You have probably been there. Chilling in your passenger seat and all of a sudden, you instantly start going up and down. The pilot gets on the intercom, saying the aircraft is flying through turbulence and need you to put on your seat belt.
Turbulence is what a lot of passengers fear when flying. It can be scary and some have been injured because of it. How does an aircraft handle it? Can turbulence cause a plane crash? Can it cause your flight to fall out of the sky?
What Is Turbulence?
Turbulence is the random motion of air, causing an irregular flow. This turbulent air interacts with an aircraft, causing bumps, shaking and sudden movements.
Pilots can not actually see turbulence while they are flying. They have to rely on other clues to estimate where the flight can get rough. Things like weather development, pilot reports and issued forecast can help turbulence detection.
Turbulent air can be caused by many things. Because of this, they are different types of turbulence. Some have the capability of being more powerful than others. Knowing how they are created helps with detecting them.
How Turbulence Is Created
Here are a few ways turbulence can be created:
- Mechanical Turbulence
- Turbulence caused by man-made objects or rough terrain
- These objects disrupt smooth airflow, causing turbulent flow
- Normally encountered close to ground level
- Convective Currents
- Convective currents caused by different objects emitting heat at different rates
- This causes small areas of the air to rotate
- This turbulence is noticeable, but not deadly
- Strong updrafts and downdrafts caused by moist, unstable air
- Very strong turbulence, especially hazardous to small aircraft
- Pilots do their best to avoid thunderstorms
- Wake Turbulence
- This turbulence is caused by other aircraft
- Based on how the wind flows around the wing, vortices are created
- These vortices can be strong enough to bring down a plane, especially a small one
- Air traffic control works hard to separate aircraft so that they do not encounter this
Clear Air Turbulence
This type of turbulence can occur with no indication. As the name suggests, clear air turbulence (CAT) can occur with no adverse weather conditions present in the area. It generally occurs at high altitudes, such as cruise. It can be clear as day, yet your aircraft will experience bumps. There is nothing to indicate CAT is out there. Pilots sometimes have to rely on reports from other aircraft ahead of them to expect this.
CAT occurs when there is a localized change in wind speed. This causes a wind shear to occur. The relatively faster wind will then try to pull the slower wind towards it, which results in deformations and circulation flows.
This wind shear can occur close to jet streams, which are narrow corridors of fast-moving winds. If an aircraft flies across or close to this, CAT can be experienced.
Can An Aircraft Handle It?
Aircraft today can definitely withstand turbulence without suffering from structural damage. Airplanes are designed to typically have a factor of safety of 1.5 of the ultimate load! These loads are almost never experienced on normal flights. Even though you can see the wings flexing while flying, turbulence will not cause these wings or any part of the aircraft to snap off.
An aircraft, however, did crash due to turbulence in the past. A BOAC 707 flight in 1966 flew too close to Mount Fuji. The strong winds from the mountainside created turbulence, thus causing it to break up mid-flight.
No 707 aircraft operates commercially today. New and modern aircraft can withstand these winds and will not fail, especially through CAT.
Check out the video below of airline pilots flying through turbulence. Notice how calm they are!
Pilots are trained to avoid turbulence as best as they can. It is common for them to ask ATC to change altitude and heading in order to make your ride smoother. For example, if they see a large cumulonimbus cloud along the flight path, they will not fly in or close the storm, but amend their route.
Their job is to ensure you reach your destination safe and make you feel comfortable. So the next time your encounter turbulence on your next flight, remember to buckle up and stay calm. It will eventually go away. Your plane will not fall out of the sky!
What is your worst turbulence experience? Let me know in the comments below.