December 8, 2011

Unpacked: Turbulence

Image courtesy of jugglingnutcase on Flickr

Welcome back to our third edition of Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry. This time around we’re going to look at things that go bump in the night (or day), otherwise known as turbulence.

Turbulence is essentially fluctuations in patches of air that make you feel like you’re off-roading in a car rather than the normally smooth feel of flying in a plane. Turbulence can be unnerving for some, but the more you learn about this phenomenon the more you’ll realize it’s not something to be feared.

There are different types of turbulence, some more detectable than others. Most often, turbulence is a result of a weather event. It’s easier to locate this type of uneven air via radar, which in turn makes it easier to prepare flight plans that avoid the path of the turbulence. “Clear air” is the less predictable form of turbulence. “Clear air” means pretty much what it appears to mean; nothing shows up on the radar on the ground or in the cockpit and the weather is swell, but the plane encounters a rougher patch of air.

Planes are designed with turbulence in mind.  State-of-the-art navigational technology on-board help guide pilots to fly the planes around pockets of turbulence. In the event that a plane comes in direct contact with uneven air, the wings are designed to flex, keeping the aircraft stable. The general rule of thumb when it comes to design criteria for aircraft is to build a machine that can withstand one-and-a-half times whatever it may encounter. Seats and seat belts on planes are also designed with forces of gravity in mind and how they might be affected by potential changes in altitude.

In addition, accelerometers built right into the aircraft monitor the level of turbulence experienced on a given flight, which arm the maintenance folks with data for when they inspect the aircraft upon landing. All planes that have experienced moderate to severe turbulence are checked upon arrival.

The most important pointer when it comes to safety during turbulence is to always stay in your seat with your seat belt fastened, especially when your captain makes an announcement that you might be flying through an uneven patch of air. Flying through bad turbulence is like taking a ride on “Thunder Mountain” in Disneyworld – the ride is safe but best to keep your seat belts on!

Check out our earlier editions of Unpacked to learn all about Lightning Strikes and Diversions, and stay tuned for the first Thursday of next month when we serve the next up!

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10 Comments on “Unpacked: Turbulence”

  • Posted by Beth Nowik on December 8, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    The first time my daughters flew, we were flying to MCO from New York and my eldest daughter (who was about 16 at the time) says “Mom so when is there going to be turbulence,” this was when we were approaching MCO, which I had to laugh at because we had pretty bad turbulence the whole flight due to really bad thunderstorms. I told her honey we had it the whole flight and then I proceeded to explain to her what turbulence was and also explain that going up and down on a plane was normal but does not happen all the time. After that flight she knew what it was and never asked me again on later trips to MCO and back…LOL. I also remember a couple of years ago when there was turbulence I waschanging my then infant granddaughter on the changing table…..that got a little tricky, but I managed.

  • Posted by dz on December 8, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Can turbulence make a plane go down??? That’s my biggest fear!

  • Posted by Gilberto on December 8, 2011 at 5:51 pm


    to 41000 feet the Turbulence is very high ?

  • Posted by Turbu..what? on December 8, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    “In the event that a plane comes in direct contact with uneven air, a pressurization system allows the wings to flex, keeping the aircraft stable”
    ….uh…..riiiiiight…..and who wrote this article?

  • Posted by Marti lindquist on December 8, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    I struggle with flying. This really helps me a LOT. Thank you!!! My son works for Jet Blue and loves it.

  • Posted by Bob on December 9, 2011 at 12:55 am

    How many thousand pilots does jetblue employ? Why didn’t you get one of them to write this, rather than a clueless middle school kid?

    “In the event that a plane comes in direct contact with uneven air, a pressurization system allows the wings to flex, keeping the aircraft stable.”


    “All planes that have experienced turbulence are checked upon arrival.”

    Ya sure about that?

    I’m taking a screen shot of this article, because I’m guess as soon as you show it to one of your pilots, you’ll take it down. Sure doesn’t inspire confidence in Jetblue’s technical knowledge.

  • Posted by Linda Hiwot on December 9, 2011 at 7:17 am

    This type of information really helps a person like me who does not like to fly.

  • Posted by Prof. Bernoulli on December 9, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Please find someone, anyone, that actually knows how to research or has subject matter knowledge before you foist this drivel on the public. This article is just plain embarrassing.

  • Posted by Tom - JetBlue on December 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    dz asked “Can turbulence make a plane go down?”

    Modern airplanes and flying procedures are designed to withstand an extreme amount of turbulence if they have to. The safety concern when we have turbulence is not whether the airplane can handle it, but for our Customers and Crew to be buckled in to avoid getting hurt as we encounter the “bumpy air” you feel in turbulence.

    Gilberto asked if turbulence is very high at 41,000 feet.

    Turbulence at 41,000 feet is not any more or less common than at other altitudes. For each flight we pay close attention to turbulence forecasts and reports, and we choose the route and flight level (altitude) that helps us provide the most comfortable ride possible.

    “Turbu… what?” and Bob questioned our blogger’s statement about the flexibility of the wings on the aircraft.

    The aircraft’s wings are designed to bend and give a certain amount to handle the changes in air pressure on the wing’s surface that are encountered in turbulent air. This is not the same as the pressurization system used in the aircraft cabin. I hope that clarifies what was posted.

    Bob also asked about aircraft inspections after a turbulence encounter.

    To clarify, Bob, when a pilot reports turbulence as being “severe” (as opposed to “light” or “moderate”) there’s a requirement that our technicians inspect the airplane for any little bit of wear & tear and fix it before we allow the plane to fly again. This is in addition to the periodic routine inspections we do.

    Our blogger’s article is a short and non-technical look at turbulence from a Customer’s point of view. If you have more questions after reading it, feel free to ask them here in the comments and we’ll answer them for you.

    Thanks for your interest!

    - Tom L.
    JetBlue Manager Meteorology

  • Posted by Jetblue turbulence | Yourmanfriend on November 8, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    [...] BlueTales » JetBlue » Unpacked: TurbulenceDec 8, 2011 … Turbulence is essentially fluctuations in patches of air that make you feel like you’ re off-roading in a car rather than the normally smooth feel of … [...]

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