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Why are Thunderstorms Potentially Dangerous to Flying?

Thunderstorms are potentially very dangerous to flying. But that’s only IF you fly into one, or if you fly too close to one, or above one. However, navigating the airplane at a safe distance from the thunderstorm is safe. Thus, no competent pilot will ever intentionally fly into or close to a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms are full of thunder, lightning, rain, hail, and violent winds.

Airplane and Thunderstorm: a cautious relationship of avoidance

The summer season is the most prone time a year for encountering thunderstorms when we fly. That’s when a combination of heat and moisture creates the perfect conditions for thunderstorms to form.

What can flying into a thunderstorm do to an airplane?

An excellent video-presentation of thunderstorms in general. One can easily understand why thunderstorms are dangerous to flying just from this. Video: YouTube/NatGeo.

A thunderstorm has the potential of literally breaking apart an airplane, should a pilot fly into one. Fortunately, thunderstorm flying mishaps do not happen often.

Airliners are well equipped with instruments onboard, such as weather and turbulence radar. Further dangerous weather avoidance support comes from airline dispatchers, the National Weather Service, dynamic hands-on advisories support through Air Traffic Control, as well as pilot reports.

Why thunderstorms are potentially dangerous to planes: hail damage

A320 thunderstorm hail damage
The result of an A320 China Southern Airlines flight into thunderstorm-producing hail. Twitter.

It’s a great system all working together to best avoid areas of thunderstorms worldwide.

More pictures of airplanes, showing why thunderstorms can be dangerous to flying

Inadvertent flight too close to a thunderstorm has happened, regardless of the pilot’s training, competency, or planning:

USAF T-38 thunderstorm hail damage
US Air Force (USAF) T-38 Talon hail damage from a thunderstorm. Photo: USAF.
VS-28 Viking thunderstorm hail damage USN, why thunderstorms are dangerous to planes.
US Navy (USN) VS-28 Viking hail damage from a thunderstorm. Photo: USN.

The topic of thunderstorms is also well covered when a pilot learns to fly, under the subjects of “meteorology”.

Geographically prone areas of thunderstorms

Thunderstorms are prevalent during summer-flying. These huge buildups of clouds bring turbulence and other weather hazards along as well.

In the U.S. the Midwest and the South particularly subject to violent thunderstorms. Other typically thunderstorm-prone areas include flying over the Pacific Ocean and the South Atlantic, and in general, any airspace close to the Equator.

Your pilots will always circumnavigate these clouds at a safe distance to best prevent your flight from becoming unpleasant and to ensure the safety of flight. However, the air in the areas of thunderstorms often produces turbulence.

What are thunderstorms? (cumulonimbus thunderstorm-producing clouds)?

why thunderstorms are dangerous to planes
Thunderstorm above the Amazon jungle, South America. Photo: CaptainJetson.com.

Thunderstorms are caused by cumulonimbus clouds. These are clouds with a lot of moisture typically formed below 20,000 feet, located fairly close to the ground. “Nimbus” means “a large, grey rain cloud”.

How do thunderstorms form?

Cumulonimbus clouds quickly become thunderstorm cells. What’s needed is an updraft, a downdraft, and rain. A thunderstorm cell has thunder and lightning and heavy rain.

How high can thunderstorms go?

The tops of thunderstorms have reached as high as 68,000 feet (20,726 meters)! A typical max altitude an airliner is certified to fly is 41,000 feet. Needless to say, a pilot does NOT fly ON TOP of any thunderstorm.

thunderstorm on the horizon inflight
Thunderstorm from a Boeing 767 above Brazil. Photo: Captain Sanchez, for CaptainJetson.com.

How long do thunderstorms last?

That depends on whether an ordinary thunderstorm or a supercell thunderstorm is building.

a. An “ordinary” thunderstorm

These type thunderstorms begin to dissipate already after 30 minutes or so.

In general, the duration of such type thunderstorms lasts about one hour in total.

b. A “super-cell” thunderstorm

A super-cell thunderstorm is simply one mean storm. They are much larger than ordinary thunderstorms, and they hit with a lot more power.

The duration of such storms can last for several hours.

why thunderstorms represent a danger to flying
Thunderstorms building over West Texas. Photo: John Steyer, for CaptainJetson.com.

Thunderstorm formations consist of three cycles

1. The first stage of a thunderstorm is called “the Cumulus Stage”

During the day the sun heats the surface of the earth, which in turn makes the air warmer at the earth-level.

Warm air is lighter than cold air. Warmer air will rise towards the colder air, creating an updraft.

You need moisture mixed in with the air for a cloud to form.

The moist air condenses into a cloud. That cloud will keep growing as long as you have warm air from below that continues to rise and move upward into the sky.

2. Stage two of a thunderstorm is called “the Mature Stage”

As the cumulus cloud becomes very big the water quantity inside the cloud also becomes heavy and large.

Raindrops will start falling as soon as the rising air is no longer able to hold the water in the cloud.

As this is going on, cold and dry air begins to enter the cloud.

Since warm air is lighter than cold air…

When the heavier cold air enters the cloud, descending into the cloud of warm air, a downdraft occurs. The downdraft starts to pull the heavy water down and rain starts.

3. The last stage is called the Dissipating Stage

The thunderstorm dissipates when the cloud downdrafts overcome the updrafts. If warm and moist air cannot rise anymore, then it cannot produce water droplets either.

The cloud begins to disappear from the bottom to top and simply dies out.

thunderstorm danger to flights
Sunset over Tahiti. Cumulus build-up on the horizon. Photo: CaptainJetson.com.

Comments or questions?

If you have any comments or questions as to why thunderstorms are dangerous to flying you can contact us here.

Featured Image: Thunderstorm over Nebraska, U.S.A. CaptainJetson.com

This article was updated on August 1, 2020.

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