Whether you’re a novice pilot or you have years of experience, landing is the toughest part of flying, even in perfect weather. But how do planes land in the snow?
Under Federal Aviation Administration guidance, planes are not allowed to land on a runway covered in snow or ice if it’s possible to avoid doing so. If they must land, pilots will use runway lights and instrumentation to find the runway. Some planes even have skis to land on snow or ice.
No matter what the weather conditions are, landing an airplane is almost always the toughest part of flying. But if the weather is bad, especially if it’s covered in snow and ice, landing can be even harder. In this article, you’ll learn everything you want to know about how planes can land in snow. From whether it’s possible in the first place to how pilots are able to see the runway, we’ve got you covered.
If you’ve read any of our articles here at SkyTough, you know that our number one priority is providing the most accurate content that we can. To do this, we combine our own knowledge and experience in aviation with research and input from others with extensive experience. This way, you get the most comprehensive content possible. Including, of course, how planes can be landed in the snow.
Can Pilots Land A Plane In The Snow?
If you’re a pilot yourself or if you know any pilots or have talked to any, it’s almost a universal answer among them that landing an airplane is the hardest part of the flight. In just a few minutes, you need to bring a plane from hundreds of miles per hour and tens of thousands of feet to a safe landing on the ground and a complete stop on a narrow runway.
All while everyone on board is counting on you to get them on the ground safely. No pressure!
But what about if it’s snowing? Is it even possible to land a plane in the snow? Before ever attempting to do so or before worrying about it, the FAA actually prohibits landing on a snow- or ice-covered runway (over 3” of snow) if it’s possible to avoid doing so. Pilots should communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC) to find a suitable runway, whether that’s at the same airport or one nearby.
Landing an airplane on a runway during a snowstorm can be extremely dangerous, so it should not even be attempted unless there is really no other way. It’s hard to see the runway, it’s difficult to judge where it starts and ends, and if you do manage to land on the runway, it can sometimes be impossible to control the plane on the snow and ice.
So how do pilots do it?
How Do Planes Land When It’s Snowing?
Although it might seem scary for a passenger to look outside and see everything covered in snow, planes are designed to be able to land in most conditions. This includes even light snow. In fact, landing on a snowy runway with less than 3” of snow is allowed like normal with perhaps just a little bit more work on the pilot’s end.
Airports have special equipment and vehicles that test the depth and braking effects of a snowy runway and transcribe this info to ATC and the pilots who then determine what adjustments are needed. Runway conditions will be reported on a scale from 0 to 6, with 0 being covered in ice (no braking at all) to 6 being clear and dry. Pilots and airlines both have minimum thresholds that they require in order to land. So in some cases, it’s up to the pilot.
But if a pilot does decide to land in the snow, it’s important that they do not panic and do not overreact. In most cases, as long as the snow is not too thick or there’s not a layer of ice, the size, weight, and speed of the aircraft will lead it to not being affected. So most issues occur when pilots overcorrect to something and then begin to lose control. Once a plane starts skidding on snow and ice, there is little that can be done to correct it.
So in most cases, planes won’t land on snow or ice unless the runway is cleared for landing. And if they do, the pilots will need to use all their training and experience to remain calm and keep control as best possible.
Is It Harder To Land A Plane When It’s Snowing?
While landing an airplane is never easy, there are certainly some things that make it harder from time to time. The biggest culprit of this is bad weather. This includes rainstorms, heavy winds, and of course, snow. If it’s snowing (or recently has snowed and the runway is covered in it), it’ll make landing that much more difficult.
Landing on a snow-covered runway is hard because first, the pilot needs to visually find the runway. If everything is covered in snow, it can be difficult to see. Especially at night. Second, heavy snow makes it harder to see out of the cockpit windows no matter what. And most importantly, the runway is covered in snow and ice which makes controlling the airplane that much more difficult upon landing.
How Do Pilots See The Runway If It’s Covered In Snow?
Landing a plane is hard enough under any conditions, but if everything on the ground is covered in a seemingly uniform white layer of snow, it might seem impossible. After all, if the pilot can’t see the runway in the first place, how exactly are they supposed to land on it?
The first way that pilots try to find the runway so that they know where to aim the airplane is by looking at the terrain. Runways are smooth, level, and long. This is very distinctive compared to the various terrain that surrounds them. Even when covered in snow, a pilot should be able to distinguish between the runway and the surrounding areas and line the aircraft up as usual.
But the snow-covered runway issue is further compounded if the pilot is coming into the landing at night, as everything is even harder to see at night from a pilot’s perspective. At least everything except the airport’s lights! And if the pilot is flying in the dark and they can’t discern between the runway and the surrounding terrain, the runway lights are the only saving grace that they have.
Can Planes Land On Snow Without A Runway?
What about some planes that operate only in areas that are always covered in snow, regardless of if there’s even a runway. In most cases, these types of planes are what are known as bush planes. Bush planes are designed specifically to go where no other type of planes can go, such as places without runways. They’re beefed up in all the right areas and modified as necessary to handle unpredictable terrain.
One such modification that allows bush planes to land in the snow is to replace the typical landing gear (i.e. the wheels and tires) with skis. Think just like the snow skis that you can go down a mountain with, but far bigger and far more durable. These skis enable bush pilots to land on snow and even ice with no problem.
The issue with having skis on planes in the place of wheels and tires is that once the plane is on the ground, it’s difficult to taxi around without any way to steer! To overcome this, some planes will have both skis and retractable landing gear that they can lower on the ground so they can move the plane. If not, ground vehicles will need to tow the plane to its ground destination and to the launch point before the next takeoff.
In any case, skis make it possible to land in the snow with no more issues than landing on a runway during a typical landing!
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood