Thunderstorm Avoidance, How Commercial Airline Pilots Are Able to Avoid Them

Thunderstorm Avoidance, How Commercial Airline Pilots Are Able to Avoid Them

By Jeff Aafedt

How airlines and pilots navigate around thunderstorms is one of the most frequently asked questions I hear from anxious and fearful flyers, especially if you cannot see them at night or in the clouds. There are several valuable re-sources that provide the tools necessary to avoid flying through thunderstorms.

The first begins with flight planning and weather forecasting. It is the flight dispatcher who is primarily responsible for selecting the route of flight for any given flight on any particular day. A flight dispatcher has unlimited resources available to them to assist them in planning a safe flight. There are several factors that determine what route is chosen but weather, traffic volume, time of day and geographical area are generally the most important. Thanks to phenomenal weather forecasting capabilities it is becoming easier every day to plan flights around actual or forecast thunderstorm activity. There are a few other weather considerations that must be considered and they are the winds aloft referred to as the (Jet Stream) and forecast icing and turbulence areas. They also have highly accurate satellite and radar displays that help provide them an overall big picture allowing them to plan the safest route.

Air traffic control which consists of either a particular cities local tower and approach and departure control facility or a center control facility can assist a pilot in avoiding weather. Their radars are primarily for the safe and accurate monitoring and separation of aircraft but they are able to detect areas of intense or heavy precipitation and keep airplanes away from these areas. This coupled with what the aircraft radars depict and communicated to the controllers help the controllers and pilots maintain the adequate distance from thunderstorms and heavy areas of precipitation.

The final responsibility for thunderstorm and severe weather avoidance lies with every crew and pilot that operates an airplane. They use the first two resources described combined with their on board weather radar to assist them with the most up to date information to assist them in avoiding bad weather. Most modern aircraft radars are able to display levels of precipitation from light to severe. Some on board weather radars are also able to show areas of actual turbulence. There are some rules and procedures for navigating around thunderstorms that assist them in providing the safest and smoothest ride available. There is also a rule called 60 to 1 that assists them in determining the proper lateral offset to navigate around a thunderstorm. All U.S. airlines have rules for operating in areas where there are thunderstorms. They require that a certain amount of lateral offset be maintained per foot of vertical development of a thunderstorm, they also may require an even larger lateral avoidance at altitude based on the actual winds aloft.

Tremendous advances in the last 20 years in ground and airborne radars make thunderstorm detection and avoidance extremely easy compared to earlier years. There is no more need for the anxious and fearful flyer to wonder how pilots see and navigate around thunderstorms, it is not by chance that they avoid them.


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