There is little doubt on whether planes can fly over a tropical cyclone as clearly demonstrated by this video of a Gulfstream jet flying over hurricane Katrina in 2005 to drop weather instruments.

I do not know the intensity of cyclonic wind at 10km above sea level, but my limited understanding on the subject suggest that the wind is strongest near the surface and weakens with height. If a small plane with high service ceiling can fly over such a powerful storm. Is it possible for a larger plane with a lower service ceiling to fly into a cyclone unscathed?

Considering that most pilots would try to go around a cyclone and that safety regulations may also forbid pilots from putting their passengers in any kind of risk that airlines do not want to bear, by just strictly looking at the aerodynamics and aeronautics of the aircraft, is it feasible for large commercial planes like 747 to fly into a tropical cyclone?

  • $\begingroup$ Consider the flight envelope (maximum cross wind, accelerations, ...) to see if the B747 will stay in one piece into the cyclone $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Oct 11 '14 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ The maximum lift a wing can create depends on the dynamic pressure. If the plane flies well below the speed at which maximum lift equals maximum wing root bending moment (called $v_A$), a gust will not be able to break the plane, but the ride will be very uncomfortable. $\endgroup$ Oct 11 '14 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ I think you mean can fly into a tropical cyclone and survive. Flying into it means nothing. $\endgroup$ Oct 12 '14 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ Anything can fly into a cyclone. The question is whether it will fly back out. $\endgroup$
    – ptgflyer
    Dec 15 '14 at 15:06

If the wind shear (sometimes called wind gradient, which in my opinion is the better term) encountered in that part of the cyclone the aircraft is penetrating is less than what the aircraft can handle, then, yes, an aircraft can safely fly into a cyclone.

What the aircraft can handle varies greatly depending on the speed at which it is being flown. Large aircraft have a recommended turbulence penetration speed, both in terms of knots and mach. In the absence of such a recommendation, V speeds that are relevant are Va, Vb, and Vo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V_speeds is a good V speed terminology reference.

I do not know what typical wind gradient values within a cyclone are or what their distribution within the cyclonic area is. However, I would be surprised if they were significantly greater than gradients within tropical thunderstorms, and aircraft do penetrate such.

In season there's a roughly north-south line of thunderstorms that regularly develops between Sumatra and Sri Lanka with tops greater than 50,000 feet. Lacking the fuel to go around the line, we would regularly go through it using radar to avoid the worst. However, with those old radars (back in the 1990s in 747s), it was not uncommon for us to wind up in a cell.

  • $\begingroup$ I suspect many a seat was browned with sudden wind shear! $\endgroup$
    – Bassinator
    Oct 11 '14 at 19:24
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @HCBPshenanigans True, but that would happen normally as these were Hadj flights out of Jakarta, and most of the pax had never been in an airplane before or, if returning them from Mecca, it was only their second time. High density seating (Indonesians are small generally) so 480 to 500 in back. With sustained heavy turbulence, most of the pax would get sick. During the 10-day break between the inbound and the outbound Hadj flights, the aircraft were taken to Singapore for fumigation and deodorizing. That was then done again at the end of the whole operation. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Oct 11 '14 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting answer. I was hoping if someone with the experience of flying into cyclone can provide further insights :) $\endgroup$ Oct 13 '14 at 7:12

Fly right into a cyclone? Unlikely the plane has been tested for it, and unless the pilot was a former P-3 / C-130 Hurricane Hunter pilot (or has both balls and stomach of steel) unlikely they will try.

P-3 orion and Hercules aircraft have flown into storms many times. They weren't built especially strong other than being a standard military aircraft. A U-2 was used for hurricane research once, and that aircraft is basically flying tinfoil. I suspect it was far enough above the storm that it didn't notice.

So, and this is purely speculative, I think a 747 can take a lot more abuse than it regularly gets. But as the cost of failure is rather high I don't think anyone wants to be first (and possibly last) to try it.


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