Flying through a storm: How is it?

When it comes to flying, one of people’s greatest fears is the fear or storms. What if we end up inside a storm? How is it? What if our plane gets hit by lightning? Are the pilots prepared to handle it without panicking? Was the plane designed in order to be able to cope with such an event? Well, these are all rational questions, and I will give rational documented answers to every one of them.

First of all, let’s get one thing clear: If the plane is ready to take-off but there is a thunderstorm over the airport, it will not take-off. This is called a ground-stop. It’s unsafe for the airport mechanics and personnel to be under or near the aircraft during electrical storms. Grounding the plane is also a precautionary measure, not really because of lightning, but because of potential wind shear related to storm clouds. So if the air traffic controllers spot lightning, they will delay the flights.

Even if the aircraft takes off in good weather, it may run into a thunderstorm along the way. The probability that such a situation occurs is as high as the probability that we find rain when driving. So, just as any experienced driver is used to driving in any weather, all aircraft pilots are trained and accustomed to flying in bad weather conditions or during thunderstorms.

Modern aeroplanes have accurate weather radars that allow pilots to spot looming thunderstorms even in complete darkness. Air traffic controllers have access to weather radars as well. So once thunderstorms are spotted it is easy for aeroplanes to fly around them. If there are more thunderstorms in a certain area, the pilots will try to find a path in between the storms. If no such path exists, the plane will be diverted to a different airport. However, most thunderstorms are clearly localized, so it’s easy to just fly around them. That’s why, most of the times the plane flies over or around a storm and not directly through it.

What happens if lightning hits a plane?

If the plane gets hit by lightning, there are two things that can happen:

- If it isn’t a direct hit, the lightning will just travel on the outside of the plane.
- If it is a direct hit, it actually goes directly through the plane.

Paul Evrard, a retired airline pilot with a long flight experience, recalls a few instances when his plane got hit by lightning during storms:

A couple of times, when lightning hit, we got a 4-generator failure – result, we lost the main lights in the cabin for a few seconds, besides turbulence at the same time, but it was only momentary. One other time, a lighning hit, and our long-range communication radios failed and could not talk to ATC control – so we were forced to ask for relays from other aeroplanes with the short-range radios.

As a pilot, we also have turbulence accidents – I got my cup of coffee, or my glass of ice-tea on my lap a few times, but I took my pants off, good excuse to show my sexy legs to the cute flight attendants!

So, during the huge number of hours he has flown, there wasn’t a single time when the passengers or the aircraft were at risk. Most of the times they just lost the main lights for a few seconds.

A crew member and frequent flyer also talks about her experiences:

Once, I’ve seen the lightning travel down the aisle, which was freaky and awesome all at the same time. The electrical system in the plane just needed to be re-booted but thats about it, no real damage and no passengers were harmed, just scared because its wild to see.

How do you feel during a thunderstorm?

During a thunderstorm, there are very strong winds that can shake even large aircraft a little bit. The smaller a plane is, the more wind and turbulences will beĀ  felt. As large planes put up stronger resistance to the wind, the passengers will feel less bumps.

Usually, in case of lightning and turbulence, the captain will make an announcement about it and will gently ask everybody to return to their seats and buckle-up. Sometimes, the bumps that are felt during a storm can be stronger then the drops caused by lower pressure areas. So, things can be scary for a few seconds. Talking about this, Paul Evrard – a retired 747 pilot – confesses:

My airplane has been hit by lightning a dozen times, and I have to admit, it frightens you (the bang and the flash) for 2 seconds… even though you think that we are “old pros” and “flying aces”, and that we never get scared.

Which are the best seats?

In the case of a storm or of sudden drops, the bumps will be perceived differently in various parts of the plane. The best seats – from which turbulence is felt less – are the ones over the wings or close to the center of the aircraft. The area between the wings is less shaky as it is closed to the centre of gravity of the aeroplane.

The second best seats are the ones close to the front of the aircraft. The worst places for any type of turbulence are the ones in the rear. From those seats, you will feel every single bump during the flight.

Conclusion

As a frequent flier, I have often flown close to storms. The experience is not at all as bad as it may seem. You will have turbulence, and it can get bumpy. But as pilots always avoid flying directly through storms, you will never be flying in a dangerous storm. While flying at cruise altitude, you will only fly around storms or above them. This may offer you an amazing sight!

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