NTSB Warns Pilots Of Dust Devil Dangers


This week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a safety alert warning pilots of the dangers posed by dust devils.

According to the agency, dust devils have been present in some 170 aviation accidents the NTSB has investigated since 1982. The small, rapidly rotating columns of air are made visible by the dust and debris they pick up from the ground. Although usually harmless, the weather phenomena can be a serious risk to small aircraft, especially when operating at low altitudes. The NTSB notes that dust devils are often invisible causing “sudden and unexpected turbulence for pilots and aircraft, which may lead to rapid loss of lift, uncommanded roll or yaw, or other disturbances.”

In its safety alert, the NTSB cited several examples of aircraft impacted by dust devils. In one instance, a Cessna 170B taking off from Elko, Nevada, encountered a dust devil causing the airplane to enter an aggressive left roll and ultimately end up inverted, resulting in significant damage to its wings and fuselage.

The NTSB recommended pilots take proactive measures to recognize and avoid dust devils particularly in regions where they are known to occur frequently, such as the American Southwest. Pilots operating in these areas are encouraged to maintain a higher altitude whenever possible. Additionally, the agency urges pilots to obtain detailed preflight weather briefings, and should they encounter dust devils during flight, they should promptly report them to ATC.

Amelia Walsh
Amelia Walsh is a private pilot who enjoys flying her family’s Columbia 350. She is based in Colorado and loves all things outdoors including skiing, hiking, and camping.


  1. Hit one shortly after T/O in Kenya. Didn’t see it in my climb out path, till close to rotation, too late to abort. After Lift Off accelerated as much as possible, warned all 6 pax to hold tight (was a 207), hit it with my RH wing, got a good jolt and we went on. Pax afterwards: what was THAT???!!!!

  2. I lived in the Mojave Desert for nearly 30 years. I’d add that tying an airplane down well and locking the controls is also important. I’ve seen airplanes hit by dust devils trying to tear the tie downs out of the ground or the tie down rings out of the wing. Incessant winds are almost as harsh and far more common. What I did was use ropes — which will stretch so as to soften the blows — and the chains loosely attached as the backup. Inside the airplane, I had bungee cords assisting the hard locks. Things like that help if an airplane is outside IMHO.

  3. A dust devil is a thermal. They are hot air rising; typically a strong, narrow, rotating mass. As the air rises they expand and when the temperatures equalize a cumulus cloud is formed if there is sufficient moisture. Glider pilots use them to help spot usable lift. A primary danger down low is flying through them with one wing in and the other out of the thermal.

    Thermals are usually short lived and drift with the prevailing wind. The best approach is to treat them like wake turbulence. Just observe and wait for them to move away. Another avoidance strategy is to fly upwind of them. But remember what goes up, must come down so there may be sink, then the strong lift, and then sink again before getting back into the surrounding air mass.

  4. I was flying an Ercoupe several years ago. I just landed and suddenly the tail and left main came up. The plane rotated 90 degrees right. Went off the side of the runway and stopped. I didn’t see anything and thought the knob on the steering rod broke. I got out and looked. All looked correct. Taxied back onto the runway and started a takeoff roll. Exact same thing occurred as I advanced the throttle. I recovered it back to “on runway” status and returned to the ramp. Again all checked out normal. Had to have been a non visible dust devil. Glad it wasn’t my high lift light weight Chief I had. Might have rolled it into a ball.

  5. The scientific name for “dust devils” is “Aeolian vortex” (wind-related whirlpool). Although small when compared to tornadoes, they are dangerous as their rotating columns can upset an aircraft and pilot flying, making things worse by sucking up dust, sand, baby diapers, umbrellas, newspapers, toilet paper, and other garbage. They are common in hot and dry regions, like in the deserts Larry S. and I flew in. They are the result of convection currents, sometimes several of them forming at the same time in close proximity and often form in the vicinity of airport traffic patterns.

    By my experience, “dust devils” can vary greatly in size and intensity, ranging from a few feet in height to over 2,500 feet (yes, 2,500 ft) with diameters of around 300 ft. Not fun, on the ground while tied down nor while taxiing, or while airborne. I know of a shiny C140 that had just been restored, flipped upside-down during taxi at KTRM a few decades ago.

  6. Also, good to keep in mind gravity wins. All the dust, gravel, etc lifted by a dust devil gets spread out from the top of the cyclonic column and precipitates down through the air over a much wider area than the relatively narrow dust devil was, and over a time period longer than might be expected after the dust devil dissipates.

  7. I was once flying an Ag Cat spraying corn in Nebraska and was banking to the right when in a split second the airplane was thrown into a hard left 90 degree bank. When I looked out of the left window, which was straight down, I could see the corn below me being blown around in a circle. I held full nose down, full right rudder and hard right aileron and it just hung there for a moment before finally flying out of it. Had I been in a left turn when I hit it, the airplane would have gone inverted. This happened over irrigated corn, there was no dirt to make the dust devil visible.

  8. I’m one of the 170. I totalled a plane due to a dustdevil. It rolled across the runway right after I made a wheel landing. It hadn’t picked up any debris yet so it couldn’t be seen. Real PITA. The locals have seen that happen there many times. It would have been nice if they had put it on the NOTAM. (no ATIS / AWOS to add a warning to, unfortunately.)

  9. I had no idea that dust devils could be dangerous. Thanks NTSB!
    Reality is that they cause more damage to aircraft parked on the tarmac.

  10. I tell you what, dust devils are something that should really be emphasized more in weather awareness training for pilots. Living and flying in the western half of the use they are an ever present menace to my flight happiness. A fellow RV-4 builder (at the time) told me he was rebuilding his RV-4 because a dust devil had picked it up and deposited it on the wind T at his airport. It was a calm day, no need to tie down right? I flew through one on downwind to Douglas airport in Wyoming and literally saw stars after my head hit the canopy. They are… NO JOKE.

  11. Just finished flying last week at UT9 (West Desert Airpark in Fairfield, UT) and was driving home. Saw a tumbleweed devil a few miles north or the airport. Glad that I did not fly into it.

  12. Glider pilots love ’em! They mark thermals and we’re seldom down low.

    So, the NTSB as been investigating since 1982 and finally got around to saying something? Nice…

  13. 1989 Reno Air Races – Sadly, I watched a Formula One Racer come apart in mid-air on the backstretch after hitting a dust devil, which were plentiful that hot windy day.

  14. I got my taildragger endorsement out here in the eastern Washington state desert in the summertime. The dust devils caused significant weirdness a few times on takeoff and landing on that tiny lightly wing loaded airplane.

  15. Never actually encountered one but when I was skydiving in Arizona in the 1990’s, the drop zone I was at had cautioned us about avoiding any dust devils we might see under canopy.

  16. Was skydiving near Climax, North Carolina on a very hot day in the late ’90’s when I encountered this kind of turbulence at about 50 feet and dropped rapidly straight down and even with a good flared landing I hit very hard but wasn’t hurt. There was no dust to signal that it was there.

    • Paul Bertorelli, an avid skyjumper, commented on how dangerours the rotating air can be causing the canopy to collapse partially or fully, resulting in a sudden loss of lift and control in turn giving way to an uncontrollable descent if the parachutist does not take corrective action.

  17. Report dust devils to ATC? On one flight from Albuquerque to Prescott, I could see two dozen dust devils at once, below and ahead of me.

  18. As a glider rated pilot, when flying light aircraft, I use every dust devil “thermal” I can find. Nothing like free lift.

  19. While I treat them with respect, I seek them out to as indicators of lift. I use them both as a glider pilot and in our airplane to gain altitude. Obviously, if I see one crossing the runway it is either wait until it clears before takeoff or go around an make another circuit in the pattern, avoiding them at low altitude.

  20. As a young student pilot back in the 60′, (Amarillo, TX), I thought it would be fun to fly through a dust devil during my climb-out (I thought it might give me extra lift). What a mistake. Even though it was a small one, it was the hardest jolt I could imagine. Maybe higher it produces a rising thermal, but down low, its a scary experience. I have avoided them ever since. I related the experience to my flight instructor and from then on, they started warning students about them at their flight school. I think they even had their A&P check out the plane afterwards.

  21. Skydiver here———
    I Flew into a dust devil at 900’ under canopy at L65 Perris Valley, California.
    My first clue about what was coming was i saw a Walmart bag spiraling upward in front of me.
    The dust devil had just crossed an asphalt parking lot and was not picking up as much visible debris as usual.
    Upon entering, my canopy collapsed and spun to the left inducing line twists.
    I was thrown out the other side and my canopy reinflated.
    I kicked out of the line twists and decided not to ever do that again……