It is well known that flight cancellations are common when there are bad weather conditions. Stormy weather conditions are among the most common causes of a canceled flight, so the question is what about snow? Can planes fly in the snow? Or is snow a good reason to cancel flights?
Well, the truth is that planes fly in winter weather more often than you may imagine, including flying in the snow, especially big commercial airplanes. However, when there is heavy snow, which leaves the runway covered in snow, the take-off and landing maneuvers require certain preparation to make sure they are completed safely.
If you want to learn what it takes for a plane to fly in snow, and when it is just not possible and the flight should be canceled, we invite you to keep reading as we provide all the details.
The effects of cold weather
Obviously, speaking about flying in the snow refers to flying in cold winter weather. So, to better understand why some flights are canceled and others are not because of snow, it is important to first take a look at the effects cold weather may have on a plane and the different flight stages.
Here are some of the effects of cold weather on both the runway and aircraft.
Effects of bad weather on runway conditions
When ice forms and snow piles up on an airport runway, planes cannot safely perform the different maneuvers that take place on the ground. The taxiing, as well as the take-off or landing, become dangerous.
What happens is similar to what we see when driving a car in icy road conditions. The traction of the landing gear decreases and controlling the plane becomes very difficult. Can you imagine a pilot losing control of the plane when taxiing in a high-traffic airport? What about when airplanes land or try to get full speed for take-off? Yes, you got it right, it can be very dangerous.
In short, after heavy snow has fallen on the runway, a loss of traction can lead to hydroplaning or other challenging and dangerous effects that make losing control of the airplane very easy. The Federal Aviation Administration’s guidance in these situations is not to allow any airplane to land unless it is imperative.
Of course, if there is no alternative, there are special runway lights and instruments for the pilots to safely land on a snow-covered runway as best as possible. Some planes and other types of aircraft are sometimes equipped with skis to help them land in the snow.
What’s more, airports and airlines have de-icing protocols and different ways to manage snow on the runway and the airplanes before they take off since snow will not be blown away during the takeoff roll as many may think. We will talk more about it later on. In any case, Air Traffic Control (ATC) can make airplanes take off and land while keeping a safe distance from each other to increase safety, and they will always have the power to prevent an airplane from taking off if they think it is not safe enough.
Effects of bad weather on aircraft
The main effect of bad weather on aircraft is poor visibility. Therefore, this effect will depend on how much snow is falling when speaking of snowy weather. Most flights will not have a problem with light snow, but a heavy snowfall might force the flight to be canceled or delayed.
Another effect would be snow accumulation on the wings of an aircraft. The accumulation of ice and snow on the wings causes a significant change in the aerodynamics of a plane, disrupting how the air flows on the surface and usually increasing drag while reducing lift. Fortunately, nowadays, most aircraft are prepared to fight against this phenomenon.
First of all, commercial planes fly at a very high cruising altitude, normally between 30,000 and 36,000 feet. For private jets this number is even higher, normally reaching around 41,000 feet. This is an altitude where snow, and even a heavy snowfall, can be avoided.
While the air temperature outside aircraft flying at such altitudes can be very low, usually in the values of -60C (-76F) degrees, it has been proven that ice formation on aircraft surfaces is not a common occurrence. According to the National Weather Service of the United States, “research findings indicate icing is most intense near the top of stratiform clouds. The vertical extent of icing layers does not usually exceed 3,000 feet. A change in altitude of only a few thousand feet may take the aircraft out of icing conditions, even if it remains in clouds.”
Now, many modern airplanes including private and corporate aircraft, as well as the big airliners and cargo carriers, are equipped with different systems designed to prevent ice from forming called anti-icers, and others to remove it after it has formed, thus called de-icers.
Here are the most common anti-icing and de-icing system used to protect a plane from snow or ice.
Anti-icing and de-icing fluids
These are fluids that are released through slinger rings or porous leading edge members to flow over the blades of the propellers and the surfaces of the wings. These fluids can be anti-icing when used before iced is formed, like when snow falls on a warm surface, or de-icing when used to eliminate ice that has already formed.
De-icing rubber boots
These are membranes of rubber attached to the leading edges which are made to pulsate in such a way that they crack and break the ice off after it has already formed.
Anti-icing and de-icing heating devices
Airplanes have areas that are more vulnerable to snow and ice, the vast majority being on the wings. Therefore, heating those areas is a great method for preventing ice from building up. Hot air from the engine or special heaters is ducted to vulnerable areas such as the leading edges of wings. Electrically heated coils protect pilot tubes, propellers, and other areas.
Managing snowy weather
As we mentioned above, snow management is a very important task for both airports and airlines. When bad weather and snowfall decrease visibility, and make flying unsafe because of their effects on the runways and airplanes, there is more to do than just canceling flights.
Of course, airplanes will not be allowed to take off until the runway and the vulnerable surfaces are de-iced.
Most airports that are usually exposed to tough winter weather are prepared to deal with snow or ice on their runways. They normally have de-icing trucks, which are vehicles equipped with a basket lifted by a crane and a sprayer.
The operator sprays the de-icing fluid on the airplane from the basket. This way, the airplane is de-iced before taking off.
But what about the runways? When it comes to runways, airports use huge snowplows and other equipment. Some areas might even be shoveled if necessary. After plowing and shoveling, airports usually spread sand or a chemical like potassium acetate that breaks the bonds of ice and snow, thus eliminating them.
Some final remarks
It is clear that snow and ice can create conditions that are not ideal for flying, especially to take off and land planes. However, pilots flying in areas where winter can create such conditions are usually well trained to fly with high winds and low visibility.
Yet, if there is such low visibility that even the trained pilots would have a hard time flying, or just starting or completing the flight, the corresponding officials will leave the planes on the ground to avoid any accidents.
A good example of an accident that could have been avoided is the one with the Air Florida flight 90 that departed from Washington National Airport to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport while violating all the rules regarding flying during snowfall and had a disastrous ending.
The good news for all of us is that the aviation community has learned from those mistakes, and all crews and passengers can rest assured that planes will only fly under snowfall if it is light enough to guarantee safety standards.
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Jet pilot @NASA
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