Boy, the experts weren’t joking when they said this would be the worst hurricane season in years. As Category 5 Hurricane Irma makes landfall this weekend with record-breaking winds, you might be thinking twice about jumping on a nearby airplane anytime soon.
That’s exactly what 173 Delta passengers and flight crew members did on Wednesday afternoon, though. Delta Flight 302 was the last commercial flight to leave San Juan, Puerto Rico before the airport shut down due to the hurricane, Wired reports. And don’t worry, the story ends happily! The plane landed safely at New York’s JFK International Airport less than three and half hours later.
It still sounds terrifying, right? The thought of flying straight through a Category 5 hurricane is probably enough to give even the most seasoned traveler the shivers. But aviation experts assure us that doing so is completely safe—and standard, too.
Although there are a few tricks to piloting an aircraft through hurricane conditions, “it’s not that much different from flying through the Midwest in the summertime with thunderstorms,” Douglas M. Moss, a commercial pilot and aviation consultant with AeroPacific Consulting, told Wired. “It’s the same techniques, the same tools, the same procedures you use for avoiding thunderstorms.” (Here’s why flights do get canceled when it’s too darn hot out, though.)
Surprisingly, the most dangerous part of the flight occurred before the plane even left ground. The plane was already heading towards San Juan when the hurricane rolled in, so the Delta pilots, meteorology team, and command center crews had to make a quick decision on whether or not to land the plane.
“They took a hard look at the weather data and the track of the storm and worked with the flight crew and dispatcher to agree it was safe to operate the flight,” Erik Snell, who oversees Delta’s operations and command center, said in a statement.
Since they couldn’t leave the plane on the tarmac (as it would almost certainly be damaged by the strong winds!), returning to the U.S. was the next best option. Thankfully, the wind gusts in the area were up to 31 knots, which Delta says is “well below operating limits for the 737-900ER.” The process of taking off would have been pretty standard, too.
According to Moss, the Delta pilots probably used the maximum takeoff thrust and a lower wing flap setting to navigate the winds, but those are fairly standard for taking off in the middle of a storm. From there, it’s likely that the Delta pilots communicated with a team on the ground and used a weather radar to navigate around areas with heavy rain and wind. Although the flight might have been bumpy for about 15 minutes, things would have calmed down by the time the plane reached smoother skies at around 20,000 feet.
“Looks like it was a nip and tuck thing,” Pete Field, a former Navy test pilot, told Wired. “They got out before it got too hateful.”
Crisis averted. Don’t panic if your pilot turns the plane around when landing, either. Here’s why they do it.