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Turbulent Times

Posted by Patrick Smith  February 21, 2014 02:45 PM

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February 21, 2014

TURBULENCE WAS BIG NEWS this week after a pair of aircraft -- one belonging to United Airlines, the other to Cathay Pacific -- had run-ins with unusually rough conditions, resulting in several injuries and lots and lots of hysterical news coverage.

Turbulence is far and away the number one concern of nervous flyers, and incidents like these do nothing to make them more comfortable. If you're among those seeking reassurance, please refer to my earlier essay on the topic, a version of which also appears in chapter two of the new book. Many anxious passengers have found this discussion helpful...


In the meantime I'll go ahead and reiterate some bullet points:

>> First and foremost, turbulence is, for lack of a better term, normal. Every flight, every day, will encounter some degree of rough air, be it a few light burbles or a more pronounced and consistent chop that sometimes gets your coffee spilling and the plates rattling in the galley. From a pilot's perspective, garden-variety turbulence is seen as a comfort and convenience issue, not a safety issue per se. It's annoying, but it is not dangerous.

>> In rare circumstances, however, it's worse, to the point where a plane's occupants can be injured or, even more uncommonly, aircraft components can be damaged. How rare? Put it this way, the type of encounter that United and Cathay ran into is the sort of thing even the most frequent flyer will not experience in a lifetime. And of the small number of passengers injured each year, the vast majority of them are people who did not have their seat belts on when they should have.

>> Can turbulence occur unexpectedly -- or, as the news people have been embellishing it, "out of nowhere?" Yes. Pilots receive weather and turbulence forecasts prior to flight; once aloft we get periodic updates from our dispatchers and meteorologists on the ground. We have weather radar in the cockpit, as well as our eyes to see and avoid the worst weather. And perhaps most helpful of all, we receive real-time reports from nearby aircraft. With all of these tools at our disposal, we have a pretty good idea of the where, when, and how bad of the bumps. But every so often they happen without warning. Almost always it's a mild nuisance, but the lesson here is to always have your belt fastened, even when conditions are smooth.

>> Do pilots keep their belts fastened in the cockpit? Yes, always. Is this one of those things that, well, hey, we sometimes ignore and get lackadaisical over? No, and neither should you.

>> For what it's worth, thinking back over the entire history of modern commercial aviation, I cannot recall a single jetliner crash caused by turbulence, strictly speaking. Maybe there have been one or two, but airplanes are engineered to withstand an extreme amount of stress, and the amount of turbulence required to, for instance, tear off a wing, is far beyond anything you'll ever experience.

>> During turbulence, the pilots are not fighting the controls. Planes are designed with what we call positive stability, meaning that when nudged from their original point in space, by their nature they wish to return there. The best way of handling rough air is to effectively ride it out, hands-off. (Some autopilots have a turbulence mode that de-sensitizes the system, to avoid over-controlling.) It can be uncomfortable, but the jet is not going to flip upside down.

>> Be wary of analogies. You might hear somebody compare turbulence to "driving over a rough road," or to "a ship in rough seas." I don't like these comparisons because potholes routinely pop tires, break axles and ruin suspensions, while ships can be capsized or swamped. There are no accurate equivalents in the air.

>> Be wary of passenger accounts in news stories. Not to insult anyone's powers of observation, but people have a terrible habit of misinterpreting and exaggerating the sensations of flight, particularly if they're scared. Even in considerably bumpy air -- what a pilot might call "moderate turbulence," a plane is seldom displaced in altitude by more than 20 feet, and usually less. Passengers might feel the plane "plummeting" or "diving" -- words the media can't get enough of -- when in fact it is hardly moving.

>> Will climate change increase the number of severe turbulence encounters? Possibly, but in the meantime remember there are also more airplanes flying than ever before. The worldwide jetliner fleet has more than doubled in the past twenty years, and continues to grow. It stands to reason that as the number of flights goes up, the number of incidents will also go up, regardless of changes in the weather.

Hopefully that helps. Once again, CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL DISCUSSION.

Just the other day I was asked by a passenger whether Boston was more prone to turbulence than other areas. "Whenever I take off or land at Logan," he said, "the plane seems to be bumping and banging all over the place."

There's some truth to this in that gusty winds are themselves a form of turbulence, and Boston is a very windy city. So yes, takeoffs and landings at Logan might be, on average, a little more squirrelly than elsewhere. But that does not meant they are always bumpy, and it certainly doesn't mean they're unsafe.

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This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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