Bad weather can hamper many travel plans – especially if that weather involves ice or snow. And given the dangers involved with flying in wintry conditions, it would be smart to check up on how well airplanes can operate in snowy and icy weather.
So, can airplanes take off and land in snow and ice? Yes, airplanes can take off and land in snow and ice – if the right precautions are taken. Plowing the runway, and de-icing both the runway and the plane can make it safe for airplanes to operate in wintry conditions. However, sometimes conditions are too dangerous for any flying to take place.
In this article, we will take a look at the steps that must be taken for airplanes to take off and land in snow and ice safely. We will also cover the relative safety of flying in snowy weather, and hopefully, we’ll put your mind at ease about flying during the winter.
Is it safe to take off and land in snow and ice?
Some of the busiest airports in the world, like the ones in the United States and Europe, see a lot of snow and ice during the winter season. And coincidentally, the holiday season for both these regions also falls in winter. So reducing air traffic is not an option for airports and airlines during this time. Life has to go on, and in fact, at a higher volume than usual.
To enable air travel in harsh winter conditions, airport officials and airlines have developed certain procedures to make it safe to take off and land during snow and ice.
Unless conditions are extreme, airport officials usually allow for takeoff and landing in snow and ice. However, they do take numerous precautions before approving aircraft for takeoff or landing. As mentioned above, these precautions include plowing and de-icing runways, as well as de-icing planes.
Plowing snow & de-icing runways
As we’ve already mentioned above, it is technically possible to land on an icy or snowy runway. Since airplanes are extremely heavy, it is unlikely they will skid like a car or truck would on icy roads. Also, they can easily pass through snow or slush.
However, these do conditions do greatly diminish the airplane’s ability to apply its brakes. This is why airport officials try to keep the runway clear of snow and ice.
Snow is easy to deal with: it can simply be plowed or shoveled out. Then to remove the remaining slush or the ice that can form on the surface of the runway, airport officials use sand or a chemical that breaks the bonds of ice and snow (like potassium acetate).
Most airport officials don’t allow take-off or landing on snowy/icy runways. If the pavement isn’t completely clear, they will almost always delay outbound flights and ask inbound planes to maintain a holding pattern until the runway can be cleared. And sometimes, if the conditions are too harsh for easy clearing, planes may divert to an alternate runway or airport.
However, in some rare instances, planes are allowed to land on sub-par runway conditions. This will only occur if the plane is experiencing a mechanical malfunction or a lack of fuel. It’s still not unheard of, though.
It’s important to note that merely removing the snow and de-icing the runway isn’t enough for a plane to take off or land. While it is technically possible for a plane to use a snowy/icy runway, there is one other factor that prevents them from taking off in these conditions: ice on the plane itself.
Airplanes are huge metal tubes, and therefore accumulate a lot of ice on their surface. If not removed, this ice can prove to be more dangerous than landing on a snowy runway.
Aircraft designs are so meticulous and precise that even a small layer of snow or ice on their surface can hamper their performance. This is why airport officials and airlines have to perform a de-icing of an aircraft before allowing it to take off again. If you’ve flown during the wintertime, you most likely have experienced a de-icing delay.
Why is de-icing airplanes important?
To understand why de-icing the aircraft is so important, you must understand how it is that airplanes take flight.
There’s a physical force known as lift that arises when any solid object (like an airplane) deflects the flow of a fluid (like air). The resulting force counters the gravitational pull experienced by the plane, helping it take flight and stay in the air. The propeller or the engine of the airplane helps it move forward.
The aerodynamic design of the aircraft is the most crucial element in helping it stay in the air. Of course, a little bit of ice is bound to accumulate during a long flight. But if proper precautions are not taken, and ice is carelessly allowed to accumulate on the surface of an airplane, it could seriously alter the streamlined flow of air over the aircraft body.
An accumulation of ice on an aircraft can result in some serious turbulence or aerodynamic failure that results in a crash. The tragic crash of USAir Flight 405 is one example of ice causing a fatal accident.
Safety of Flying in snow
There is one more scenario that we would like to discuss in this article: the safety of flying in the snow. What if a plane decides to take off while it’s snowing? Or if it simply starts snowing while the plane is in flight?
First of all, it seldom snows at the altitudes at which your typical commercial airline flies. Most commercial planes fly at between 31,000 and 38,000 feet. And while clouds can form at any altitude up to 60,000 feet, the types of clouds that create snow (frontal cirrostratus, altostratus and nimbostratus clouds) typically form at below the 10,000-foot mark.
Also, the temperature at which an airplane cruises is usually around -70ºF (or -56ºC). This temperature is safe for an airplane to fly in. So unless the visibility is seriously impaired due to bad weather, flying in typical winter conditions is usually pretty normal.
If you want to feel even safer, know that modern airplane pilots are well trained on how to navigate and land an aircraft during extreme conditions. So you can rest assured and trust your pilot to land you safely even if the weather takes a turn for the worse.
It is technically possible for airplanes to take off or land in snow and ice. And in emergency situations where there isn’t enough time for the runways to be cleared, they may actually need to do so. The one major problem with landing in snow or ice is that the braking mechanism of the plane becomes inhibited.
However, despite it being possible to land and take off in snow or ice, airport officials take the proper precautions by clearing the runway beforehand. They may use sand or chemicals like potassium acetate.
But just clearing the runway isn’t enough. One of the most crucial steps in taking off during snow and ice is the de-icing of the airplane itself. Airplanes accumulate ice particles and snow on their surfaces while flying/grounding in cold and icy conditions. The de-icing removes the accumulated ice and helps the plane regain its aerodynamic streamline design, which is necessary for taking and maintaining flight.