Hurricane season is here. Hurricane season is the time of year when named tropical storms and hurricanes form in the Atlantic ocean. The season lasts from June 1st through November 30th and typically peaks around August and September. Last year we experienced an especially devastating hurricane season. From August to September, Hurricane Harvey battered southeast Texas with rainfall and subsequent flooding; Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, leveled entire cities in the Caribbean; Hurricane Jose followed immediately behind Irma, and while the storm was much smaller, it was particularly bad because many of the affected cities did not have time to recover from Irma; and near the end of September, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, leaving many without power to this day.
To understand hurricanes, you need to know a little bit about tropical cyclones. Tropical cyclones are rotating low-pressure systems with organized thunderstorms but no cold or warm fronts. These cyclones are called hurricanes once their sustained wind speed reaches 74 mph. These storms are rated on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. The ratings are colloquially known as categories, the most destructive of which are Category 5 hurricanes, having wind speeds of 157 mph or greater.
Contrary to some brave (stubborn?) individuals on the ground that refuse to evacuate during dangerous weather activity, pilots know to “respect the storm.” A major part of planning a flight, even if you are instrument rated, is knowing when to make the no-go decision. While an instrument rating can give you the authorization and the confidence to fly in less than perfect situations, no pilot would dare to get anywhere near a hurricane on purpose (except, of course, the Hurricane Hunters). While you could theoretically fly high above a minor hurricane and experience relatively good weather, in practice, this presents more grave risks than there are opportunities for reward. In addition to its high wind speeds and unpredictable thunderstorms, a severe hurricane can reach altitudes upwards of 50,000 ft., too high for most commercial aircraft to fly over. Anyone who has watched the news during a hurricane can tell you that conditions can change rapidly. For these reasons, airlines will almost always cancel or reroute most flights as hurricanes approach.
So let’s say you’re a private pilot in Florida, and a hurricane is headed in your direction over the next week. You may have already started your evacuation plans and made the necessary fortifications to your home, but what should you do with your plane? Fortunately, there are plenty of steps you can take to keep your airplane safely grounded and minimize the amount of damage sustained by the aircraft and its surroundings.
If you have the time while making your preparations, the FAA recommends that the simplest way to prevent damage to your aircraft is to just fly it out of an impending storm area. Of course, you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to make your arrangements! If the weather forecast indicates even a slight chance that the hurricane’s path might shift in your direction, it’s wise to move your plane just in case. Hurricanes are difficult to predict, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you have not already done so, you should review your aircraft insurance policy. Check your coverage and limitations for hurricanes, and check for relocation coverage. In many cases, you can be reimbursed for the fuel and other expenses involved with flying the plane out of harm’s way prior to the storm arriving.
This is also a good time to brush up on the latest weather services available to pilots. The Gleim Aviation Weather and Weather Services book explains the FAA’s Aviation Weather (AC 00-6B) and Aviation Weather Services (AC 00-45H), along with other related Advisory Circulars. Much of what airmen understand about the atmosphere comes from these important data sources.
When moving your aircraft out of harm’s way isn’t an option, your next recourse should be to secure a spot in a local hangar, if you don’t already have one. The hangar should be rated for the maximum wind zone category for the area, and preferably not be in need of repairs. Paying for a space is pointless if the structure collapses on top of your plane. If you live in a hurricane-prone area, be proactive about finding a hangar to store your plane. Shared hangars at an FBO don’t always have space available for new customers, and as the storm approaches, you’ll be competing with others for hangar space.
If you cannot get your plane to a safe location or into a hangar, you’ll need to tie down the plane and take steps to reduce the chance of your aircraft being damaged. First and foremost, park your plane in an area with few surrounding objects. Anything that has to remain in the vicinity should be checked to ensure it is secure. Position your plane so that as the hurricane approaches, most of the nearby debris or aircraft not properly secured will hopefully be blown away from your own plane. You should also point your plane in the direction of the incoming storm winds.
Next, you should tie down your airplane. There are different types of tiedown anchors based on what type of parking area is available, but the tiedown anchor eye should not be more than one inch above the ground. Stay away from stake tiedowns. Heavy rains make it easy for the stakes to pop out of the ground. A wooden or metal stake flailing in the wind can become a potential source of damage to your aircraft. Check that your ropes or straps maintain their integrity. The FAA cautions against using manila tiedown ropes, as they are subject to rot and aren’t as strong nylon or dacron ropes.
Just like your home, you’ll want to minimize the chance of water damage. Prevent water from getting into the plane by covering your windows, static ports, and engine inlets. Use a control lock to secure control surfaces. This will stop severe deflections and structural damage when the winds pick up. Some aircraft have built-in control locks that can be controlled from the flight deck, but others may require you to use external gust locks. Remember to attach red streamers to any external locks so that pilots and airport service personnel can remove them before taking off or moving the aircraft if it becomes necessary to tow the plane.
Other preparations include using a few sandbags as makeshift spoilers for the wings of the plane and securing the wheels of your aircraft with chocks both in front of and behind the wheels. Do not use scrap wood or bricks, and if you do decide to use wooden chocks, you should take the extra step of securing them with a cleat on each side or with ropes tied around them. Finally, when you’ve done all you can to protect your airplane, double-check to ensure that your ropes, chains, or other equipment are secure enough so as to not become projectiles themselves.
By taking these steps, you’ll be able to reduce the risk of damage to your aircraft during a hurricane. You may also refer to AC 20-35C for additional in-depth recommendations and instructions on the best knots to use for your airplane tiedowns. Make these safety preparations before a hurricane appears on the radar so that your airplane can provide many more seasons of safe travels.
Written by Austin Scott, Aviation Marketing Assistant
About Gleim Aviation
Since 1980, Gleim Aviation’s team of pilots, instructors, writers, designers, and programmers has helped aviators pass millions of FAA knowledge and practical tests using the unique Gleim Knowledge Transfer System. Gleim is an environmentally-friendly company headquartered in Gainesville, FL.