As I’m writing this, we’ve had a very slow hurricane season, until the past couple of weeks, when Mother Nature has appeared to be making up for lost time. Because we’re suddenly in the midst of multiple tropical storms and hurricanes under our belts in a very short period of time (by the way, here’s a good primer about hurricanes for tourists and other people who usually don’t have to worry about them).
At different points during previous hurricane seasons (June 1 through Nov 30), we’ve known people whose flights have been delayed due to hurricanes, and others whose planes have had to take huge detours because of them. With that, a thought came to me – can commercial planes fly over a hurricane?
The technical answer is yes, but with the caveats of “most of the time” and “they really shouldn’t want to.”
Most commercial planes usually fly at roughly the 35,000-foot mark (well, except during the peak of Covid – here’s why). Hurricanes are usually only (“only?” Ha!) 20,000 to 30,000 feet tall. So a commercial plane could technically fly over a hurricane. But if they did, even if they cleared the storm, there would still be a whole lot of turbulence up there. On top of that, if there was a problem during the flight and the plane had to go to a lower altitude in a hurry, that would put them in the path of the hurricane grade winds. So because of that risk, Air Traffic Control generally doesn’t have commercial airliners fly over hurricanes, save for maybe the rain bands on the far outer edges, which have significantly less wind.
However, although we don’t know the story behind it, Joe did find an Allegiant flight that looks like it flew over a hurricane, a couple of years back. Take a look! Oh, and just the other day, JetBlue flight 1016 from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic to Newark, New Jersey flew over Hurricane Fiona as the then-Category 2 hurricane pulled away from the Caribbean island.
But all of that is assuming the hurricane is relatively small. Large hurricanes, say Cat 4s and Cat 5s, can be much, much taller – upwards of 50,000 feet and sometimes even more. A commercial plane would never be able to fly over that since their upper limits are usually around 40,000 to 41,000 feet.
And then you have the Hurricane Hunter planes, such as the ones run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force’s Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. They fly right through hurricanes, usually several times, in order to get the various readings about wind speeds, atmospheric pressure, etc . However their altitude is usually between 1,000 and 10,000 feet, so they can get an idea of the readings that will most affect the coastline and land it will ultimately hit.
This is part of a video called Stormchasers, which was originally created for IMAX. It shows what Hurricane Hunter planes do:
And this video shows footage of a handful of hurricane eyewalls, which, I think, are eerily beautiful.
So, can you fly over a hurricane? Technically, sometimes, yes. But it doesn’t happen very often at all, and for very good reason.
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