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When Patricia was making landfall yesterday I opened up Flight Radar 24 to see if there were any planes flying around or near it. As I had expected, there were a couple of storm watching planes near the hurricane, but what surprised me is that there were some commercial flights that seemed to be going over portions of the hurricane...

So, I'm curious, can commercial aircraft go high enough to simply fly over a hurricane, assuming they take off and land at airports that are not effected by the storm? Or perhaps they can only safely fly over the fringes and need to stay away from the eye?

Basically, can airliners fly over hurricanes, and if so can they fly over all of it, or just parts?

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    $\begingroup$ I was in Cancun when a hurricane was about to hit, and all the commercial outbound flights were full so I chartered a bizjet to take my family out. We took off and flew much closer to the 'cane than I expected, and by the time we were at FL250 it was clear skies and we could look down and see the massive spiral. $\endgroup$ – rbp Oct 24 '15 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ ^^ a pressurization fail would have been interesting.... $\endgroup$ – Martin James Oct 28 '15 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ Check out thepointsguy.com/news/… for an instructive article on flying over hurricanes. $\endgroup$ – Terry Dec 23 '18 at 4:33
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In general, no- except in emergencies or 'small' hurricanes.

  • Commercial aircraft usually fly around bad weather (like hurricanes), not over it.

  • Some of the hurricanes can reach upto 50,000+ ft height, making it all but impossible for most modern commercial aircraft to fly over them (except maybe you're flying a Concorde). Even for smaller storms, the convective process over the hurricane will cause severe turbulence, affecting overflying flights.

  • Even for hurricanes where the aircraft can fly over, there is the problem of safety- What will happen is something happens (for example engine failure) and the aircraft has to descend to lower altitudes? Obviously no one wants to descend into the storm.

  • There are some aircraft that do fly into hurricanes for scientific experiments. These are crewed by trained (and experienced) specialists and involve a lot of detailed planning. For example, the aircraft are equipped with radar that helps in avoiding the worst parts of the storm. Still, it is risky and the aircraft is exposed to significant loads and vibrations not usually exposed in commercial service.

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  • $\begingroup$ Patricia sure wouldn't fit the definition of "small hurricane." They're saying it's the "strongest storm ever measured on the planet." $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Oct 25 '15 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ This popped to the top of the active list today with Irene about to hit Florida. I was going to question your use of "Patricia" when I realized the date of the comment. They're now saying the same thing about Irene. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Sep 7 '17 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan You mean Irma. Irene was in 2011. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Sep 7 '17 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ Um, yeah, Irma... nearly the same... :/ $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Sep 7 '17 at 19:04
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A hurricane can reach up into the tropopause at 50,000+ feet, making it impossible for a modern airliner to overfly it.

Even if you could overfly it, you're in a difficult situation where if anything goes wrong (i.e., requiring a descent), your options are much more limited since hurricanes are so large in area.

There are circumstances where you would fly near the edge of the hurricane in order to take off or land before the main part hits.

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Can commercial airliners fly over hurricanes?

They can fly through the top (or even the base) of the hurricane in an emergency situation and nothing will happen, see Flying through a hurricane (YouTube), but it is not preferred to expose the plane to such vibrations if better options, like going around the hurricane, are available.

The critical point is crossing the edge of the hurricane eye. However, an airplane can pass through that zone of high winds in minutes.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't know who voted this down, it's some pretty useful information. It's not the whole answer, but it covers a particular circumstance I'm curious about. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Oct 24 '15 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ It may only take a short time to pass through the eye wall, but even with trained crew and lots of planning, things still go wrong. $\endgroup$ – fooot Oct 25 '15 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know that I would say "nothing will happen." The Hurricane Hunters are trained for this. Everyone else will generally avoid it for a lot of reasons, not the least of those being that the storms are often quite tall, well above the service ceiling of most modern airliners. $\endgroup$ – reirab Oct 25 '15 at 4:48
  • $\begingroup$ Flying through serious turbulences (see: TURBULENCE on Flight BA 244, You Tube) is as dangerous as flying through a hurricane as long as both phenomena induce the same level of vibrations in the plane. Not the speed of the wind is the problem for a plane but the gradient of speeds. If a plane comes from region 1 with the windspeed Vw1 and gets to region 2 with Vw2 there will be a sudden variation in lift, like a punch, that will quickly disaper because lift is independent of the wind speed, excepting transitions zones. $\endgroup$ – Robert Werner Oct 25 '15 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertWerner: Isn't flying through an extratropical (cold-core) storm more dangerous than flying through most hurricanes, precisely because of the greater turbulence? $\endgroup$ – Sean Sep 12 '18 at 23:15

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