Can Tornadoes Affect Planes? (Full Guide)

can tornadoes affect planes

Airplane transportation is one of the most effective ways to travel globally, with around 100,000 flights taking off and landing every day.

They’re generally incredibly safe, with only a small number of incidents occurring during flights every year.

That said, tornadoes are some of the most violent weather events on the planet, and combine the two together and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Today, we’re going to answer a question that many passengers of airplanes are eager to learn the answer to. Can tornadoes affect planes?

In short, no, tornadoes generally don’t affect planes. This is because tornadoes are primarily low-level hazards that can be avoided by planes. Air traffic controllers are always on the lookout for these types of weather events and pilots can avoid them. The real threat is at ground level.

Can A Tornado Take Down A Plane?

Whilst it’s incredibly rare for planes to be affected by tornadoes, it is possible for a tornado to take down a plane if the two cross paths.

Pilots and controllers will avoid thunderstorms where they can, therefore it’s unlikely for planes to ever come into contact with a tornado.

That said, sometimes this can happen, for example on October 6th, 1981 when a plane crashed in the Netherlands due to a tornado.

The aircraft was carrying four crew and 13 passengers, sadly there were no survivors.

After an investigation into the event took place it was found that the event was caused by a pressure drop associated with the tornado.

The strong tornadic wings caused the plane’s starboard wing to detach, the plane then fell from 910m and crashed near Moerdijk.

Whilst it’s rare for this type of event to happen, if a plane encounters a strong tornado in flight there is little chance of the aircraft surviving.

How Do Tornadoes Affect Planes?

Tornadoes affect planes in a number of ways, and oftentimes it’s not the swirling vortex that causes issues for aircraft.

Below are just a few examples of how a plane could be affected by a nearby tornado:

Wind Speeds

One issue that planes face when dealing with a tornado is the sheer wind speeds that a tornado often brings with it.

Some strong EF5 tornadoes can have wind speeds of 300mph, which naturally is going to cause huge complications for any aircraft.

Strong winds from a tornado can be felt from up to a half mile away, but this varies from tornado to tornado depending on strength and size.


Low-altitude planes can experience communication issues if they are flying in the vicinity of a tornado.

This can be highly dangerous and mean that the pilot is unable to see other air traffic and may stray out of its designated air space.

Communication is vital for pilots, not only when in the air but whilst taking off and landing too.


The biggest threat that planes have when facing a tornado is on the ground. It’s incredibly rare in today’s age that a plane will encounter a tornado in the air due to advancements in modern technology.

However, tornadoes ripping through airports and causing irreparable damage to grounded planes and airports are more likely.

In 2011, a tornado hit St. Louis airport in Missouri which is the largest airport in the state.

This tornado caused windows to shatter, ripped holes in the airport roof, and cause immense damage to multiple planes.

The destruction caused took over 2-months to repair and left passengers of flights with a frightening experience that they will never forget.

Can A Tornado Pick Up A 747?

The average weight of 747 planes is around 400,000 pounds, certainly not a light piece of transportation that can be moved without serious power.

If you’ve ever seen the film ‘Into The Storm’ then you likely remember the scene where a tornado launches a 747 plane into the sky or the part where a helicopter is thrown across the street like a rag doll.

This is of course just a film, and not factual. But could a tornado pick up a 747?

Yes, in theory, a strong enough tornado, likely an EF5 could pick up a 747 plane into the sky.

A strong tornado could rip a plane to shreds in a matter of minutes, it could pull off the wings which would make it a lot lighter before picking it up into the vortex.

However we’re yet to see this nightmarish event unfold yet, and hopefully never do.

Tornadoes have flipped planes over, but mostly just light aircraft and not something the size of a 747.

What Happens To An Airplane In A Tornado?

Any aircraft that flights through a tornado will likely be ripped to shreds, however, this is largely going to depend on the size and strength of the tornado.

These highly destructive weather events are rated on the Fujita scale between EF0 and EF5, with EF5 being the strongest.

Tornadoes that have been rated as an EF5 are surprisingly rare, but when they do strike the damage caused is devastating.

In the United States, 80% of tornadoes are rated EF0 or EF1, but these can still have wind speeds of over 100mph, more than enough to cause damage to a light aircraft.

Many of these smaller tornadoes only last for a couple of minutes, so if it did arise that a large aircraft travels through a small tornado it may be able to make it through the other side.

But anything larger than an EF0 or EF1 and regardless of aircraft size the plane would likely be damaged and may even come down.

Final Thoughts

So, can tornadoes affect planes? Yes, they certainly can and do. Pilots and controllers are regularly keeping an eye on the weather in case of such events.

The good news is that tornadoes can often be detected and avoided with enough time so that nobody is harmed.

That said, sometimes tornadoes due to their strong wind speed can cause communication issues between the pilot and controller which can leave the pilot essentially flying blind.

This is highly dangerous and one of the many dangers that tornadoes have for aircraft.

As a whole, tornadoes do not usually affect planes, so don’t go putting off that holiday because you’re worried a tornado might strike the plane.

The incident in 1981 we discussed earlier is incredibly rare, and with technology advancing every year, airlines are coming up with new ways to detect storms and tornadoes to keep passengers safe.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I hope you’ve learned something new today.

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