Airplanes can fly in the snow without too much difficulty despite the complications that can arise from a snowstorm and bad weather, such as high wind and low visibility.
A common question asked by infrequent flyers is, can a plane fly in snow and icy conditions? What is the truth behind this common concern? Let’s find out.
Can Planes Fly in the Snow?
Even though planes fly in snow and freezing rain all the time, they can cause some problems that make it more difficult. Yet, pilots have ways to compensate even though flying in the snow can impair visibility.
So, nasty weather can be scary. Yet the chances for a commercial flight to get in a fatal accident for any reason haven’t been higher than 0.1 in 100,000 flights since 2000, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Thus, while snow can cause problems and affect a plane’s ability to fly easily, it likely won’t result in an accident. But, there are some issues caused by flying in a snowstorm.
The worst part of a snowstorm for a pilot is poor visibility, which can make take-off and landing riskier than usual.
However, in most cases, snow will not accumulate on the plane’s windshield and exterior while in flight, but it can before flying. When this happens, winter slush can compromise the flight profile of the plane.
So, snowstorms can cause delays since a crew must remove snow before take-off. De-icing may be on the to-do list as well during inclement weather because a plane can not on its own counteract snow and ice.
That said, the snow is not the only or even the worst problem when flying in a storm. Snowstorms often come with cold temperatures, ice, and heavy wind.
Each of these has its own complications.
Commercial flights are no strangers to cold weather. At a typical cruising altitude of roughly 10 kilometers or 32,000 feet, the temperature around the aircraft is typically 62°F lower than the surface due to the thinner air in the upper atmosphere.
So, cold weather is not a big problem for most flights. But, for small aircraft, it can significantly increase the preparation time before take-off.
However, the cold leads to ice, one of the worst aspects of a snowstorm.
Ice forms on the plane’s exterior in snowy weather or feezing rain, just like snow can occasionally. But, ice is much worse than snow and a plane that has fallen victim to freezing needs to be de-iced immediately.
Airplanes rely on their highly designed exterior to achieve and stay in flight. Yet, when enough ice accumulates on the outside, it can reduce the effectiveness of the plane’s aerodynamics.
Thus, many don’t realize the aerodynamic havoc ice frozen on the wings and the leading edge of the engines can cause during poor weather conditions.
So, while on the ground, a heated de-icing chemical sprayed by the ground crew keeps the aircraft from building up icicles before flying.
In the air, however, most pilots use different methods to help planes fly through a snowstorm. Most commercial planes will heat the critical areas with engine exhaust or heating elements.
Icy or wet ground can also make take-off dangerous. For example, wet runway conditions and a poor takeoff roll were some of the reasons that Air Florida Flight 90 crashed in 1982, after taking off from Washington National Airport.
Landing could also be a problem because of a lack of traction, but airports increase landing distances for commercial airplanes during snow and heavy rain so that planes can make a complete stop.
Heavy wind is another problematic aspect when planes fly in snow.
High winds can make both take-off and landing tricky. In-flight, it can also lead to heavy turbulence.
In addition to turbulence, wind can make snow worse and extremely inhibit visibility. Plus, any snow on the ground can blow back into the air, affecting landing and take-off.
However, high wind conditions are usually not dangerous enough to cause an accident.
Read Also >> Can Airplanes Fly in the Rain?
When Will Airports Cancel Flights Because of Snow?
Since complications can arise because of snow, airports sometimes call off flights to avoid safety risks. Yet, airlines are businesses, so cancelations are not a common occurrence.
Thus, oftentimes, they’ll delay the flight if air traffic controllers ask them to instead of instituting any flight cancellations. But, it all depends on the storm’s severity and the airport’s snow management protocols.
Delays can happen when there are serious icing conditions, or when a storm can inhibit flight or disrupt an aircraft from landing safely. Further, if the airport has a long queue for de-icing, this will slow take-offs.
Heavy snow build-up will also cause delays. However, as long as the snow isn’t coming down faster than they can remove it, this will just result in a delay.
Yet, the airport will prioritize certain flights. If this is the case, they may cancel some flights to keep operations running smoothly.
Read Also >> When Do Flights Get Canceled Due To Weather?
Can a Plane Safely Fly in the Snow?
Planes fly in snow all the time, but the question is, is it safe?
After all, flying is not a simple operation even under the best conditions. Add the stresses that come with a winter weather storm, and you have a riskier situation.
Thus, the answer depends on the aircraft and the severity of the storm. For example, smaller planes are usually not as well equipped as large commercial planes to deal with a severe winter weather storm.
The plane’s weight also factors in as heavy planes are more resistant to high winds. However, crosswinds can make the critical parts of a flight more difficult.
So, as long as airline employees take the correct measures, it is basically safe for a plane to fly in snow in most cases.
This safety is primarily due to modern aircraft design and advanced technology. Thus, there is almost no chance weather will make a plane crash even when traveling through winter storms.
Pilots have plenty of tools to keep them aware of the situation. They can detect large storms and avoid them if possible, prevent ice build-up with modern devices, and support visibility with instruments.
So, you have nothing to worry about when in the hands of a trained pilot. Planes land safely all the time, even when an unexpected snowstorm hits mid-flight.
Where in the Atmosphere Does Snowfall Occur?
Smaller storms where the snowfall is the only issue are easy for airlines to get around. The reason is that the typical cruising altitude of a commercial plane is well above any snowfall.
Continuous snowfall typically comes from nimbostratus clouds. These clouds form between 2,000 and 10,000 feet or 600 and 3,050 meters.
Since a plane cruises at about 32,000 feet or 10 kilometers, it can fly over most snowstorms and bad weather.