Can pilots detect thunderstorms on a commercial aircraft?
A look at the weather radar capabilities on a commercial jet…
Can passenger jets detect thunderstorms?
Yes they can. Commercial Aircraft have weather radars onboard which allows the pilots to measure the size of the water particles in a cloud which in turn allows the flight crew to make an assessment on the type of cloud it is (i.e. a thunderstorm) and whether to avoid it or not. The radar returns are imposed on a map, with varying colours which signify the size of the water droplets.
A cloud with large water droplets signifies that there are large vertical updrafts associated with it, which is a sign that the cloud could be a Cumulonimbus which is potentially hazardous to aviation.
Pilots do their best to avoid thunderstorms as they can be dangerous to passenger jets.
How the weather radar works
A weather radar uses a doppler system, which sends out a beam which is reflected by the water particles. The level of reflection depends on the size of the water droplets.
Pilots should have a good idea before the flight weather they should be on the look out for adverse weather such as thunderstorms. In the preflight briefing stage, the flight crew look through the flight paperwork, which includes weather reports for the departure, destination and en-route phases of flight. One or more diversion (alternate) airfields are also looked at, ensuring the weather at these airports is suitable to land it should the aircraft not be able to land at it’s scheduled destination.
Pilots will actively avoid taking the aircraft into Cumulonimbus type clouds as they can be hazardous to aviation. They can be very turbulent due to the updrafts and downdrafts, contain icing, heavy rain and hail and lightning.
Generally speaking, it’s best not to overly a Cumulonimbus cloud, as it can be in the formation stage where it can potentially out climb an aircraft. They can extend to over 50,000ft over the Equator where troposphere is at its highest.