What happens if a plane goes through a rainbow?

It’s a common question many people have wondered when looking up at a rainbow – what would happen if a plane flew through one? The short answer is that nothing dramatic would occur. A rainbow is simply light refracting and reflecting through water droplets, so a plane would pass through with no problems.

How are rainbows formed?

To understand why planes can go through rainbows unharmed, it’s helpful to first understand how rainbows form. Rainbows are optical phenomena that occur when sunlight interacts with water droplets in the atmosphere. Here’s a quick overview of the rainbow creation process:

  • Sunlight enters a water droplet and slows down, bending (refracting) as it travels through the spherical droplet.
  • The light reflects off the inside rear surface of the droplet and refracts again as it exits.
  • This process separates white sunlight into its full color spectrum – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
  • The light leaving droplets at a 40-42 degree angle to the original sunlight creates the vibrant colors we see in a rainbow.

The key point is that a rainbow is simply an optical effect stemming from how sunlight interacts with droplets – there is no tangible substance to a rainbow. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand why an airplane can pass through with no trouble.

Why planes don’t experience issues flying through rainbows

Airplanes routinely fly through rainbows with absolutely no effects on the aircraft or passengers. Here are the main reasons why:

  • No contact with water: A rainbow is not composed of liquid water – it is just light being refracted through droplets. So a plane doesn’t make contact with any tangible water when passing through a rainbow.
  • No turbulence: Similarly, since a rainbow has no physical presence, there is no turbulence or unstable air for a plane to encounter when flying through one.
  • No change in weather: The area inside or behind a rainbow is the same as the surrounding air and conditions. A rainbow only occurs when sunlight hits droplets at a specific angle, not because the environment is different on one side of the rainbow versus the other.
  • No damage from light: The refracted and reflected light making up a rainbow does not carry any more energy or radiation than regular sunlight. So rainbow light does not damage or affect an airplane any differently than ordinary sunlight does.

In essence, to an aircraft a rainbow is simply normal air with some additional light passing through it. The pilots and passengers usually can’t even tell when a plane intersects a rainbow – there is no noticeable difference in sight, sound, turbulence or any other discernible effect.

What pilots and passengers do see when flying through rainbows

While scientifically uneventful, flying through a rainbow can still create some unique visual effects for pilots and passengers. Here are some of the sights those inside a plane can observe:

  • Viewing rainbows from above: Those inside the airplane get an aerial view of the full circular shape of the rainbow, since they are elevated above the ground where most people view rainbows from below.
  • Rainbows following the plane: As the plane continues flying forward, the rainbow’s position will appear to stay constant relative to the aircraft. It’s an optical illusion caused by how the rainbow is formed through light interacting with droplets.
  • Brighter rainbow colors: Within the plane, the rainbow colors may appear more vivid and pronounced compared to viewing from the ground. This is because there are fewer intervening atmosphere and objects to obscure the light when closer to the rainbow.
  • Rainbows disappearing: As the airplane changes course or altitude, the rainbow can seem to suddenly disappear since the specific lighting angles creating the rainbow are lost.

So for those onboard the plane, intersecting a rainbow creates unique visual effects and allows rare rainbow viewing opportunities. But there are no physical sensations or danger associated with flying through one.

Famous instances of planes flying through rainbows

While routine from a scientific standpoint, planes crossing rainbows can make for striking photos and videos. Here are some notable instances of aircraft making rainbow crossings:

  • In 2017, a Passenger captured viral video of a Qatar Airways plane seeming to fly through the end of a rainbow off the coast of Southern California.
  • In 2021, a Hawaiian Airlines flight was photographed flying near the bright end of a rainbow over Hawaii’s Molokai island.
  • Also in 2021, a commercial pilot captured images of a Ryanair plane appearing to emerge from the top of a rainbow over Italy.
  • In 2022, two separate aircraft in Australia were filmed crossing through vivid rainbows – one by a news helicopter and another by a passenger plane’s onboard camera.

These rainbow-slicing planes generated buzz and fascination across social media and news outlets. But again, they did not experience any troubles from traversing the colorful light beams.

Could bigger or unusual aircraft cross rainbows safely?

Rainbows pose no hazards whatsoever to any aircraft that passes through them. So even large commercial jets, military planes, helicopters and other unconventional aircraft remain perfectly safe crossing rainbows. Here are some examples:

  • Jumbo jets: Enormous passenger planes like Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s routinely pass through rainbows without issues.
  • Fighter jets: High performance military aircraft like F-16s can fly through rainbows while carrying out training and missions.
  • Helicopters: Choppers often traverse rainbows, sometimes even seeming to hover within one while stationary in midair.
  • Hot air balloons: Though slower moving, hot air balloons can gently drift through rainbows floating high above the landscape.

No matter the aircraft size, weight or lifting mechanism, crossing a rainbow poses absolutely zero threat. The only limitation is whether the aircraft can reach the altitudes and locations where rainbows are visible.

Can different rainbow types affect airplanes?

Sometimes rainbows with unusual shapes or multiple bands appear in the sky. But even these rainbow variations are harmless to planes that pass through them. Some examples include:

  • Double rainbows: Occur when light is reflected twice within droplets, creating a secondary rainbow outside the primary one. Still no hazard for aircraft.
  • Full-circle rainbows: When the sun is very low in the sky, full 360 degree circular rainbows can form. But these pose no danger to planes.
  • Rainbow halos: Bright rings of light sometimes form at the points where rainbows seem to touch the ground. These are safe to fly through.

So in summary, even unusual or rare types of rainbows are just light and do not endanger aircraft. Pilots can confidently fly through any rainbow variation without hesitation.

Factors that influence aircraft rainbow crossings

While always safe, certain conditions make it more likely for planes to visually appear crossing through rainbows from an observer’s perspective. Factors that enable airplane-rainbow intersections include:

  • Flight paths: Airlines frequently traversing areas where rainbows are common – such as Hawaii – raise odds of coincidental intersection.
  • Takeoff/landing patterns: Planes following standard traffic patterns around airports sometimes serendipitously cross rainbows nearby.
  • Altitude capabilities: Aircraft able to reach cruising altitudes increases chances of meeting suitable rainbow geometry.
  • Weather: Optimal rainbow conditions like sun showers increase probability planes will encounter rainbows.

So while always random chance, pilots flying patterns and capabilities allowing rainbow generation can make photogenic intersections more likely.

Can pilots purposefully fly through rainbows?

While pilots couldn’t purposely create a rainbow, they can choose flight plans increasing the potential of passing through existing rainbows visible along their route. However, purposefully penetrating rainbows offers no advantages and could pose safety risks.

  • Deviating from the planned course could take the aircraft into hazardous areas.
  • Flying unnecessarily low to meet rainbow angles risks terrain/obstacle collisions.
  • Aerobatics like steep banks to slice through rainbows jeopardize aircraft control.

Instead, pilots wisely focus on normal safety and efficiency when rainbows happen to occur nearby. They may opportunistically fly close to rainbows when feasible, but never at the expense of proper procedure.

How often do rainbow crossings happen statistically?

There are no definitive statistics on how often commercial aircraft fortuitously pass through visible rainbows. However, we can make some educated estimates:

  • Global commercial flights per day: 110,000
  • Rainbows observed somewhere per day: 100,000
  • Chance of overlap (very roughly): 1 in 10,000

So worldwide, a commercial plane may fly through a visible rainbow somewhere by chance approximately 10-11 times per day. However, far fewer of these would be noticed and documented. Most random rainbow crossings go unobserved simply because no one happened to visually capture them at the right moment.

Famous rainbows in culture, myths and history

Beyond aviation, rainbows have fascinated humankind across cultures and history. Here are some iconic rainbow facts and legends:

  • In Greek mythology, the rainbow goddess Iris created rainbows as pathways between heaven and earth.
  • Rainbows are considered good luck in many Asian cultures and signify unity between gods and humans.
  • In the story of Noah’s Ark, the rainbow represents God’s covenant to never again flood the earth.
  • Rainbow flags have symbolized LGBTQ pride and social movements since the 1970s.
  • Rainbows inspired imagery for organizational groups like Greenpeace and Mardi Gras.

So while scientifically just light refraction, rainbows have intrigued people for millennia as inspirational symbols of hope, religion, diversity, activism and more.

How to optimize your chance of seeing a plane cross a rainbow

While rare and usually random, you can maximize your odds of witnessing an airplane traverse a rainbow with these tips:

  • Watch weather for sun showers – light rain with sunshine from behind you.
  • Look near major airports a few hours after sunrise or before sunset.
  • Pick locations with wide visibility of the sky in multiple directions.
  • Bring binoculars to help spot planes and rainbows in the far distance.
  • Capture photos and video to share these unique transient events.

Seeing a plane cross a rainbow in person is a long shot but still possible with ideal conditions and patience. And catching it on camera makes for images sure to mesmerize viewers and stand out from typical aviation photos.

How pilots can improve odds of rainbow crossings

While never sacrificing safety, pilots can enhance their chances of beneficially crossing rainbows with these tips:

  • Study weather charts for areas along your route experiencing sun showers.
  • If possible, adjust course to fly closer to any visible rainbows.
  • Maintain awareness of possible rainbows as lighting conditions change.
  • Alert passengers to rainbow photo opportunities.
  • Share your pictures and videos of any rainbow encounters.

With proper planning and awareness, pilots can increase opportunities for their flights to photogenically intersect with rainbows when feasible.


In summary, planes flying through rainbows may look stunning, but are completely physically harmless events. Rainbows are just light beams with no tangible obstacle to aircraft. Pilots and passengers experience no dangers or sensations when traversing rainbow colors. While rare and random, airplane-rainbow crossings can generate buzz and vibrant photos when captured. So next time you see a plane gracefully coasting through a rainbow, relax knowing the crew and passengers are enjoying the view and continuing safely on their journey.

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