The simple answer is yes, airplanes can fly in the rain.
Modern aircraft are designed to operate safely in a wide variety of conditions, including rain and snow.
The most extreme example is the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, who fly right into some of the fiercest weather on the planet day in and day out.
But not all planes are designed to take on hurricanes or even light summer showers.
What a plane can and can’t do is up to the pilot, who must thoroughly understand the plane’s operating limitations.
Hazards with Flying in the Rain
Yes, planes can fly in the rain. But pilots can’t just fly willy-nilly into the soup and expect everything to be alright.
There are hazards associated with flying in the rain. Here’s a look from the flight deck at some things to consider.
One of the biggest problems with rain is that it reduces visibility.
For VFR pilots, that might mean that flight visibilities fall below the legal minimums.
If that happens, they’ll have to divert course and land to keep from breaking the rules. If the plane and pilot are instrument-rated, visibility is not a factor except for takeoff and landing.
Rain alone isn’t that big a factor, but rain storms are often accompanied by other weather phenomena that are more problematic.
Rain often induces fog or at least very low clouds. Again, these aren’t problems for instrument-rated pilots on instrument flight plans, but they are a big factor to consider for VFR-only pilots.
Even an instrument pilot can’t always go where they want. Instrument approach procedures specify minimum flight visibility to land and minimum decent altitudes. If the clouds are too low or the visibility is very poor, a pilot still can’t land.
Flight visibility is just one factor, however. Rain can make it difficult to see out the windscreen.
Small planes don’t usually have wipers.
Airliners and transport aircraft do. They also sometimes carry liquid rain repellant that they spray on the windscreens.
Rain associated with thunderstorms (convection) is another matter entirely.
Thunderstorms are hazardous to flight because they contain many dangers including wind shear, severe turbulence, icing, lightning, hail, or even tornadoes.
Not all thunderstorms have these things, but they are all hazardous and deserve a wide berth.
Even airliners divert around strong thunderstorms. Small aircraft should give them lots of space.
Structural icing occurs when water freezes on the surface of the aircraft.
It affects the airfoil’s shape, reducing lift and adding drag and weight. Some planes are certified to fly into known icing conditions and have systems to prevent or remove the ice build-up.
If temperatures are near freezing and there is visible moisture (clouds or rain), the risk of icing is present.
Keeping out of the rain in these conditions is critical if your plane isn’t certified for known icing.
Engine Water Ingestion
Modern reciprocating and turbine engines are tested to ensure that water ingestion from rain will not cause problems.
One consideration planes have to deal with is similar to what cars have to deal with: Hydroplaning.
Hydroplaning occurs when water affects the traction of your tires on the pavement.
In a plane, this means it can affect landing and your ability to stop. As a result, pilots try to make firm touchdowns on wet runways to ensure maximum braking.
Like many things in flying, the answer is simple: Yes, planes can fly in the rain. But there are a lot of nuances that pilots need to know and other hazards that might be associated with rain.
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
Liz Brassaw is a first officer for a regional airline and the former Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Operations Officer for Thrust Flight. She holds an ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, AMEL, ASES with over 2,500 hours of flight instruction given. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the Utah Valley University School of Aviation Sciences. She’s passionate about flying and enjoys instilling that love in the instructors on her team and the new students she trains.