All thunderstorms have conditions that are a hazard to aviation. These hazards occur in numerous combinations. While not every thunderstorm contains all hazards, it is not possible to visually determine which hazards a thunderstorm contains.
A squall line is a narrow band of active thunderstorms. Often it develops on or ahead of a cold front in moist, unstable air, but it may develop in unstable air far removed from any front. The line may be too long to detour easily and too wide and severe to penetrate. It often contains steady-state thunderstorms and presents the single most intense weather hazard to aircraft. It usually forms rapidly, generally reaching maximum intensity during the late afternoon and the first few hours of darkness.
The most violent thunderstorms draw air into their cloud bases with great vigor. If the incoming air has any initial rotating motion, it often forms an extremely concentrated vortex from the surface well into the cloud. Meteorologists have estimated that wind in such a vortex can exceed 200 knots with pressure inside the vortex quite low. The strong winds gather dust and debris and the low pressure generates a funnel-shaped cloud extending downward from the cumulonimbus base. If the cloud does not reach the surface, it is a funnel cloud; if it touches a land surface, it is a tornado; and if it touches water, it is a “waterspout.”
Tornadoes occur with both isolated and squall line thunderstorms. Reports for forecasts of tornadoes indicate that atmospheric conditions are favorable for violent turbulence. An aircraft entering a tornado vortex is almost certain to suffer loss of control and structural damage. Since the vortex extends well into the cloud, any pilot inadvertently caught on instruments in a severe thunderstorm could encounter a hidden vortex.
Families of tornadoes have been observed as appendages of the main cloud extending several miles outward from the area of lightning and precipitation. Thus, any cloud connected to a severe thunderstorm carries a threat of violence.
Potentially hazardous turbulence is present in all thunderstorms, and a severe thunderstorm can destroy an aircraft. Strongest turbulence within the cloud occurs with shear between updrafts and downdrafts. Outside the cloud, shear turbulence has been encountered several thousand feet above and 20 miles laterally from a severe storm. A low-level turbulent area is the shear zone associated with the gust front. Often, a “roll cloud” on the leading edge of a storm marks the top of the eddies in this shear, and it signifies an extremely turbulent zone. Gust fronts often move far ahead (up to 15 miles) of associated precipitation. The gust front causes a rapid, and sometimes drastic, change in surface wind ahead of an approaching storm. Advisory Circular (AC) 00-54, Pilot Windshear Guide, explains gust front hazards associated with thunderstorms. Figure 2 in the AC shows a cross section of a mature stage thunderstorm with a gust front area where very serious turbulence may be encountered.
Updrafts in a thunderstorm support abundant liquid water with relatively large droplet sizes. When carried above the freezing level, the water becomes supercooled. When temperature in the upward current cools to about –15 °C, much of the remaining water vapor sublimates as ice crystals. Above this level, at lower temperatures, the amount of supercooled water decreases.
Supercooled water freezes on impact with an aircraft. Clear icing can occur at any altitude above the freezing level, but at high levels, icing from smaller droplets may be rime or mixed rime and clear ice. The abundance of large, supercooled water droplets makes clear icing very rapid between 0 °C and –15 °C and encounters can be frequent in a cluster of cells. Thunderstorm icing can be extremely hazardous.
Thunderstorms are not the only area where pilots could encounter icing conditions. Pilots should be alert for icing anytime the temperature approaches 0 °C and visible moisture is present.
Hail competes with turbulence as the greatest thunderstorm hazard to aircraft. Supercooled drops above the freezing level begin to freeze. Once a drop has frozen, other drops latch on and freeze to it, so the hailstone grows—sometimes into a huge ice ball. Large hail occurs with severe thunderstorms with strong updrafts that have built to great heights. Eventually, the hailstones fall, possibly some distance from the storm core. Hail may be encountered in clear air several miles from thunderstorm clouds.
As hailstones fall through air whose temperature is above 0 °C, they begin to melt and precipitation may reach the ground as either hail or rain. Rain at the surface does not mean the absence of hail aloft. Possible hail should be anticipated with any thunderstorm, especially beneath the anvil of a large cumulonimbus. Hailstones larger than one-half inch in diameter can significantly damage an aircraft in a few seconds.
Ceiling and Visibility
Generally, visibility is near zero within a thunderstorm cloud. Ceiling and visibility also may be restricted in precipitation and dust between the cloud base and the ground. The restrictions create the same problem as all ceiling and visibility restrictions; but the hazards are multiplied when associated with the other thunderstorm hazards of turbulence, hail, and lightning.
Effect on Altimeters
Pressure usually falls rapidly with the approach of a thunderstorm, rises sharply with the onset of the first gust and arrival of the cold downdraft and heavy rain showers, and then falls back to normal as the storm moves on. This cycle of pressure change may occur in 15 minutes. If the pilot does not receive a corrected altimeter setting, the altimeter may be more than 100 feet in error.
A lightning strike can puncture the skin of an aircraft and damage communications and electronic navigational equipment. Although lightning has been suspected of igniting fuel vapors and causing an explosion, serious accidents due to lightning strikes are rare. Nearby lightning can blind the pilot, rendering him or her momentarily unable to navigate either by instrument or by visual reference. Nearby lightning can also induce permanent errors in the magnetic compass. Lightning discharges, even distant ones, can disrupt radio communications on low and medium frequencies. Though lightning intensity and frequency have no simple relationship to other storm parameters, severe storms, as a rule, have a high frequency of lightning.
Engine Water Ingestion
Turbine engines have a limit on the amount of water they can ingest. Updrafts are present in many thunderstorms, particularly those in the developing stages. If the updraft velocity in the thunderstorm approaches or exceeds the terminal velocity of the falling raindrops, very high concentrations of water may occur. It is possible that these concentrations can be in excess of the quantity of water turbine engines are designed to ingest. Therefore, severe thunderstorms may contain areas of high water concentration, which could result in flameout and/or structural failure of one or more engines.