What is turbulence and what pilots do when they hit it

What is turbulence and what pilots do when they hit it

What is turbulence and what pilots do when they hit it

Recently, news reports showed a flight from Phoenix to Hawaii that was rocked by turbulence so extreme it sent 20 passengers to hospital upon landing, some with life-threatening injuries. How could this happen in today’s age of technology? What kind of turbulence did this Hawaiian Airlines jet encounter?

Here are your turbulence questions answered by a seasoned pilot.

Honolulu, Hawaii, turbulence

This is an image of severe and extreme turbulence on a weather page around the Hawaiian Islands one day after the Hawaiian Airlines turbulence event.

Photo credit: Christy Karsten

What is turbulence?

When passengers ask me what turbulence is, I describe it as simply as possible. The easiest way to visualize turbulence is to think of it as water. When two river currents, such as the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, converge, turbulence is created where the rivers meet. Air masses behave like water masses; you cannot see them. Add in a storm and a nasty jet stream, and these “rivers” can look like the rapids of Niagara Falls.

There are basically two types of turbulence, convective turbulence and clear air turbulence (CAT).

Convective turbulence is what you will most likely feel as a passenger as the jet cruises around thunderstorms. CAT normally occurs at higher altitudes and can be caused by strong wind shears near the jet stream. There are different classifications of turbulence that you have all experienced while sitting in the back of an airliner.

Fly like a bird

If you’ve ever watched a large bird circle overhead without flapping its wings, you see mother nature giving the bird a free ride. The bird has learned that it can orbit in an invisible well of rising air called a thermal. It can forage for food and soar effortlessly in this “thermal” zone. Now imagine flying to Las Vegas for the weekend in the middle of summer. It’s hot in the desert, and I mean hot! All of this heat from the sun warms the surface creating rising plumes of hot (thermal) air. You can’t really see it, but boy, you can feel it as your plane descends through those bumps.

One of my favorite types of convective activity is orographic uplift. It is very easy to see the windward side of a mountain range. The wind pushes clouds and moisture up the mountains, which forces the moisture up. It creates a collection of puffy, puffy and convective clouds. We avoid flying near convective activity like this.

Pro tip: Check out this article on The journey awaits you Why some pilots fly into or around storms to learn about airliner radar.

Airplane above the clouds

A view outside the airplane window showing the plane hovering above the clouds

Photo credit: Christy Kartsen

Is turbulence dangerous?

Turbulence isn’t necessarily dangerous, but it can be quite uncomfortable. Airliners are designed to take the worst, even in strong turbulence! The real the danger comes from passengers who do not comply with the flight crew or the seat belt sign. The passengers on the Hawaiian flight who failed to obey the command “Remain seated with your seat belts fastened” and then encountered severe turbulence were injured. Some people who were standing fired and actually cracked the overhead bins and panels with their heads, seriously injuring themselves.

In addition to running a punctual schedule, our primary focus is safety. We all want the flight to be smooth and comfortable for our passengers. Before the flight even leaves the gate, many types of planning and forecasting occur behind the scenes. Our trained dispatchers review weather data for areas with mild conditions, such as winds, known turbulence and storms. Pilots also review similar information. Should we consider a different route than the one shipped for milder conditions? Should we fly at a different altitude than planned for a better “ride”?

Collectively, the captain and dispatcher agree on the route, altitude, and fuel for the flight. All of this logistics happens hours before your flight, while you’re en route to the airport.

Weather report for pilots

The big picture of weather across the United States that pilots look to navigate around the weather.

Photo credit: Christy Karsten

What are the pilots doing?

Once in flight, we are in constant communication with ATC. We have the current weather conditions live on our iPads. When we transit through ATC sectors, they transmit the current conditions as soon as we start communicating with them. We also relay our current flight conditions so other flights in our area know what’s happening up to the minute. We transmit these conditions to ground weather stations via our flight computers so that this information can be transmitted and recorded for other pilots and dispatchers. Our dispatchers monitor our entire flight and send updates if weather conditions have changed or if they have received reports from pilots called PIREPS.

If we know or hear of possible turbulence, the captain can make a quick sound system and advise passengers that there are ongoing reports of turbulence and to please remain seated with their seat belts fastened.

We have procedures in place when we encounter turbulence. Every aircraft has what is called a “turbulence penetration speed” which is normally slower than 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 might even hear a sound system ordering flight attendants to sit down immediately. That means taking any free seat in the cabin, because 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 in turbulence.

What to do if you experience turbulence

If you hear turbulence warnings, stay in your seat and stay strapped in! If you’re walking and it seems urgent, and you see an open seat, grab it and buckle up. If you’re lying in a sleeper chair, make sure your seatbelt is fastened and tie it on the blankets so the crew can see you’re safe. If you are walking back to your seat, use the tops of the seats to steady yourself if the ride is bumpy. If you’re tall enough, touching the overhead bins can sometimes stabilize you as you rush to your seat.

Wind report

A wind map is shown at a certain altitude to help find the best conditions for a smooth flight.

Photo credit: Christy Kartsen

What can you do?

If you’re a white-knuckle traveler and want to know if your journey is likely to encounter turbulence, do some research before your flight.

  • Go to FlightAware and enter your airline and flight number. An itinerary will be displayed with the usual planning for this flight. Superimposed on this map is any current weather, such as rain showers.
  • Now type in “NOAA radar” and look at the “overview” of weather systems.
  • Go a little 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 benefits.

Sometimes a little knowledge of where you’re going and what’s planned can help alleviate white knuckles. You can also download MyFlight Forecast from the App Store and track in flight with Wi-Fi. This is a very special app designed specifically for nervous travelers.

Wishing you smooth air, tailwinds and safe travels. See you in the sky!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *