TURBULENCE is fairly common and most of the time should not be feared – but doesn’t mean its not an enjoyable experience.
We explain what causes turbulence and and what pilots do when it happens.
Most travellers will have experienced some turbulence at some point during a flight, and usually it is nothing to worry about[/caption]
What causes turbulence during flights?
There are many kinds of turbulence that can occur during a flight, from the most common “clear air” type to “wake turbulence” which happens less often.
Most of the time weather conditions such as thunderstorms are the cause of disruption during flights, but jet streams caused by large aircraft can also impact a journey.
With Clear Air Turbulence (CAT), jet streams from planes can stretch for thousands of miles long and a few miles deep.
Often pilots will try to either avoid these areas (if they are flying into a headwind) or use them (if they are flying into a tailwind) to help reduce fuel usage.
However, when a plane transitions from an area of fast jet stream to slowing moving area, or vice versa, turbulence can occur.
Wake turbulence occurs from vortices that spin from the wingtips and typically are created when a plane is lower in the sky so the wings are working hard to “lift” the aircraft.
Often turbulence occurs when an aircraft encounters a different speed of air flow, such as with fast-moving jet streams[/caption]
Is turbulence dangerous?
Turbulence is relatively common and is usually harmless, but that doesn’t stop it being an unpleasant experience at times.
Writing on askthepilot.com, the author of Cockpit Confidential pilot Patrick Smith said: “For all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket.
“The pilots aren’t worried about the wings falling off; they’re trying to keep their customers relaxed and everybody’s coffee where it belongs.
“Planes themselves are engineered to take a remarkable amount of punishment, and they have to meet stress limits for both positive and negative G-loads.
British Airways pilot Steve Allright said there is generally more chance of turbulence crossing the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) when flying south across Africa, for example[/caption]
“The level of turbulence required to dislodge an engine or bend a wing spar is something even the most frequent flyer—or pilot for that matter—won’t experience in a lifetime of travelling.”
The main concern for pilots will be the comfort of passengers, so often will result in them slowing down or rerouting to escape any wind tunnels.
Injuries have occurred in the past on planes experiencing turbulence.
In May a video emerged of the horrific scenes on board an Aeroflot plane as turbulence threw passengers all over the cabin en route from Moscow to Bangkok.
At least 20 people – including three babies – suffered major injuries including suspected broken bones in the carnage.
Where in the world is turbulence most common?
British Airways pilot Steve Allright said on the Independent: “Any airport is at the mercy of strong winds on any given day.
“The same applies to jet streams on any given route, although there is generally more chance of turbulence crossing the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) when flying south across Africa, for example.”
Patrick advised that most turbulence is unpredictable but flying over mountain ranges can “get the cabin bells dinging.”
A plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket[/caption]
How do pilots deal with turbulence?
Often CAT is not visible to the naked eye and is not detectable on radars, so often pilots will rely on reports from other aircraft.
Most of the time, a plane is able to safely withstand any turbulence although the pilot will switch on the seat belt sign and it can be an uncomfortable experience.
Pilots can also try to fly higher (if the aircraft performance allows for it) or lower (which can burn more fuel and could risk making the conditions more severe).
They can also try to fly at the aircraft turbulence penetration speed, which is slightly slower than normal cruising speed.
Most of the time pilots will try to avoid an area of turbulence altogether, such as if it occurs near a thunderstorm.
Pilot will switch on the seat belt sign during turbulence and will often reduce their speed to the aircraft turbulence penetration speed[/caption]
Where is the best place to sit on the plane to avoid the worst effects of turbulence?
Patrick advised that your plane seat doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the experience of turbulence.
However he wrote: “The smoothest place to sit is over the wings, nearest to the plane’s centres of lift and gravity.
“The roughest spot is usually the far aft—the rearmost rows closest to the tail.”
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