As Hurricane Fiona pulled away from the Dominican Republic, eventually strengthening into the year’s first Category 3 major storm, more than two dozen flights out of the country’s biggest airport were canceled. But one made it out.
“I have seen the JetBlue flight that apparently went over Fiona and I will say that depending on cloud top heights you CAN fly over a hurricane,” tweeted Nick Underwood, an aerospace engineer who flies into the heart of storms as a member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Hunters to collect vital data.
But, he added, “it is still not something I would recommend.”
It is not unprecedented for pilots to steer close to or over storms, and it can be done safely, meteorologists and aviation experts said. Pilots can make decisions based on weather in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration and with their airlines’ own experts — as was the case Monday evening, a JetBlue spokesman said. The JetBlue flight landed safely at Newark International Airport just before 11 p.m. Monday.
Flight trackers show multiple other JetBlue flights passed through Fiona late Monday into Tuesday.
While the FAA provides some advisory information, it is ultimately up to the airlines and their team of meteorologists to determine whether a flight is safe enough for passengers.
The airline had been monitoring Fiona to determine routes to safely navigate around or above the system, spokesman Derek Dombrowski said, adding that the airline had canceled many flights that could not depart safely.
“Each flight is planned by a team of experts who then monitor progress of the flight and weather continuously,” Dombrowski said in an email. “It is important to understand that when routing a flight both the direction and the height of the weather system are factored into our decision-making.”
The main dangers in flying near or through hurricanes involve lightning, hail and winds, which are strongest near the center of a storm and vary in direction around it. There’s also concern about updrafts — strong vertically oriented blasts of wind present in any type of thunderstorm. One FAA report from 2011 warns of the possibility of “violent turbulence anywhere within 20 miles of very strong thunderstorms.”
“An aircraft when sufficiently high enough can fly safely above a hurricane as long as they avoid the individual thunderstorms that sometimes are adjacent to the hurricane,” a spokesman for the Professional Pilots Association, a nonprofit group through which pilots discuss safety, told The Washington Post.
Still, such conditions nearby would probably not make for a pleasant flight, said Randy Bass, a certified consulting meteorologist who runs Bass Weather Services.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be on that flight,” Bass said.
Fiona was a Category 2 hurricane with maximum wind speeds of 110 mph at its core Monday evening, according to the National Hurricane Center. Data shows the height of its clouds would have made it difficult for any aircraft to avoid.
At the time of the flight, clouds around the hurricane’s eye were as high as 45,000 feet, while on the outer fringes of the storm they were between about 33,000 and 39,000 feet, according to satellite data. In general, Category 2 hurricane clouds reach altitudes from about 33,000 to 46,000 feet.
A mapped track of JetBlue Flight 1016 from Flightradar24 shows the Airbus A320 flew at altitudes between about 30,000 feet and 34,000 feet when it passed near Fiona.
Even for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, safety is a top consideration when planning routes into and around hurricanes. The team, which gathers data used to better understand and forecast hurricanes, flies its Lockheed WP-3D Orion planes into the heart of storms at altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 feet. To explore conditions above and around hurricanes, it flies its Gulfstream IV-SP aircraft at between 41,000 to 45,000 feet, spokesman Jonathan Shannon said.
Shannon said it would be difficult to estimate how high any aircraft would need to be above a storm to avoid turbulence, noting, “every storm can be different.”
Hurricane Fiona battered Puerto Rico Sunday, leaving almost 600,000 residents without power before moving toward neighboring Dominican Republic. Hours before the flight, up to 20 inches of rain was reported on the eastern side of the Dominican Republic, where the Punta Cana airport is stationed, according to the National Hurricane Center. The center also warned of life-threatening flash and urban flooding in the region.