Airplane in Cloudy Weather - Can airplanes fly in the rain?

Can airplanes fly in the rain? This is something that might come to travelers’ minds, especially for frequent flyers.

Airplanes can fly in the rain. The exterior of a plane and its engines are built to withstand harsh weather conditions. Most of the time, rain can be avoided since most aircraft fly at a cruising altitude of 35,000+ feet. Rain clouds typically sit around 7,000 to 10,000 feet above ground. Pilots likely won’t have to worry about the heavy rain at cruising altitude.

But it’s difficult and sometimes inadvisable to fly in the rain in severe thunderstorms and freezing rain. Heavy rain can lead to poor visibility. This makes it more difficult for planes to navigate to their destination.

Freezing rain can be very dangerous. It can build up on the outside of the plane and increase its weight, reducing lift. It might also block air filters as well as the windshield. Freezing rain can impede visibility fast, so it’s best for pilots to avoid this weather.

The smaller the aircraft, the greater the impact of severe weather. Rain by itself will not prevent planes of any size from flying, in most cases. But severe weather can always cause long delays or lead to flight cancellations.

Commercial planes travel fast, at around 550 miles per hour, so they can pass through small storms pretty quickly. But prolonged storms or harsh weather can be dangerous. Not to mention that the heavy turbulence can be uncomfortable for passengers.

If weather worsens significantly in flight, pilots may choose to land at the nearest airport for safety reasons and wait until the weather clears.

But if the aircraft is on the ground when the weather is questionable, then the flight can be delayed until conditions improve.

Airborne Weather Radar

Cloudy Weather with Airplane

You might be wondering: what if the weather is nice and sunny on takeoff, and then rain and thunderstorms hit a few hours later? Most planes today feature an airborne weather radar that helps them detect inclement weather in real time.

An airborne weather radar emits electromagnetic waves that bounce off of precipitation and travel back to the aircraft. Light weather shows up on the radar as green, light precipitation as yellow and severe weather as red. The most extreme weather shows up in magenta.

The radar does not detect clouds, as they are not dense enough to disturb flight.

If the pilot notices extreme weather on the radar, they can alter their route to avoid it. Typically, if the radar is red, the pilot may alter their route to ensure a safe ride with little turbulence. Air traffic control will communicate with the pilot to change the route. “Yellow” weather can be flown through, but passengers might have added turbulence.

Sometimes, severe thunderstorms can’t be avoided. If this is the case, air traffic control will direct pilots to fly upwind of the clouds, which reduces turbulence. Flying downwind of thunder clouds can result in heavy turbulence.

Forecasting Before Take Off

Lightning Storm

Before every flight, pilots review weather conditions on their route. Well in advance of flying, they can adjust the route if necessary.

If the weather looks harsh, pilots will bring extra fuel in case they need to change their route mid-flight. In the worst case, the flight may be canceled or delayed to wait for the weather to pass.

Even with this preparation, though, pilots cannot be ready for all situations. It’s common that, on connecting flights, planes are delayed due to harsh weather conditions. Have you ever been frustrated by a long layover? Well, inclement weather was probably the culprit.

Beyond the Airborne Weather Radar, planes have a wealth of navigation equipment to get to their destination safely. These navigation tools are all the more important during severe weather when pilots cannot rely on their sight.

  • Automatic direction finder (ADF) – this navigation system dynamically shows the pilot their position relative to a radio station.
  • Inertial navigation system (INS) – this autonomous navigation system includes a computer, accelerometers, and gyroscopes (which measure rotation) to calculate an aircraft’s position and velocity and position in real time. 
  • Radar navigation – Unlike your phone’s navigation system which uses GPS to provide directions, aircraft navigation is radar-based. The radar sends out electromagnetic waves that bounce off other aircraft. This shows up on the radar so pilots know to avoid other airplanes.
  • VOR radar – Very high frequency Omnidirectional Range is a radar system that detects high frequencies, between 108 to 117.95 MHz.
  • Global navigation satellite system (GNSS) – Think of this as an airplane’s GPS. GPS and GNSS are quite similar, but GNSS is a little more accurate since it can communicate with some satellites that GPS cannot. The more satellites that provide navigation, the more accurate the navigation.

Can airplanes take off in the rain?

Looking out an airplane window

Airplanes can take off in the rain, as long as it’s not severe. The most important factor that determines takeoff is the condition of the runway. A wet runway will need to be about 1.3 times longer than usual for the plane to take off safely. This is because the brakes will take longer to engage.

Heavy rain impedes visibility too. But pilots don’t have to rely entirely on their visibility for take-off thanks to flight instruments.

Freezing rain complicates flying significantly. Planes on an icy runway need at least three to four times the normal distance to take off. The same rules apply to landing. Also, ice buildup on the wings reduces lift, so planes need to build up more speed before flight.

Every takeoff is uniquely calculated based on the temperature and altitude among other factors. This gives pilots somewhat of a safety net. They don’t have to react instinctively during takeoff and instead can trust their calculations.

Learn more about how harsh weather influences take off and landing here.

eWas

Some aircraft have apps that can give up-to-the-minute weather updates and information on future weather conditions or potential hazards. eWas is one app that is used by thousands of airplanes around the country. Apps like eWas can also help identify the best alternate route to avoid harsh weather.

WiFi

Today, nearly all planes have onboard WiFi which can forecast weather with great accuracy thanks to GPS.

Can airplanes land in the rain?

Airplanes can land in the rain, if it’s not too severe. If the runway is a little icy or there’s heavy rain, navigation equipment can help pilots orchestrate the landing. But if the weather is too severe, air traffic control might instruct pilots to fly in a holding pattern until the conditions improve. This basically means that the pilot needs to “stall” until either the runway condition improves or the ground crew can clear the ice and snow.

Does rain affect turbulence?

Rain, in most cases, does not impact turbulence. In fact, rain clouds are not even picked up by the typical airborne weather radar. However, when accompanied by thunder, severe weather, or snow, passengers may experience turbulence. It’s a pilots job to avoid severe weather if possible, so they won’t fly head-on into big storms in most cases.

The optimal route that avoids harsh weather is planned in advance. But pilots can’t always guarantee a smooth ride as conditions can change in an instant. In that case, they talk with air traffic control to discuss the best course of action. This could involve anything from an alternate route to an emergency landing.

Will rain delay a flight?

The typical rainy day by itself will not delay a flight. A downpour, thunderstorm, snowstorm, or other inclement weather, can definitely cause delays though. Nearly three quarters of all aircraft delays are weather related. So, keep a close eye on the weather when planning your next flight.

Can airplanes fly in heavy rain?

Stormy Weather

Yes, airplanes can fly in heavy rain. It may reduce visibility but aircraft have advanced navigation technology to help pilots fly safely. Taking off and landing is a little more precarious, though. Wet runways need to be about 1.3 times longer than usual for the plane to gather enough speed for takeoff. Or conversely for landing, the runway needs to be 1.3 times longer to come to a complete stop.

Grooved runways are the best runways to land on in wet conditions, since water sinks into the grooves. This prevents standing water from accumulating, which can be quite dangerous. Too much standing water may result in aquaplaning, which occurs when the airplane moves on water instead of the runway. This can result in a dangerous loss of control of the aircraft, including the ability to brake.

If the runway is too wet, air traffic control may ask pilots to enter a holding pattern. This gives the ground crew time to clean up the runway for landing.

Can a plane land in freezing rain?

Yes, a plane can land in freezing rain. However, the runway needs to be between three and four times longer than normal to ensure a safe landing. Ice reduces the friction between the tires and the runway. So the aircraft will take significantly more time to come to a complete stop.

Also, in severe icy conditions, ice on the outside of the aircraft may weigh it down and increase the time necessary for a safe landing.

Can airplanes fly in thunderstorms?

Airplane Flying Above Clouds

Small or medium thunderstorms do not pose a huge threat to aircraft, since they are built to withstand harsh weather conditions. The passengers may experience some turbulence, but that’s about it. Large storms, or storms accompanied by severe winds, freezing winds, or snow will want to be avoided.

Most storm clouds can be avoided, since commercial planes and jet aircraft fly far above them, at around 35,000 feet. But if a plane finds itself in the midst of a big storm, they will immediately contact air traffic control to find a safer route to their destination.

Also, today’s planes feature forecasting equipment which tells pilots the predicted weather in advance. So, most of the time, pilots will know where a storm is going to hit well before it hits.

You might be wondering: what about lightning? Is lightning dangerous to aircraft in a thunderstorm? Typically, severe winds and freezing weather is more dangerous to an aircraft than lightning.

Today’s airplanes are built to withstand lightning strikes. If your aircraft happens to be struck by lightning, you may see a flash or hear a noise, but it shouldn’t cause any damage.

The outer shells of most aircraft are aluminum or an aluminum composite, which is a great conductor of electricity.

The aircraft’s engines and fuel systems are also designed to direct lightning away from these areas. Any spark near a plane’s engines could lead to a catastrophe, so every part near the engines is carefully designed and inspected to ensure protection against lightning.

In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration must certify that all aircraft and aircraft equipment are lightning protected according to the manufacturer’s requirements. So, safety when it comes to lightning strikes is not taken lightly.

Can planes take off in rain and snow?

Yes, planes can take off in most rainy and snowy conditions. Landing is also safe, as long as you have a long runway. Typically wet runways require about 1.3 times the length of the runway, while snowy runways require about 1.6 to 2 times the length of the runway.

If needed, ground crews use snow plows and deicing fluid to clear snow and ice from airport runways.

Cold weather by itself is not dangerous to fly in. At 35,000 feet, the cruising altitude for most planes, it is about -50 to -60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Is it safe to fly in cloudy weather?

Cloudy weather by itself is generally safe to fly in. In fact, clouds do not show up on weather radars. If cloudy weather is accompanied by a severe storm or windy conditions, passengers may experience heavy turbulence due to strong crosswinds. If the conditions are severe enough, air traffic control will direct the pilots in advance to take an alternate route.

Thanks for reading our article ‘Can airplanes fly in the rain?’ Remember, everyday rain won’t delay or cancel a flight. But severe storms and wind conditions may result in significant delays or a cancellation.

Before every flight, pilots review the weather conditions thoroughly. They are well-equipped to adapt to changing weather conditions thanks to flight instruments, radars, and close communication with air traffic control.

To learn more about aircraft, check out the articles below. Thanks for reading!

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