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Let me say I had no choice other than fly through a storm I'm on a one way mission to airdrop a vital cure to an isolated area. I can't turn around, land or go around, I have to go through. Going around it means I run out of fuel and they all die.

How does a pilot navigate a thunderstorm? What altitude has the least lightning, wind and hail?

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    $\begingroup$ It's hard to think of a realistic case where flying through a thunderstorm is your only option. $\endgroup$ – GdD Jul 16 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD, your plane is overloaded and you really want to go further than the destination you had filed in your flight plan just to satisfy the mandatory fuel margin. (see AF447 on May 31, 2009) $\endgroup$ – bogl Jul 16 at 8:20
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD Not at all. The point is that there are more pilots dumb enough to try it than you would like to believe. Some of them hold an ATPL. $\endgroup$ – bogl Jul 16 at 8:26
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    $\begingroup$ "Going around it means I run out of fuel and they all die." Fly into it and you may die also, never to help another group in the future. How is that any better? $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Jul 16 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ See this video and countless others re hazards of flying in thunderstorms- -youtube.com/watch?v=83uvKWJS2os $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jul 17 at 15:43
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If you're flying through a thunderstorm, lightning is the least of your concerns. Airplanes are struck by lightning all the time, and while it may mess with your electronics (navigation, radio, etc.), it very rarely causes any more damage than that. But to answer the second part of your question, there's no one place in a thunderstorm that has any more or less chance of lightning than any other.

The big issue with flying through a thunderstorm is with the wind. There's a lot of vertical air movement in thunderstorms, and the wind shear can easily cause structural damage to your aircraft if you're not very careful (and sometimes the wind can damage or destroy aircraft even if you are careful. And that's leaving out other dangers, such as hail. Thunderstorms are not good places to fly).

The accepted method for flying in a thunderstorm is to fly straight through (as most thunderstorms are small enough that going straight gets you out of it faster than turning around) at less than your maneuvering speed (to minimize the chance of structural damage to your wings), accepting any changes of altitude (again, to minimize stress on your wings).

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  • $\begingroup$ Hail damage is also a big concern, if you survive the severe updrafts and downdrafts. Give them a wide berth. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Jul 16 at 2:33
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    $\begingroup$ Read the book "Fate is the Hunter" by Ernie Gann. One of the great aviation books. Gann was flying DC-2s and 3s with, IIRC, TWA, in the mid 30s. The latest nav technology available was the ADF and the AN range. Weather radar? What as that? Cells in the way? They would just blunder through storms, hanging on for dear life, using towels to try to limit the water leaking through the DC-3's windshield and windows. $\endgroup$ – John K Jul 16 at 2:57
  • $\begingroup$ Good point, @CrossRoads, I'll add something about hail to my answer. $\endgroup$ – HiddenWindshield Jul 16 at 21:20
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You DO have other choices than to fly through a thunderstorm, or trying to land in one.

It has been mentioned, and I will repeat again, thunderstorms present great danger with wind shear, hail, lightning, and very strong vertical winds. They are to be avoided.

The greatest danger is their unpredictability. In a matter of 1/2 hour they can blossom into the severe category, which will be dangerous to any type of aircraft.

Also, be aware that radar information may not be real time, and in unstable air an apparent opening may close rapidly.

Regarding the scenario presented by the OP, these options can be considered:

Fly over the top of it. Severe thunderstorms can reach over 50,000 feet. Difficult.

Land, tie your plane down, and wait for it to pass. A thought, especially if there is a line of storms approaching. A few hours delay may save the air crew's lives.

Fly around it. This is the preferred option. Carry extra reserve fuel and be aware of the weather.

Important to realize thunderstorms are creatures of vertical airflow. Hail, turbulence, lightning, heavy rain can occur in any part of the storm. Because of the vertical nature of the airflow, strong downdrafts (microbursts) can crash a low flying plane, and turbulence can severely stress an airframe. Softball size hail and tornadoes are a testament to the forces involved here.

However, not all thunderstorms are super cell monsters like the one pictured. If the plane is built to handle it, with proper information and approval, it may be a "GO". But not without risk, which would also include icing.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree wholeheartedly, but this doesn't answer the question @RobertDiGiovanni, it's really a comment. $\endgroup$ – GdD Jul 16 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ Safely flying around a super cell as pictured would involve a radius of around 40 miles. The detour is there for roughly 120 miles. A good rescue plan would not include this scenario (don't forget how hard the Air Force works on logistics (air to air refueling)). Smaller storms containing lightning are commonly flown through, NOT THAT ONE. A rescue pilot would be on the radio asking for options (and using all available resources to complete the task). Getting boxed into a situation where you must gamble, and have no options, is poor. $\endgroup$ – Robert DiGiovanni Jul 16 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ I think it is a good answer and adds to the body. $\endgroup$ – Muze the good Troll. Jul 18 at 16:35

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