Hurricanes have long been the cause of flight cancellations, especially in regions with severe hurricane seasons. Yet, modern aircraft have been designed to withstand much of the challenges brought by such strong storms.

Flying over a hurricane is possible

Hurricanes are tropical cyclone that generally occurs over the Atlantic Ocean and the northeast of the Pacific Ocean. They usually inhabit the area close to the ground. When we say ‘close’, we mean like 20,000 – 30,000 feet or so in, in the case of a moderate storm. The majority of the disruption, therefore, occurs at ground level. Around the storm, airports will close, and airlines will not take off or land. But high above the storm itself, it is possible for aircraft to fly over the storm.

Meteorologist and pilot James Aydelott previously told The Points Guy that,

“As far as aviation goes, most tropical systems and hurricanes are, generally, not as tall as traditional thunderstorms. The tallest convection in a tropical cyclone is usually clustered around the central core of rotation, whether that’s just a low pressure, or in a hurricane, an eye … As far as flying goes, there should be no issues flying above a hurricane in an aircraft equipped to monitor radar echo tops.”

So, if the hurricane is not too tall, then it is, in theory, possible for aircraft to file a flight plan that takes them up and over away from the disruption. However, severe hurricanes can grow much taller, sometimes up to 50,000 feet or more. This would make it impossible to fly over the weather in a commercial aircraft of any kind.

Why airlines don’t fly over hurricanes

Although commercial aircraft from the likes of Airbus and Boeing are perfectly capable of flying over, or indeed even through, a hurricane, most carriers would prefer not to. Overflying a hurricane would be incredibly risky for any commercial airline.

If something went wrong, such as an unexpected engine problem or a medical emergency, the options for the pilots would be much more limited. A descent for diversion would be possible, but the airports suitable for landing at would be further away.

While most commercial carriers would rather not put themselves at risk by attempting to fly over a hurricane, that doesn’t stop private aircraft from making the trip. For instance, during 2019’s Hurricane Dorian, we looked at online and spotted a North American Sabreliner heading right through the edge of the storm, clearly keen to take a shortcut to its final destination.

Today, special aircraft have been flying into Hurricane Fiona to determine its severity.

While it might be a bumpy ride, the aircraft won’t just fall out of the sky by doing this. Most planes will make it through the worst of the weather in a matter of moments, although the passengers would probably prefer that he’d gone around! Altogether, commercial carriers choose to avoid storms, despite how strong their aircraft are designed.

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What about storm chasers?

The US Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hurricane Hunters are a clear exception to the rule. Not only do they fly when there are hurricane conditions present, but they also fly right into the middle in order to penetrate the eye and collect important data.

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WC-130H 54th Weather Sqn in flight 1977

Colloquially known as ‘Hurricane Hunters’, the USAF 53d WRS, the only military weather reconnaissance unit in the world, operates a fleet of ten Lockheed WC-130J aircraft. With these planes, they fly through the eye at between 500 and 10,000 feet, often several times per mission.

The aircraft are not reinforced, the wings are standard construction, and there are no special modifications made to the plane. Well, apart from the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of meteorological equipment on board!

You can check out the crew flying right into an eyewall of a hurricane in the video below:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates a pair of Lockheed WP-3D ‘Orion’ turboprops. It also holds a Gulfstream IV-SP jet that it deployed for winter storms.

Year by year, hurricanes cause chaos across the globe. Just last year, Boeing donated $1 million to assist with the disaster recovery and relief efforts following Hurricane Ida. So, the ongoing research into these cyclones will prove to be valuable when it comes to damage control.

Would you be happy to be on a commercial flight that flew over a hurricane? What are your thoughts about these Hurricane Hunters? Let us know what you think in the comment section.


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