Have you been sitting in an airport waiting for your flight to start boarding, and suddenly you hear thunder and see lightning through the window? If you have, you may have asked the question we present in the title of this article. So, buckle up, sit tight, and keep reading because what we are about to disclose may be as shocking as the sound of thunder for you.
Commercial aircraft and a lightning strike
It may seem that thunderstorms can pose a big problem when planes fly. To tell the truth, pilots usually try to avoid bad weather with the help of air traffic controllers and on board equipment. However, if you ask any pilot, “can planes fly in thunderstorms”, you will get a “yes” for an answer.
The fact is that most commercial aircraft have flown in bad weather, and some even in severe weather. It is not crazy to state that when planes fly, they receive lightning strikes more often than not, and while it may sound frightening, you really should not worry too much.
How do aircraft resist lightning strikes?
Any modern airplane can withstand a lightning strike, and most of them will probably receive at least one in their lifespan. Modern aircraft can resist such strikes because their wings and tails, the areas where lightning usually strikes, are fortified by design, thus enabling them to spread the electric current to reduce its effect.
Moreover, before flying, a plane needs to pass a safety verification to ensure it complies with the threshold established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or any other corresponding authority.
Can planes fly in thunderstorms? Well, lightning resistance has been checked, but there is more than lightning in the severe weather causing thunderstorms, so let’s look at other factors that may affect aircraft operation.
Flying in bad weather: wind and rain
Of all the things that a thunderstorm brings, strong winds and heavy rain could be the most dangerous for aircraft to fly. In fact, wind direction changes and freezing rain are more common to cause flight delays than lightning strikes. But the worst winds are often found when there is bad weather in tropical regions.
Flying through tropical regions
Extreme weather conditions can become more problematic for aircraft to fly in tropical areas. Tropical cyclones, also called “typhoons”, can affect the aviation industry greatly, delaying the take-off and landing of many planes for an extended period of time. And the main reason is that the take-off and landing operations become dangerous due to the strong winds these kinds of tropical weather conditions bring.
The good news for all passengers is that pilots are very well trained for and informed of these situations, and whenever flying is deemed dangerous, they would not even try to start their flights.
To know exactly what the effect of thunderstorms on planes’ take-off operations is, let’s take a closer look at the importance of the wind for the pilots to lift the planes off the ground.
The wind and the lift
According to Colin Law, a professor in airline business management at Stamford International University, “planes take off and land into the headwind [wind that blows directly towards the plane], and the direction of the wind gives the plane additional lift, helping it to rise and take off more quickly.”
What about the wind and the speed?
He goes on by saying that “a large commercial aircraft generally needs to reach a ground speed of 156 knots (289 kilometers per hour) to lift off the ground, but when there is a 43-knot headwind, the plane only has to reach 113 knots, thanks to the extra boost it gets from the headwind. Similarly, landing in the wind allows pilots to land more swiftly.”
So, the main problem is that during a storm, the aircraft may experience crosswinds or tailwinds when doing any of those critical operations, generating problems for the pilot to lift the airplane and fly it or end a flight safely.
As we mentioned before, pilots, controllers, and airlines will know when is not safe enough to fly.
At what wind speed do airplanes stop taking off or landing?
Commercial planes land and take off in virtually any high-speed winds and there is no maximum limiting windspeed. What matters more is the direction of the wind rather than the speed.
However, taking off and landing might start becoming a problem when crosswinds extend above 35 mph and and tailwinds reach higher speed than 10 mph on a dry runway. Naturally, if the runway surface is wet or covered in water, the wind speed has to be much lower for an aircraft to perform landing or takeoff safely.
Of course, each aircraft is different and the recommended wind speeds limits are indicated in operational handbooks which the pilots and air traffic controllers must adhere to in order not to hinder the safety of people on board.
Do flights get canceled due to thunderstorms?
The answer to this question must be “sometimes, yes.” While flying the plane in the middle of a storm is not really a problem, it may be difficult and dangerous to take it to the ground due to the wind. So, airlines will cancel their flights in some situations due to thunderstorms.
In the end, canceling a flight or not will depend on the wind. As professor Law explained, “This depends on the wind direction. If the winds are blowing in the same direction as the runway, even when the No. 8 signal is issued, they won’t affect aircraft operations much.
But when the strong wind signal is in crosswinds will likely exceed the aircraft’s operating limit.” with the No. 8 signal referring to a gale or storm signal issued by the corresponding forecasting authority.
What about the effect of rain and hail?
Apart from lightning and wind, rain is another aspect to consider in a storm. However, even very heavy rain should not prevent flying. But, when freezing rain becomes hail, things are different.
Quite often, especially in the northern regions of the planet, cooler air and storms can come with a chance of hail. Now, hail is particularly hard to notice and typically it is not indicated in any different way on the radar. So, you will not know it is hailing until you actually hit that specific region of the storm.
Speaking of safety, storms carrying hail can really pose a problem to aircraft structures, causing flights to be grounded. If storms carrying hail are detected when the aircraft is already flying, the aircraft is usually diverted to nearby airports that could allow the pilot to avoid flying under such conditions.
What damage can hail do to an aircraft?
If you have ever experienced hail, you probably know that it can tear apart static objects like leaves, umbrellas, tents, thin sheets of plastic, car windows, and even roofs sometimes. All that while the object is not moving.
An aircraft, on the other hand, is usually traveling at a high speed, so an impact with any hard moving object can be a little more dangerous. On impact, hail can easily pierce an aircraft’s radome, bend engine blades, or crack the cockpit’s windshield. However, while such damage sounds daunting, you should think of it only as cosmetic because hail alone will not cause a plane to crash, but, as we have already mentioned, your flight will likely be diverted to the nearest airport for emergency landing.
So, is it safe to fly during a thunderstorm?
The answer to this question is yes. Generally, the act of flying a plane during a thunderstorm is not a problem. Still, as you already know, the decision to fly under this kind of condition will depend on how dangerous taking off or landing could be.
In conclusion, bad weather does not always make airlines cancel or delay their flights. Clearly, lightning strikes are terrifying, but they are not a problem when flying on a modern plane.
Of course, we have to remember that storms also bring wind and rain or even hail, making things complicated and dangerous.
Nevertheless, as passengers, we can rely on airlines, their pilots, and air traffic control to do their jobs to determine whether a storm is too strong or not for flying. If our flight is not canceled, it means the storm is not severe enough to make flying dangerous for anyone on the plane.
Will I get a compensation if my flight is delayed due to bad weather?
Generally, airlines do not tend to issue full refunds for delays due to bad weather, and often times you will have to provide proof that other flights have been grounded to be entitled to any compensation. However, if your flight has been canceled with very short notice altogether, you can always file a claim to get your money back.
Have there been accidents in aviation caused by bad weather?
The short answer is yes, of course. However, such accidents are extremely rare as modern aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art navigational systems and a weather radar that allow pilots to avoid adverse weather conditions in flight way in advance.
How are airplanes protected from lightning?
Aircraft have two layers of protection. Firstly, they are externally coated with metal composites thick enough to resist lightning strikes, this metal coating controls the entrance of electromagnetic charge into aircraft’s electrical systems. The second layer of an aircraft’s skin is a type of metallic mesh that conducts the electrical charge through the outside of the craft, keeping passengers, the crew, and avionics from voltage.
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A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.
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