“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…