The biggest obstacle for pilots is navigating in and around stormy weather. Hurricanes are the largest weather systems that pilots have to handle.
As an airline pilot in the United States, I have spent many hours flying jet airliners in the south during hurricane season. We take extreme care to avoid the worst parts of the storms and have a large team supporting us to create safe routes and backup plans to ensure a safe ride for passengers.
Airplanes can fly over, around, or even into hurricanes. However, passenger aircraft typically steer clear of powerful storms. There is a squadron in the Air Force that has airplanes equipped with special equipment that fly directly into hurricanes.
This article will cover how hurricanes impact airplanes, what pilots do to create a safe flight, how hurricane hunters do their jobs, and some tips to stay calm if you are a nervous flyer around storms or hurricanes.
Can Commercial Airplanes Fly over Hurricanes?
Yes, some planes can safely fly over the tops of hurricanes. These are the aircraft that are capable of flying at high altitudes like business jets. However, it is still rare.
Hurricanes are massive cyclone storms that reach altitudes up to 50,000 feet. That is higher than most airplanes can fly. Some smaller hurricanes or tropical storms in colder months are not as high up. For these lower altitude storms, some aircraft can indeed safely fly above.
But usually, the best option for airliners is to choose a path that goes around the hurricane. Pilots and airline dispatchers will carefully work together to create a route that will be safe, smooth, and quickest to avoid the weather.
How Close Can a Commercial Airplane Fly to a Hurricane?
Airplanes can fly quite close to hurricanes safely (proof down below). The dangerous winds and other weather associated with hurricanes are located close to the eye of the storm.
The outer parts of hurricanes have lower wind speeds, fewer thunderstorms, and safer conditions in the air and on the ground.
A general rule for all airplanes is to avoid thunderstorms by twenty miles. Twenty miles ensures a safe radius away from the worst turbulence and hail. Since hurricanes often contain individual thunderstorms, this rule applies to hurricanes too.
The outer edges of hurricanes often contain little precipitation and are more comparable to regular rainy and windy days. That makes it safe to fly on the outer edges of a hurricane where the conditions are significantly better than near the eye.
Why Would a Pilot or an Airline Choose Not to Fly over a Hurricane?
Pilots make their decisions based on safety. Flying over a hurricane presents several risk factors. Flying over a large storm could put the aircraft into severe turbulence or in hail conditions. In the case of emergency, the airplane would have further to fly to a safe airport outside of the hurricane conditions. Just because it may be safe above, does not make it safe below.
My job as an airline captain is to ensure a safe flight. I am constantly asking myself, “Is this safe?” or, “How can I make this flight safer?”
Naturally, weather and storms are often the most significant factor when making decisions. The good news is we have lots of manuals, procedures, and training to aid us. Most scenarios have clear guidelines to follow.
We also work as a team. Both pilots are actively involved in making safe decisions. The airline dispatchers in our operational headquarters have state of the art weather software to plan safe routes for us. Plus, we always have multiple backup plans. That includes alternate airports and backup routes. We also carry lots of extra gas to create more time and avoid the weather.
It would be rare to decide to fly directly over a hurricane. I personally have never directly flown over a hurricane, but have operated many flights around them.
Have Airliners Ever Flown into or over Hurricanes?
There are some examples of airliners flying over hurricanes. Here’s one of them:
An Allegiant Airlines flight flew over the outskirts of Hurricane Florence in 2018. This flight path became viral on the internet (live map here). However, despite the weather radar looking bad, the path was determined to be safe by the crew and airline. The flight crew reported the ride was smooth the whole time.
Often the weather radar looks worse than the conditions in the air. Aircraft are equipped with their own powerful radar in the nose of the airplane. This radar information is displayed on our flight displays allowing us to get the most accurate representation of current weather.
The weather radar shown online mostly shows precipitation near the ground. Not the cloud and storm activity high up in the air.
Can Airplanes Take off or Land During a Hurricane?
In the middle of an intense hurricane, it is not possible to safely take off or land. It is similar to how it is dangerous to take off or land during the middle of a thunderstorm over the airport.
That does not mean airplanes can’t safely operate when a hurricane is just nearby. It is common for airlines to operate near a hurricane into airports right up to the point where the storm winds and conditions become too intense.
If an airport is under the outer bands of a hurricane it is common to see most airliners still operating. The higher wind speeds and rain are still within limits for most larger airliners. Some smaller propeller-driven planes and private jets may be too small for operating in these conditions.
What Happens if There’s a Risk of a Hurricane Near an Airport?
Hurricanes, unlike thunderstorms, are tracked ahead of time. Their projected path and intensity are known days ahead of time. Airlines can start making decisions to minimize the impact on the network.
They will proactively cancel flights into airports where the hurricane will happen days in advance. Passengers can rebook their flights or find alternative travel arrangements.
Modern airliners are extraordinarily expensive, and the company needs to protect them from damage. The high winds and hail from hurricanes can cause millions of dollars worth of damage.
Take the next video as an example. A large flight school in Florida, Embry Riddle, has a fleet of over 60 aircraft. They are on the coast and prone to hurricane activity. They, similar to airlines, have a plan in place to safely get their fleet out of harm’s way.
They closely monitor the weather during hurricane season and when a storm is projected to hit them they take action. They will fly their entire fleet into the middle of the country, to an airport not in the hurricane’s path.
Watch the video to see them in action (source).
How Do the Hurricane Hunter’s Flights Work?
There is an exception to all these rules. One air force squadron’s mission is to fly directly into hurricanes to collect data. They are the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, or more commonly known as the “Hurricane Hunters”.
They have a fleet of specially-equipped C-130 outfitted with extra sensors and crew for collecting data. The airplane itself is not reinforced differently from a regular C-130.
During hurricanes, they take off and chart a course directly into the eye of the storm. They make several passes into the eye of the storm at low altitudes. Their missions can last up to 11 hours.
They release a tool called a GPS dropsonde. It collects temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed, and direction. This information is sent to forecasters to determine if the hurricane is growing or becoming weaker.
If you want to see what a flight through a hurricane feels like from home, read this interactive Hurricane Hunters flight.
How Do Pilots Prepare to Fly over or Near a Hurricane?
Before flying, pilots coordinate with their flight dispatchers to look at the weather, fuel, routes, turbulence, mechanical issues, and any other considerations for the flight. If operating near a hurricane, extra fuel will be added, and alternate airports are chosen before take off.
I carry an iPad that has advanced real-time weather software. It helps us to pick routes avoiding the worst weather and turbulence in order to have a smooth flight.
Anytime we are flying near a storm I take several steps to keep my passengers and crew safe.
We will turn on the seatbelt sign, and make an announcement. I will talk to the flight attendants advising them to secure their service items and to be seated. In the cockpit, we adjust our speed for the turbulence and are always creating backup plans for diversion airports and alternate routes.
If there is any question of the safety of the flight, we will either cancel the flight or create a new plan that avoids the threat entirely.
Tips to Stay Calm As a Passenger if Flying Near Hurricanes.
The thought of flying near hurricanes still makes some passengers nervous. The first step is to have a solid understanding of what is occurring. I have found most passengers have a fear of the elements of flying they don’t understand.
Here are the most important factors to understand and some tips.
The hurricane hunters discussed earlier have completed over 100,000 hours of flying safely. This fact should put your mind at ease because they travel into the worst parts of the storm, in the most dangerous conditions, and have never had any problem.
Airline pilots and the entire system is run professionally using predetermined procedures based on research and data.
Airliners will never fly nearly as close or directly into hurricanes like this, so there is an even higher level of safety.
It is unlikely that you will ever be on a flight that goes directly over a hurricane. While technically possible, it is still a very rare occurrence for the conditions to be just right for a safe flight over. Instead, flight paths around the hurricane are used.
Flights often operate near hurricanes. However, they are conducted with specific procedures ensuring a safe flight.
Flight crews and airlines have advanced technology to ensure safe flights when there is bad weather around.
You can travel confidently knowing that your flight won’t be flown over a hurricane or into one dangerously. If it looks like the weather is bad, the airlines will never operate in an unsafe or illegal manner. They have to conduct their flights within approved parameters.