How Summer Weather Conditions Can Affect Flight Safety

We enjoy great weather year-round here in sunny Florida, but when it comes to aviation the summer months can be especially challenging for pilots.

Hurricane season, which begins in June and ends in November, brings with it heavy rain and thunderstorms that affect visibility and may reduce flight safety.

Anyone training to be a pilot in Florida should be prepared for these conditions and understand when to fly and when it’s safer to stay grounded. Here are a few ways summer weather affects flight conditions and some safety tips to keep in mind.

Aircraft Performance

Weather is responsible for 23 percent of aviation accidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Hot weather, in particular, reduces the optimum performance of an aircraft. Air density reduces with temperature, which means that air becomes thinner in hot weather. In the summer—when temperatures normally reach almost 100 degrees in Florida—an aircraft will need a longer runway for takeoff and landing and the engine will run hotter, which produces less horsepower. In hot weather, the aircraft also will have lower vertical speed that affects how many feet it climbs after takeoff.

High elevation coupled with high temperatures can be a challenge for new pilots. If you plan to fly in these conditions, take all the necessary precautions to ensure flight safety. Review the climb performance, cruise performance, takeoff performance and landing performance charts for your aircraft to understand how it will perform in various weather conditions. If you are concerned about flight safety in these conditions, you can wait until the temperature decreases and fly during the late afternoon or early evening when the weather is more mild or you can lighten the load of the aircraft to improve its performance.

Thunderstorm Recognition and Avoidance

We often have very violent thunderstorms in Florida. Thunderstorms have a significant effect on flying conditions and flight safety. For one, they cause severe turbulence, lightning strikes, hail and intense up and downdrafts that make it difficult to operate the aircraft. They also reduce visibility, may cause the engine to ingest a lot of water, or create icing in the engine that leads to power loss. Microbursts, or pockets of sinking air, are another potential danger because they can produce intense winds up to 150 mph. These conditions cause wind shear that changes the aircraft’s wind speed and direction, potentially leading to structural damage and making it more risky to land.

The best rule of thumb for flying in thunderstorms is don’t. The Federal Aviation Administration also has a simple saying you should remember: “don’t flirt….skirt em,” meaning it’s better to avoid or fly over these conditions than to put your safety and that of your passengers at risk.

Pilots should understand the lifecycle of a thunderstorm so they can be aware of when conditions are too severe to fly and when thunderstorm avoidance techniques are more suitable. Some pilots deviate from their flight path, sometimes going hundreds of miles off route to avoid thunderstorms. If the forecast indicates these conditions, check your flight manual and use your weather radar system to make the best judgement call possible about whether it’s safe to fly the aircraft. Weather radar systems aren’t foolproof, but with a certain level of expertise and operational ability it may improve the safety of your flight. Some other things to keep in mind, according to the FAA:

  • Don’t go within five feet of any visible storm cloud with overhanging areas. However, 20 feet is probably a better rule of thumb.
  • Do not fly beneath thunderstorms, even when visibility isn’t an issue.
  • Reduce airspeed to the manufacturer’s recommendation as soon as you experience turbulence.
  • If you accidentally fly into a thunderstorm, maintain a straight and level altitude on a heading to travel through the storm area in as short a time as safely possible.

And here’s another tip: Use common sense. Experienced pilots may be able to handle these conditions, but not others. Do your homework and don’t fly in these conditions as a novice pilot. Flight safety is the first thing you learn as a pilot. And when it comes to aviation, you should always be safe rather than sorry.

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