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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