Recently, there was a story in the news about a flight from Phoenix to Hawaii that was shaken by turbulence so extreme it sent 20 passengers to the hospital upon landing, some with very serious injuries. How could this happen in today’s age of technology? What turbulence did this Hawaiian Airlines jet hit?
Here are turbulence questions answered by an experienced pilot.
What is turbulence?
When passengers ask me what turbulence is, I describe it as simply as I can. The easiest way to visualize turbulence is to think of it as water. When two river currents converge, such as the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, turbulence is created where the rivers meet. Air masses behave like bodies of water; you just can’t see them. Add to that a thunderstorm and a nasty jet stream, and these “rivers” can look like the rapids of Niagara Falls.
Basically, there are two types of turbulence: convection and pure air turbulence (CAT).
Convective turbulence is what you are most likely to feel as a passenger when a jet is moving through thunderstorms. CAT tends to occur at higher altitudes and can be caused by strong wind shear near the jet stream. There are different classifications of turbulence that you’ve all felt sitting in the back of a jet.
Soaring Like A Bird
If you’ve ever watched a large bird circling overhead without flapping its wings, you’re witnessing Mother Nature offering the bird a free ride. The bird has learned that it can circulate in an invisible shaft of rising air called a thermal. It can search for food and glide effortlessly in this “thermal” area. Now imagine you’re flying to Las Vegas for a weekend in the middle of summer. It’s hot in the desert, I mean hot! All this solar heat warms the surface, creating hot plumes (thermals) of air that rise. You can’t really see it, but boy, you can feel it when your plane goes down those bumps.
One of my favorite types of convective activity is orographic lifting. It is very easy to see on the windward side of the mountain range. The wind pushes the clouds and moisture towards the mountains, which pushes the moisture upwards. It creates a billowing, fluffy, convective collection of clouds. We avoid flying near such convective activity.
Professional advice: Check out this article on TravelWaiting’ Why some pilots fly into or around thunderstorms to learn more about passenger aircraft radar.
Is turbulence dangerous?
Turbulence isn’t necessarily dangerous, but it can be quite unpleasant. Passenger planes are designed to handle the worst, even in severe turbulence! The true the danger comes from passengers not following the advice of the flight crew or seat belt sign. Passengers on the Hawaiian flight who disobeyed the “stay seatbelt fastened” order and then ran into severe turbulence were injured. Some people who were standing fired and actually smashed the upper baskets and overhead panels with their heads, sustaining serious injuries.
Our primary goal, apart from timeliness, is safety. We all want a smooth and comfortable flight for our passengers. Before the flight even leaves the gate, many types of planning and forecasting take place behind the scenes. Our trained dispatchers analyze meteorological data for areas with mild conditions such as winds, known turbulence and storms. Pilots are also looking at similar information. Should we consider a different route than posted for smoother conditions? Should we fly at a different altitude than planned to have a better “ride”?
Together, the captain and the dispatcher agree on the route, altitude and fuel for the flight. All this logistics takes place hours before your flight while you’re on your way to the airport.
What do pilots do?
While in the air, we are in constant contact with ATC. Current weather conditions are streamed live to our iPads. As we go through the ATC sectors, they transmit the current conditions as soon as we start communicating with them. We also provide our current flight conditions so that other flights in our area know what’s going on down to the minute. We transmit these conditions to ground-based weather stations via our on-board computers so that the information can be passed on and recorded for other pilots and dispatchers. Our dispatchers monitor our entire flight and send updates if weather conditions have changed or received pilot reports called PIREPS.
If we know or hear of any possible turbulence, the captain can quickly make contact and notify passengers of the current reports of turbulence and to stay seated with their seatbelts fastened.
We have procedures in case of turbulence. Every aircraft has what is known as a “turbulence penetration speed”, which is usually less than the cruising speed. You may not even know that we have “slowed down”. Airplanes are fully designed to fly in turbulence. We also have turbulence “levels” for our cabin crew. You can even hear the PA ordering the stewards to take their seats immediately. This means taking any free seat in the cabin as they can’t get back to their jump seats in time to buckle up! No one wants anyone to get hurt and safety is paramount when it comes to turbulence.
What to do if you hit turbulence
If you hear turbulence warnings, first of all, don’t get out of your seat and don’t wear your seatbelt! If you are going and it seems urgent and you see an empty seat, grab it and fasten your seatbelt. If you are lying in a sleeping chair, make sure your seat belt is fastened and fastened to the blankets so that the flight crew can see that you are secured. If you are walking back to your seat, use the top of the seat to stabilize yourself if the ride is bumpy. If you’re tall enough, sometimes touching the overhead storage can help you keep your balance as you rush back to your seat.
What can you do?
If you’re an avid traveler and want to know if turbulence is likely to occur on your trip, do some research before you fly.
- Hop on FlightAware and enter your airline and flight number. The route with the usual schedule for that flight will be displayed. Any current weather is superimposed on this map, such as a shower.
- Now type “NOAA radar” and look at the “big picture” of weather systems.
- Take a step further and look at the Aviation Weather Center, click on Forecasts in the main menu and scroll down to Aviation Forecasts. Here you can see wind directions, icing, turbulence and many other aviation gadgets.
Sometimes a little bit of knowing where you’re going and what the forecast is can help alleviate white knuckles. You can also download the MyFlight Forecast app from the app store and track it as you fly via Wi-Fi. This is a very special app designed specifically for nervous flyers.
I wish you calm air, winds at your back and safe travels. See you in the sky!