How safe is it to fly in bad weather?

by | Intro to Flight School, Learn to Fly

to fly in bad weatherSoon after you begin your flight training you’ll start thinking about the weather. Until now, thoughts about the weather have probably been about whether to sit inside or outside for lunch, or to bring a raincoat when you leave home. Now that you’re actually flying in the weather, your appreciation has taken on a new level, and you may be wondering how safe it is to fly in bad weather.

The decision to fly in bad weather gets harder with experience and training

Pilots are fascinated by weather because they spend so much time in it. The type of weather they encounter will affect whether they need to stop for fuel, or how they approach and land at their destination. Depending on the conditions, the decision to fly in bad weather can become quite complex.

Paradoxically, the more training and experience a pilot has, the harder some of those decisions will become. This is because as pilots add more ratings to their certificate and fly more capable aircraft, they have more options to fly that would not be possible to less experienced pilots. 

Regulations limit when you get to fly in bad weather

As a student pilot you will spend a lot of time studying weather. In the US, depending on the local airspace, pilots have the freedom to fly where they want without filing a flight plan or talking to air traffic controllers.

Partly because of this and also of the unique challenges of flying on low visibility, the FAA has defined two categories of weather based on visibility: visual meteorological conditions and instrument meteorological conditions, with different sets of rules governing each.

Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC)

Visual meteorological conditions exist when you have visibility greater than five miles and ceilings higher than 3,000 feet above the ground. There are additional conditions that you’ll learn about in your training, which may affect if you get to fly in bad weather.

A typical training aircraft flies at about two miles a minute; so minimum VMC enables pilots to see objects roughly two and a half minutes ahead of them, providing plenty of time to maneuver. Student pilots, and pilots with a certificate but no instrument rating are mostly limited to flight under visual flight rules. Your weather briefing will take the conditions into account to help you decide whether or to make the flight.

Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC)

When ceilings drop to 1,000 feet above the ground and visibility is reduced below three miles, instrument meteorological conditions prevail. When the weather is IMC, the airspace is effectively closed to all aircraft except those operating under instrument flight rules. Aircraft flying IFR are operating with a flight plan under the supervision of air traffic controllers. Unlike VFR flight, where you can decide to look at something or change your destination, IFR flight is more structured since the pilots are unable to see out the windows and are relying on their instruments to guide them. When flying on an instrument flight plan, you’ll need to decide whether to fly in bad weather.

Marginal VFR

You will have noticed a gap between IMC (1,000 feet ceilings and three miles visibility) and VMC (3,000 feet ceilings and five miles visibility). This range (1–3,000 feet ceilings and 3–5 miles visibility) is called marginal visual flight rules. It is legal for VFR pilots to fly in MVFR conditions, but to do so safely take skill, experience, and knowledge of the local area. Flying in MVFR conditions can be a scary experience and it can be worth heeding the words of a briefing saying “VFR flight not recommended,” before deciding whether to fly in bad weather.

When is it dangerous to fly in bad weather?

For instrument rated pilots, flying in low visibility can be challenging and fun. It’s necessary to be focused and rewarding to watch the runway lights appearing out of the gloom after completing a long flight in the clouds.

Larger, more sophisticated aircraft are built strongly and equipped with anti-icing systems, radar, and other tools to navigate weather. With such capability, the briefer can no longer recommend against flying. Instead the pilot must fully understand the weather systems they will be flying through. More importantly, because pilots are already in the clouds and can no longer see and avoid embedded cells, they need to understand what might be hidden inside.

The most dangerous weather is avoided by all aircraft, regardless of capability. A fast developing thunderstorm can easily out-climb an airliner and exceed it’s altitude ceiling. This is why you’ll hear on the news about airliners diverting because of weather, or air traffic congestion caused by airliners following each other through a gap in a line of storms.

Only the bravest–-or most foolhardy––pilots deliberately fly into the worst weather, and the highest accolades must go to the crews who fly into hurricanes to track and monitor them. These storm chasers fly right into the eye of the hurricanes in aircraft modified with sensors designed to track the storm’s speed, direction, and whether the pressure and temperatures are rising or falling. Next time you’re watching the progress of a hurricane on the news, remember that there are probably pilots flying aircraft inside of it.

With the right training, the right equipment, and most importantly proficiency, it can be safe to fly in bad weather. But it’s important to remember that such skills are beyond the capability of most of us.

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