, and interruptions throughout most of the world, and as such, airlines put a lot of work into ensuring they can handle whatever is thrown at them.
While snow and rain can be easily managed, thunderstorms can be more tricky. But what exactly are the dangers of thunderstorms to airplanes, and what measures can be taken to avoid them?
Air Travel & Thunderstorms: The Facts
When talking about air travel and thunderstorms, the short answer is yes, planes can fly in thunderstorms, even when lightning is present, however this depends on the type of plane, the severity of the storm, and whether they are in the air, or at a low altitude.
Takeoff & Landing
Takeoff can be particularly dangerous during a thunderstorm, most notably due to the potential for ‘microbursts’, or quick changing downbursts of air that can rapidly affect the trajectory of a plane.
During takeoff, if the pilot has lowered the nose and reduced the power in response to the headwind, and then the microburst causes the direction to change to a tailwind, then it can be extremely difficult for the pilot to recover his original trajectory and remain in control.
A tragic example of this was the crash of Delta 191, when 136 out of 163 passengers were killed, following a microburst that caused the pilots to lose control of the aircraft.
Landing can also be dangerous, once again due to the presence of microbursts, which often occur when the plane is close to the ground, causing the aircraft to hit the ground harder and faster than it normally would – causing the plane to tip over, or even crash.
A tragic case of this happening was with the American Airlines flight 1420, which crashed after trying to land during a thunderstorm.
Luckily, thunderstorms – like most adverse weather conditions – are not a problem to commercial aircraft once they have reached their cruising altitude.
This is because at their maximum height of 36,000 feet, they are well above the clouds, where the dangerous thunderstorms are focused.
Modern aircraft also have radar systems specially designed for the weather, so they can usually detect a particularly bad thunderstorm (or storm of any kind) and avoid it before it even becomes a problem.
Air Travel & Thunderstorms: The Dangers
While most pilots have the training and the knowhow to avoid most disastrous weather conditions, and adapt to them when they occur, the weather can be unpredictable, and accidents can still happen.
As well as microbursts, there are other specific factors surrounding thunderstorms that can greatly increase the chances of problems.
Where there is thunder, lighting usually follows, and this can be an obviously dangerous thing to planes that are flying low enough.
While these are best to avoid altogether, modern planes are equipped to deal with lightning strikes – or at least small to moderate ones.
Wingtips and tails of planes – where the lightning is more likely to strike due to their pointed dimensions – are reinforced with resistant materials, and are designed to evenly distribute the charge of the electricity throughout the aircraft to avoid damage.
That being said, particularly potent lightning strikes can still cause damage to the fuselage, or interfere with the complex electrical systems that control modern aircraft.
During a thunderstorm, there are a lot of changing temperatures, different currents of air, and various environmental things that are happening, which can result in the formation of hail.
This can be troublesome for even the most sophisticated modern aircraft, especially if it reaches a significant size and enters or collides with the turbines inside the engines.
Luckily, even if this does happen, modern engines are extensively tested to ensure they don’t sustain too much damage.
The most likely form of damage that strong hail will cause is cracking or damaging the windscreen of the cockpit, especially with the speeds that modern aircraft can reach (a maximum of around 575mph, or 500 knots).
Ice particles in the air caused by the thunderstorm can disrupt the flow of air, creating a bumpy and turbulent atmosphere for the plane to fly through.
Ice also has the potential to cause engine stalling, engine stoppage, rolling, or losing trajectory in the worst case scenarios.
The strange nature of thunderstorms can also cause the formation of ‘supercooled water droplets’, which exist in their liquid form well below 0 degrees, and can cause problems to the engines if particularly cold.
Windshear is the change in wind speed or direction over a short distance, something that can take pilots by surprise and cause loss of control in the worst of cases.
This can occur vertically or horizontally, and can happen at high or low altitudes, due to the fact that wind is not governed by the clouds.
During thunderstorms, the most severe forms of windshear can occur, adding another layer of threat to an already dangerous situation.
Small Vs Large Aircraft
While most large, commercial airplanes will be absolutely fine in adverse weather conditions, smaller aircraft are incredibly susceptible to problems.
This is mainly due to the fact they operate at lower altitudes, their engines are smaller and weaker, and their fuselages are not reinforced in the same way as larger planes.
And there we have it, everything you need to know about the effect thunderstorms have on modern air travel.
While thunderstorms shouldn’t be taken lightly, modern pilots have the knowhow and the training to deal with storms when they strike, and even avoid them entirely if they catch them in time.