Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why I don't complain about weather-related flight delays

Chicago weather is synonymous with summer thunderstorms and heavy winter snowfalls. The city is home to 2 major (and very busy) airports, so when the weather takes a turn for the worse, flight delays mount; with prolonged weather challenges, the chances of a flight cancellation rise. The worst days are when the effect spreads across the country. Been there, done that.

Weather, smeather! What's the big deal?

Commercial jets are most vulnerable to the effects of severe weather when flown low and slow, which corresponds to every takeoff and landing. Most people don't know that ice accumulation on a wing can cause a plane to stall and crash at normal takeoff speeds, or that the effects of the winds from a thunderstorm can cause a large jet to fall from sky while attempting to landing.

Ground-based weather effects like rain, snow and wind are familiar, but all bets are off once you take to the air. Yes, it's probable that you could successfully drive a car through torrential rains, heavy snows, or gale-force winds using extreme caution. But a pilot attempting to fly an airplane through the same weather would be lucky to survive. Why?

Gravity keeps a car firmly attached to the ground, but an airborne plane is constantly fighting gravity's pull. With one poorly timed gust of wind, burst of rain, or patch of icy atmosphere, a plane can instantly lose the ability to fly (called a stall) and gravity wins. Yes, in most cases stall recovery is possible, but sufficient speed and altitude are required, both which are lacking when a plane flies low and slow.

So when I'm traveling for work or pleasure, I always remind myself that weather delays are implemented for safety reasons. Instead, I read a book or walk around the terminal. Yes, I will arrive late, but in this case it is better to be late than to risk never arriving at all.


Dr. Dave

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