Turbulence can make even the most frequent traveler a little nervous or unsettled. And with nearly 240,000 flights expected over the Thanksgiving long weekend, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, at least a few will encounter choppy air.
“It almost always starts to get bumpy as soon as we turn off the seatbelt sign,” joked Morgan Smith, a Boeing 737 pilot. “But honestly, almost anything turbulence is boring and not dangerous.”
Fortunately, the start of the Thanksgiving weekend shouldn’t be particularly bumpy. “There’s nothing extreme about the jet stream,” said Alek Mead, an Alaska Airlines dispatcher. “It’s only Friday that there could be thunderstorms on the Gulf Coast, around Houston and Memphis, which could affect turbulence.”
To help pilots find “soft air,” researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have developed a forecasting model that takes a weather measure of atmospheric turbulence, called the eddy dissipation rate, and forecasts it over a period of time. from 6 p.m.
The forecast at the top of this article shows the maximum turbulence expected at all altitudes where commercial aircraft fly – so an area shown as predicting moderate turbulence could include altitudes of calmer air. Pilots can use tablets in the cockpit to display more specific forecasts indicating which areas of turbulence exist at which altitudes, helping them to navigate above, below or around these areas.
“It’s not an exact science,” Ms Smith said. “But it helps us plan for turbulence during a flight – like asking flight attendants to delay service until we’ve passed an area or letting passengers know about possible turbulence when making the welcome aboard announcement. .”
Airline dispatchers such as 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 the flight, dispatchers constantly communicate with pilots and guide them through unexpected bumps. “These models work well, they are a valuable tool in our pocket. They let us see the bigger picture, where everything is going to happen,” he said.
The planes also have sensors that read the G-forces acting on the plane during flight and automatically log the reports. These reports are added to a database that other flight dispatchers monitor. If turbulence begins to appear in an area, then other aircraft passing the same route may begin to avoid it.
What is turbulence?
“To really simplify, turbulence is basically disturbed airflow,” Ms Smith said. “When the air changes direction or speed, we get bumps.”
She compared it to being on a boat on the water.
“When the water moves, so does the boat,” she said. “Like water, air is fluid and has the same effect on an airplane.”
Occupants may feel slight pressure against the seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects may be moved slightly. Food service can still be done and walking can be done with little or no difficulty.
The occupants feel marked tension against the seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects are dislodged. Restoration and walking are difficult.
Occupants are forced violently against the seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects are discarded. Restoration and walking are impossible.
An airplane is violently shaken and practically impossible to control. May cause structural damage.
Most people only encounter the lowest, “light” and “moderate” levels of turbulence, according to a review of pilot reports.
“I’ve never experienced severe turbulence,” Ms Smith said. “It’s quite rare, and many drivers I know haven’t experienced it or have only encountered it once or twice in their careers.”
Turbulence almost always looks worse than it is, and even official reports can be rather subjective.
“What some passengers described to me as severe turbulence, where they thought we had lost thousands of feet, was really more moderate with maybe 10 feet of altitude change and a few knots of speed variation,” said Ms. Smith.
That said, unexpected turbulence does occur and injuries occur from time to time.
Of the seven million passenger flights scheduled for last year, six serious injuries were reported in the United States last year due to turbulence, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board. So far in 2022, there have been eight episodes in which someone was seriously injured.
Turbulence Travel Tips
“Perhaps the only thing people should fear from turbulence is spilling their drink on a flight,” Ms Smith said. “Most turbulence injuries come from people who aren’t seated or haven’t fastened their seatbelts when it gets bumpy. So keep your seatbelt fastened and don’t put your drink on your laptop !
She has other tips for nervous travelers, including sitting near the front, where the ride is smoother, and flying in the morning. As the day warms into the afternoon, the heat rising from the land increases the risk of turbulence near the ground and turbulence caused by storms. She also has advice for young passengers who might be scared and haven’t chosen their career path yet.
“It’s almost always a better ride in the cockpit than the rest of the plane,” Ms Smith said. “So if you don’t like the feeling of turbulence, become a pilot!
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