Turbulence can make even the most casual traveler a little upset or agitated. And with nearly 240,000 flights expected over the Thanksgiving long weekend, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, at least a few will experience raging weather.
He joked, “It almost always starts stumbling as soon as we turn off the seatbelt sign.” Morgan SmithBoeing 737 pilot. “But honestly, almost everything about turbulence is annoying rather than dangerous.”
Fortunately, the start to Thanksgiving weekend isn’t expected to be a particularly bumpy one. “There is nothing extreme about the jet stream,” said Alaska Airlines employee Alec Mead. “Only until Friday there may be some thunderstorms in the Gulf Coast, around Houston and Memphis that could affect disturbances.”
To help pilots find “soft air,” researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have developed a prediction model It takes a meteorological measure of atmospheric turbulence, called the eddy dissipation rate, and predicts it over an 18-hour period.
The forecasts at the top of this article show maximum turbulence expected across all altitudes at which commercial aircraft fly – so the area shown as predicting moderate turbulence could include calmer air altitudes. Pilots can use tablets in the cockpit to display more specific forecasts that show what areas of turbulence are present at altitude, helping them navigate over, under, or around those areas.
“It’s not an exact science,” said Mrs. Smith. “But it does help us plan for in-flight disruptions – like delaying flight attendant service until we pass an area or giving passengers a heads-up about potential disruptions during the welcome-on-board announcement.”
Airline dispatchers like Mr. Mead prepare flight plans hours in advance using software with dozens of weather and air traffic sources to try to avoid areas prone to turbulence. During flight, dispatchers are constantly communicating with pilots and guiding them through unexpected bumps. “These models work so well, they’re a valuable tool in our pockets. They allow us to see the big picture, where everything will be,” he said.
Airplanes also have sensors that read the G-forces exerted on the aircraft in flight and automatically record reports. These reports are added to a database that other flight dispatchers monitor. If turbulence begins to appear in an area, other aircraft coming from the same path can begin to avoid it.
What is the disorder?
“To really keep it simple, turbulence is basically a disturbance in the airflow,” Smith said. “When the air changes direction or speed, we get some bumps.”
She compared it to being on a boat on the water.
“As the water moves, so does the boat,” she said. “Like water, air is a liquid and has the same effect on an airplane.”
Passengers may feel slight pressure on the seat belts or shoulder belts. Unlocked objects may be shifted slightly. Food service can still be performed, and walking can be done with little or no difficulty.
Passengers feel obvious strain against the seat belts or shoulder belts. Unlocked items are taken out. Food service and walking are tough.
Passengers are forced to use seat belts or shoulder belts violently. Unsecured items are thrown away. Food service and walk in is impossible.
A plane is being catapulted wildly and it is virtually impossible to control it. It may cause structural damage.
“I’ve never had so much trouble,” said Mrs. Smith. “It’s very rare, and many pilots I know have either never experienced it or only experienced it once or twice in their entire careers.”
Feeling upset is almost always worse than it is, and even official reports can be somewhat subjective.
“What some of the passengers described to me as a severe turbulence, as they thought we had descended thousands of feet, was a much milder one with maybe 10 feet of elevation change and a few knots of speed change,” said Mrs. Smith.
However, unexpected upsets happen, and injuries happen from time to time.
Of the seven million passenger flights scheduled for last year, six serious injuries reported in the United States last year were due to turbulence, according to data from National Transportation Safety Board. So far in 2022, there have been eight episodes in which someone has been seriously injured.
Troubled travel tips
“The only thing people have to fear from turbulence is the possibility of their drink being spilled on a flight,” said Ms. Smith. “Most injuries from turbulence come from people getting out of their seats or not wearing seat belts on bumps. So keep your seatbelt fastened, and don’t put your drink on your laptop!”
She has another Tips for nervous fliers, including sitting near the front, which is smoother to ride and fly in the morning. As the day heats up into the afternoon, the heat rising from the ground increases the chance of near-ground disturbances and storm-induced disturbances. She also has advice for younger travelers who may be intimidated and have not yet chosen their career path.
“It’s always a better ride on the flight deck than the rest of the plane,” said Mrs. Smith. “So, if you don’t like feeling turbulent, be a pilot!”
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