Delta flight flies where other fear to tread: the 'outer band' of Irma

A Delta Airlines flight — with 173 passengers on board each time — took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport Wednesday and safely traveled to and from San Juan, Puerto Rico -- all while Hurricane Irma bore down on the island.

The round-trip flight was the last one in and out of San Juan, before the city’s air traffic control shut down for the Category 5 storm. The airline credited its flight team and meteorology department for the successful flight, the Washington Post reported.

The paper reported that when the 737-900ER plane reached San Juan at 12:01 p.m., winds registered at 28 mph to 36 mph -- well within the safety limits for that type of aircraft. The flight crew reportedly managed to get passengers off and have new passengers board within 40 minutes.

The flight returned to New York with 173 passengers at 4:22 p.m.

“Our meteorology team is the best in the business,” Erik Snell, Delta's vice president for operations, said in a statement. “They took a hard look at the weather data and the track of the storm and worked with the flight crew and dispatcher to agree it was safe to operate the flight. And our flight and ground crews were incredible in their effort to turn the aircraft quickly and safely so the flight could depart well before the hurricane threat.”

Jason Rabinowitz, a self-described aviation geek who tracked the flight on radar, said it was “amazing stuff” to watch Flight 431 in real time fly toward the menacing storm. He posted several photos of a radar screen showing the plane flying between the “outer band” of the storm.

An air traffic Twitter account posted, “Where others have turned back, Delta #DL431 presses on.”

Douglas M. Moss, an aviation consultant, told Wired that flying the plane on the outskirts of the mammoth storm was “not much different from flying through Midwest in the summertime with thunderstorms.”

“It’s the same techniques, the same tool, the same procedures you use for avoiding thunderstorms,” he said.

Pete Field, a former Navy test pilot, also told the magazine that Delta could have lost the plane after landing safely at Puerto Rico's San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. He said a 737 almost certainly would have been lost in the storm.

“It’s awful hard to keep an airplane that big down to the ground permanently,” he said.