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7 Things You Should Know About Microbursts

This story was made in partnership with AOPA Pilot Protection Services. Make sure your certificates are protected before your next flight. Learn more and get started here.

1) Microbursts start with a cumulonimbus cloud

While microbursts can form from airmass storms and squall lines, single-cell storms seem to produce most of them.

NASA / Frank Cutler

2) Next up, heavy precipitation

Microbursts start when heavy precipitation falls from a cloud. As the rain falls, it starts pulling air down with it. At the same time, the air starts evaporating the rain, which cools the air even more. Since the cooler air is more dense than the warm air around it, it descends even faster, forming a microburst.


3) There are two types: dry and wet microbursts

Dry microbursts are the most common type. With a dry microburst, all of the precipitation evaporates before the column of descending air reaches the ground. This makes them particularly dangerous, because they can be hard to see.

Wet microbursts, as you probably guessed, contain liquid precip when they hit the ground.

4) When they hit the ground, look out

When a microburst hits the ground (at up to 6,000 FPM, by the way), it spreads out, creating a vortex ring around the outside of the microburst.


5) Next comes the low level wind shear

This is where microbursts are really dangerous. If you fly through one, you'll initially have increased performance. But as you enter the microburst, your headwind rapidly switches to a tailwind, causing you to sink. If you're close to the ground, you may not have enough climb performance to fly out of the microburst before you hit the ground. And that would make for a very bad day.


6) Rule of thumb: the total shear is double the peak wind

If the outflow speed of a microburst is 30 knots, you'll experience 60 knots of shear as you cross the microburst. And it all can happen in a very short period of time. Think about what would happen to your Cessna 172 if you went from 100 knots to 40 knots in the matter of a few seconds...


7) So how do you avoid them?

How do you avoid a microburst? Don't fly underneath storms, visible virga shafts, or rain shafts. Microbursts don't last long, but they can be extremely dangerous, even while they're dissipating. The best option is always to steer clear and divert around them.

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