Why Commercial Planes Could, But Rarely Do Fly Over Hurricanes

With all the flight cancellations and disruption currently being caused by Hurricane Dorian off the US East Coast, it seems an apt time to address the question of whether aircraft could potentially fly above these weather events. Let’s find out.

Can aircraft fly over hurricanes
Can aircraft fly over hurricanes? Photo: Pixabay

Flying over a hurricane is possible

Hurricanes 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 told The Points Guy last year 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.”

Hurricane Dorian
Hurricane Dorian at the weekend. Photo: NASA’s EOSDIS Worldview via Wikimedia

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 aircraft 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. We checked out hurricane Dorian for ourselves just a few moments ago and spotted a North American Sabreliner heading right through the edge of the storm, clearly keen to take a short cut to its final destination.

A private jet taking a short cut through the storm. Image via FlightAware

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!

What about storm chasers?

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

hurricane hunters
The Hurricane Hunters Lockheed WC-130J. Photo: United States Air Force/MSgt. Curt Eddings via Wikimedia

Colloquially known as ‘Hurricane Hunters’, the USAF 53d WRS operate 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 eye wall of a hurricane in the video below:

Would you be happy to be on a commercial flight that flew over a hurricane? Let us know in the comments.