There are some nuances within this general statement, however, which you may find interesting if you’re a nervous flyer or are just curious about how airplanes fly. Continue reading to learn why rainy days (almost) never keep planes down.
How Planes Fly in the Rain?
The wings and engines of today’s aircraft work together to produce “lift,” which moves the plane upward off the ground by changing the direction and pressure of the air. In general, rain does not impede this process—in the majority of cases, the answer to whether planes can fly in the rain in a resounding “yes.”
This is true both when it comes to take-off, as well as when a plane is at cruising altitude (usually around 35,000 feet), since the majority of rain occurs at lowers levels of the atmosphere. This is why skies outside an airplane are typically clean, even if the weather on the ground is rainy or overcast.
How Much Rain Can Ground a Plane?
The heaviness of rain does not affect the answer to the question “do planes fly in the rain,” per se. Technically speaking, lift can occur irrespective of how heavy rain is. Within this paradigm, two main issues come up: Visibility and auxiliary weather conditions.
If rain is too heavy, the pilot’s visibility can be impaired, which can make it unsafe to take off, thereby preventing his or her aircraft from flying. In rare circumstances, heavy rain can also cause a plane’s engine’s to “flameout,” though pilots can usually re-ignite them.
Freezing Rain and Flight
Rain that falls at high altitudes (where temperatures are much colder than at ground level) can in extremely rare instances freeze on a plane’s wings. This presents the remote possibility of a stall, a reduction in lift that can cause the plane to fall from the sky if pilots are not able to regain lift. Thankfully, they almost always are!
Likewise heavy winds, lightning and other adverse conditions often accompany heavy rain, and these are often enough to prevent a plane from flying. If temperatures are below freezing, on the other hand, rain can freeze when it hits the ground, which can create slick runway conditions that are unsuitable for take-off. Freezing rain can also adhere to the aircraft itself, which requires de-icing before flight in this case.
Can Planes Land in the Rain?
Rain can affect an aircraft’s ability to land much in the same way it affects its ability to take-off. Namely, that if rain on the ground is too heavy, the pilot cannot see well enough to land the aircraft; or accompanying weather conditions can make an unsafe landing impossible.
Aircraft tires are extremely heavy-duty, so rain generally can’t slicken the runway enough to make landing unsafe. Once again, however, freezing temperatures can change the answer to the question “can planes fly in the rain?”—a frozen runway can be almost impossible to land on! Visit National Geographic to learn more about how pilots determine if weather is safe for flying.
Historical Air Accidents Caused by Rain
Although weather accounts for up to a quarter of air accidents worldwide, rain alone has almost never brought an airplane down. One notable exception was Garuda Indonesia flight 421, which suffered a flameout over the island of Java in 2002. Pilots couldn’t restart the engines and had to land the plane in a river, which was successful, though one flight attendant died due to aircraft damage.
Several notable air incidents have occurred due to stalling, which as noted can sometimes happen as a result of frozen rain on an aircraft wing. However, other conditions besides rain contributed to the crashes of flights such as Air France 447 in 2009 and Air Asia 8501 in 2014, to name just a couple of relatively recent examples.
Do planes fly in the rain? The answer is ” yes” in the majority of cases, though there are some finer points to consider:
- Heavy rain can impair pilot visibility
- Other weather (winds, lightning, etc.) can accompany heavy rain
- “Flameouts” can occur, require pilots to re-ignite engines
- High-altitude rain can freeze and cause a plane to “stall”
- Freezing rain at ground level can present additional dangers
Modern aircraft are extremely capable, and so are the pilots that fly them. So relax, take a deep breath and browse flights on Skyscanner to take you to your next destination!