The British Airways captain ranks the most dangerous weather conditions, from fog to thunder, and gives them a score out of 10 for their ability to disrupt a flight

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What is the worst weather to fly?

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Captain Steve Allright runs the British Airways Flying with Confidence course for nervous flyers and reveals in the fascinating companion book Flying With Confidence: The Proven Program To Fix Your Flying Fears (Random House UK) that he is often asked this question by participants.

To answer this, in the book he again ranks the 10 most potentially dangerous species for their ability to cause distraction, based on his own personal experiences and distraction stories from peers.

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Read on for his ranking – “The higher the number, the more fuel I have on me”.

Additionally, Air Canada Dreamliner Captain Doug Morris’ book This Is Your Captain Speaking has more information on flying in inclement weather.

Captain Steve Allright teaches the British Airways “Flying with Confidence” course for nervous flyers

High temperatures (and/or high altitude airports). Reversed score – zero out of ten

Captain Allright says: “When the air is very hot, it becomes very ‘thin’ and the engines do not run as efficiently and the wings do not generate as much lift, the same effect as at very high altitudes such as Johannesburg (1753m).

“We call these airfields ‘hot and high’ and although this combination is safe, it presents a particular challenge for pilots. We just need a longer runway and we have to consider the impact of conditions on aircraft performance.”

Captain Doug Morris further explains that takeoff speeds are faster in these conditions, with pilots sometimes reducing weight – fewer passengers and less cargo – to ensure the plane flies safely.

He writes: “Many airlines in the Middle East operate most of their flights in the early morning hours as temperatures are slightly cooler. Fortunately for them, most airports are at sea level.”

Because of their altitude, Captain Morris adds, Denver (5,434 ft/1,656 m) and Calgary (3,556 ft/1,083 m) have some of the longest runways in North America.

Fly with Confidence - The proven program to overcome your fear of flying (Random House UK) is now available

Fly with Confidence – The proven program to overcome your fear of flying (Random House UK) is now available

Ice. Redirected score – one out of 10

Captain Allright says: “There are two effects of ice, one on the ground and one in the air. For a safe take-off the wing blade must be free of ice. For this reason, airplanes are routinely de-iced in the morning after a frost and before each takeoff. In the air, when flying through clouds at air temperatures around freezing, ice can form on the wings, usually on the leading edge.

“All commercial aircraft have some form of anti-icing and/or de-icing system on board, usually hot air drawn from the engine and directed along the leading edge of the wing.

“An icy runway would not be impossible to land on – airports in very cold climates often have heated runways.”

Captain Morris points out one of the advantages for pilots in cold weather.

He writes: “Cold temperatures mean denser air, which is welcomed by any pilot. Cold air at -40°C is about a third denser than warm air at 40°C. Denser air creates more lift over the wings and flight controls, and more thrust from the engines and propellers.

“You will understand what pilots mean when they refer to climbing performance as a ‘homesick angel’.

He adds that one of the cold weather challenges is moving livestock — “hairless cats and dogs are not allowed to travel in the winter.”

Greeted. Redirected score – one out of 10

Captain Allright says, “Hail is usually only associated with thunderstorms or fast moving clouds, and you would have to fly into such a cloud to expose the aircraft to hail. Although not impossible due to the limitations of busy airspace, it is extremely rare and usually only happens for a very short period of time. I’ve flown through hail a few times and apart from being quite noisy in the cabin, it has absolutely no effect on the aircraft. I have seen images of aircraft suffering hail damage from extremely large, dense hail, all of which landed safely.”

heavy rain Redirected score – one out of 10

Captain Allright says: “Modern aircraft engines can absorb an enormous amount of water, such as flying through a dense rain cloud. The only real concern for pilots operating in heavy rain is a flooded runway. As the aircraft are very directional on the ground and also equipped with highly effective anti-lock brakes, even then it would take a heavy and sudden downpour to render a runway unusable.”

Captain Morris adds that a wet runway actually has a bonus for pilots – it makes it easier to avoid a hit on landing.

Lightning. Redirect Rating – Two out of 10

Veteran Air Canada Dreamliner captain Doug Morris (above) is the author of the fascinating book This Is Your Captain Speaking.

Veteran Air Canada Dreamliner captain Doug Morris (above) is the author of the fascinating book This Is Your Captain Speaking.

Captain Allright says, “Lightning strikes are rare, but the aircraft is well designed to handle such an event. In fact, the strike usually has no effect whatsoever on the operational capability of the aircraft. This is mainly because all aircraft are equipped with static fuse on the back of the wing and tailplane. It is about the size of a long pencil and is specifically designed to dissipate excess static electricity that can build up on the plane. Lightning can be quite a concern as it is usually a loud but rest assured that it will have little or no impact on aircraft safety.’

Captain Morris adds that planes are struck by lightning about once a year and then inspected by engineers.

Miss. Redirected score – three out of 10

Lightning strike is rare, but the aircraft is well designed to handle such an event. In fact, the strike usually has no effect whatsoever on the operational capability of the aircraft
Captain Steve Allright, British Airways

Fog isn’t dangerous or difficult for pilots to fly, says Captain Allright, but he gets a three because it usually causes delays.

He continues: “Almost every modern airport has an Instrument Landing System (ILS) that allows aircraft to land safely even in limited visibility.

‘[But] the normal distance between landing aircraft should be increased during low visibility operations.”

This, he explains, results in a reduced “flow rate” and causes aircraft to “stick” to a queue system.

He adds, “If fog is forecast … many of us will consider additional fuel to last longer.”

Snow. Redirected score – three out of 10

Captain Allright says: “Snow is not a problem for aircraft in the air, but delays can occur on the ground. For the same reason that ice must be removed from the wing, the same applies to snow. Heated deicing fluid is used to remove snow that has settled on the wing, and then deicing fluid is applied to create a “guard” that prevents further snow from settling on the wing.

“In addition, our pilots always check from the cockpit shortly before take-off whether the wing is still free.

“If you ever get on an airplane that has been de-iced, you may find that the liquid applied is green or orange. This is intentional to indicate that it still exists. It may seem quite bulky, and that is also normal.

“Landing on a snow-covered runway is not normal, but it is perfectly safe as long as the snow is compacted.

“The biggest problem with snow is that parking spaces can be limited because aircraft waiting to be de-iced occupy spaces that would otherwise be empty.”

This Is Your Captain Speaking (Ecw Press) is now available

This Is Your Captain Speaking (Ecw Press) is now available

Strong wind. Redirect Rating – Four out of 10

Captain Allright says: “High winds are caused by many different weather conditions, and aircraft are well equipped to deal with them. Each aircraft type of course has its own limit, usually around 70mph or, if the wind happens to be blowing across the runway, called crosswinds, closer to 50mph.

“A crosswind takeoff or landing can be dramatic on the outside, but it can also feel quite uncomfortable on the inside. Pilots are trained for this challenge and we get professional satisfaction from handling it safely.”

Captain Morris adds that take-off in a 100mph wind blowing on the runway is “feasible”. “Getting to the runway will be the challenge,” he explains. “You also have to think about ground operations and rubbish flying around.”

Thunderstorm Redirection rating – five out of 10

Captain Allright says: “Cumulonimbus cloud, or ‘Charlie Bravos’, CB’s as we call them, are probably the most challenging of a scheduled arrival. It is very unlikely that the flight crew will take off or land with a massive thunderstorm overhead due to the rapidly changing wind conditions, lightning strikes and heavy precipitation in the form of rain or hail.

Fortunately, commercial aircraft are equipped with high-tech weather radar that detects this precipitation, allowing the flight crew to spot a thunderstorm more than 100 miles away and take action day or night. It is possible to fly through a thunderstorm safely and sometimes it is necessary due to the busy airspace. It will feel quite turbulent and uncomfortable in the cabin, but it is completely safe. Thunderstorms are really only a problem when there is a big storm over an airport you plan to land at. The wind around and below a thunderstorm can change speed and direction very quickly, changing the lift generated by the wings.’

Fly with Confidence – The proven program to overcome the fear of flying (Random House UK) is now available.

To enroll on British Airways’ Flying with Confidence course, please visit www.flyingwithconfidence.com. The day usually starts around 09:00 and is divided into morning sessions (technical) and afternoon sessions (psychology), followed by a BA jet flight with continuous commentary from a pilot from the cockpit. The course is offered in London Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Dubai and Johannesburg. The courses at the last two locations are entirely on the ground, with no flying.

Steve Allright is a regular on the Heathrow circuit and has been a British Airways captain on the 757/767, 747 and now flies the 787. He has logged over 18,000 flight hours.

Coming soon – MailOnline takes the Fly With Confidence course to see first-hand how it helps nervous flyers.

This Is Your Captain Speaking by Captain Doug Morris now outside.

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