Why do planes fly into hurricanes but not thunderstorms?

Answer lies in vertical wind shear

NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N42RF, also known as "Kermit," taking off from Tampa, Florida, on Jan. 18, 2017.
NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N42RF, also known as "Kermit," taking off from Tampa, Florida, on Jan. 18, 2017. (NOAA)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Data from within a hurricane can be collected from many sources. Information in real time can be taken from above and below the storm from resources like buoy data, satellites and radar.

One of the most helpful tools for forecasters is the Hurricane Hunter, which is a specialized plane with a crew made up of pilots and meteorologists who fly into the eye of tropical systems.

These seven- to 10-hour flights give forecasters highly useful information that helps in determining the hurricane's intensity and forecast path. 

But some might wonder why planes can fly through a category 5 hurricane but not through a strong afternoon thunderstorm. The answer is that it all depends on the predictability of the winds within the flight.

The most dangerous element pilots encounter is the vertical wind shear within a storm, not the strength of the horizontal winds. Vertical wind shear is the violent upward and downward motion usually found within strong thunderstorms. Hurricanes, on the other hand, are made up of a more uniform horizontal wind.

The slight upward and downward movement of air is what we, as passengers on a plane, would call turbulence. If a plane flies into a strong storm, strong shear could cause severe damage to the plane, loss of visibility and other very hazardous situations. 

Flying into a hurricane, is surprisingly not very bumpy. Pilots on the the Hurricane Hunters say the stronger and more organized a hurricane is, the smoother the ride. This is because the storm and its layout are more predictable, allowing the pilot to ride the winds and monitor while avoiding the hot spots of strong storms.

So when your next flight is delayed due to weather, have some comfort in knowing that not even the Hurricane Hunters could fly out in that weather.

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