Can Airplanes Fly In Hurricanes, Cyclones and Thunderstorms?

Bad weather scares a lot of people, but when you’re about to fly somewhere, it can be even scarier. If your city is experiencing a hurricane, is it still safe to fly? More importantly, are pilots allowed to get their planes in the air when there’s a nearby hurricane? Can planes fly in cyclones or lightning? Let’s answer some of these questions today…

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Do Airplanes Fly in Hurricanes?

The simple answer is: yes, pilots are allowed to fly in hurricanes, provided certain conditions apply. When the wind and weather are within legal and safe parameters, a pilot is allowed to fly the plane while there’s a hurricane going on. They just have to make sure certain conditions are met before they take off.

Airplane flying through storm
Airplane flying through storm

Takeoff and Landing In Hurricane Winds

One of the most important conditions of flying in hurricanes is to make sure your landing and takeoff will be safe, not to mention your ability to depart from various corridors while there are no known thunderstorms and wind-shear activity.

In other words, you have to make sure the conditions around you are safe before you take off when there’s a hurricane nearby.

Of course, this usually applies only to hurricanes – which pilots call cyclones – that are a Category 1 or 2. A Category 5 hurricane, therefore, would prohibit an airline pilot from flying because at that point, the wind is a minimum of 175 miles per hour, making it quite dangerous for both the passengers and the plane itself.

Flying in and Around Hurricane Activity

Although hurricanes have high-speed winds that can be dangerous in other ways, the higher you are above the hurricane, the less wind and bad weather you usually experience.

In other words, you usually experience less disturbance once you get above the eye of the hurricane than you do when you’re around it. This makes flying over a hurricane actually quite safe.

Lightning strike near A-10 Warthog
Lightning strike near A-10 Warthog

Of course, hurricanes can be found very high above the earth’s surface, so a pilot has to know exactly where the hurricane is at all times to determine if they should fly or not.

They don’t do this by themselves, of course, so once it is deemed safe to fly by the experts, pilots don’t have to worry about the weather any longer.

This doesn’t mean they should fly recklessly; it just means that for most pilots, flying in hurricanes is no more stressful or more dangerous than flying through a Nor’easter or a thunderstorm.

Speaking of thunderstorms, how are they compared to hurricanes when it comes to flying safely and successfully? You’re about to find out.

Hurricanes versus Thunderstorms

When any type of storm occurs, flying can become a little more complex. This is mainly because air routes can get closed, flights get delayed or even cancelled, and holding patterns are sometimes established.

Thunderstorms can even close an airport, although it is usually only for a short period of time. 

Airplane wing view thunderstorm
Airplane wing view thunderstorm

If they occur between the takeoff and landing spots, they can really be a problem, although they do tend to pass through areas rather quickly.

Hurricanes, however, are a lot different than thunderstorms. For example, hurricanes are much more massive and can span thousands of miles. This means they can affect a much larger area than thunderstorms do.

Oddly enough, thunderstorms can be more dangerous to fly through than hurricanes are, and pilots can either fly around thunderstorms if they wish, or turn around and go back to where they started.

As far as flying is concerned, hurricanes are usually less disruptive than thunderstorms are, and therefore it is more common to find pilots flying in hurricanes without any problems.

Lightning strikes behind a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Aug. 8, 2017
Lightning strikes behind a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Aug. 8, 2017

This is another way to look at it: thunderstorms are generally “taller” than hurricanes, which makes flying through them much more dangerous in the long run.

Does this mean that pilots will fly through the actual eye of a hurricane? Of course not, but once they get above or around the eye, things become a lot less turbulent. 

Even air traffic controllers know they can direct flights through a hurricane, but this is not the case with thunderstorms.

Flying Through Thunderstorms

Because thunderstorms are generally “taller” than hurricanes are, they tend to be a lot more unsafe when flying over them.

Hurricanes are simply not as tall as thunderstorms and, therefore, they are easier for planes to maneuver and fly through.

Does this mean that flying over a hurricane is also a good idea? Again, that would depend on what the weather experts say.

Flying around and through a hurricane is one thing; flying over one is another. Flying over a hurricane can mean that if emergencies occur, the pilot would have few, if any, options for getting people out of the situation.

It’s for practical reasons that most pilots won’t fly over a hurricane, but will usually fly around it or through it.

Of course, many of these rules don’t apply to small planes or to storm-chasers, but we’ll leave that story for another day.


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