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Experiencing severe turbulence during a flight can be very frightening. Recently, a serious incident caused crew members on an Australian flight to be hospitalized.
In the past year, there have been several occurrences including eight passengers needing medical attention after their plane was hit en route to Portugal and a British Airways flight experiencing intense turbulence over the Bay of Bengal, causing pilots to turn back to the departing airport and resulting in injuries reported by multiple cabin crew members.
Even experienced travelers may occasionally become frightened by turbulence during a flight, but in most cases, it is nothing more than a minor disturbance to your meal.
We examine the factors that lead to turbulence, address frequently asked questions, and explore the possibility of it causing an aircraft to crash.
What is turbulence?
Turbulence is the result of swirling pockets of turbulent air, similar to the way ocean waves can become rough. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, clear-air turbulence (CAT) is characterized by abrupt and intense turbulence in areas without clouds, which can result in strong jolts to the aircraft. This type of turbulence is particularly concerning because it can occur unexpectedly and without any visual indicators to alert pilots to the danger.
Turbulence is caused by three primary factors: thermal conditions, mechanical interference, and shear forces between two air masses with different movements. Thermal turbulence results from warm air rising into cooler air, while mechanical turbulence is caused by obstacles such as mountains or manmade structures obstructing air flow. Shear turbulence occurs at the boundary of two air pockets moving in opposing directions.
This causes the airplane to ascend and descend, as well as sway horizontally.
Every year, the aviation industry loses up to $1 billion due to flight delays and structural damage caused by severe turbulence experienced by thousands of planes.
Is turbulence normal?
This is completely normal. While it may seem frightening, modern airplanes are built to endure significant levels of turbulence.
Pilots are usually aware of upcoming turbulence based on weather conditions and radar information. They communicate with air traffic control and other pilots on the same flight path when encountering rough air. In response, they inform passengers and decrease the speed of the plane to a designated “turbulence penetration speed”. This helps minimize potential damage to the aircraft and provides a more comfortable ride.
Is there an increase in turbulence?
Indeed, the rise in global temperatures is resulting in disturbances throughout various levels of the atmosphere. As reported by Dr. Paul D Williams, a professor specializing in atmospheric science at the University of Reading, wind shear in the jet stream has seen a 15% increase since 1979.
According to his research, clear-air turbulence is expected to increase by over 100% in the mid-Northern Hemisphere by the middle of the century. This will impact commonly used routes such as New York-London and San Francisco-Tokyo.
Is it possible for turbulence to cause injury?
Although there are some turbulence-related incidents, they are not as common as one might assume. Based on information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, the average number of injuries per year over the past 16 years is 33, with only 17 reported in 2017. Given that there are approximately 2.6 million passengers flying to and from US airports daily, which adds up to 959 million passengers per year, the chances of being injured by turbulence are relatively low.
What is the recommended course of action during turbulence?
Follow the example of pilots and always ensure you are wearing your seat belt. After using the restroom and returning to your seat, make sure to buckle up. Failure to do so can result in injuries during turbulence.
In an interview with The Independent, Balpa union representative Steve Landells advised passengers not to unbuckle their seatbelts when the captain instructs them to. He explained that pilots are constantly communicating with other aircraft and even if the flight seems smooth at the moment, they may know that turbulence is coming.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides the following suggestions to ensure safety:
- Listen to the flight attendants. Pay attention to the safety briefing at the beginning of your flight and read the safety briefing card.
“Secure your seat belt. Protect yourself and your loved ones by always wearing a seat belt.”
If your child is under two years old, make sure to use a child safety seat or device that has been approved.
To avoid injuries during a flight, make sure to follow your airline’s regulations for carry-on items.
Is it possible for turbulence to cause my flight to crash?
According to senior aviation consultant Adrian Young, the brief response is affirmative. However, it is improbable.
According to Young, the term “turbulence” can encompass various weather conditions at high altitudes such as storms and clear air turbulence, as well as microbursts at ground level and wake turbulence caused by other aircraft.
“He mentions that the occurrence of a crash in transport aircraft due to this reason is uncommon. There are a few instances dating back to the 1960s.”
“Microbursts cause fewer accidents now than they did in the 1990s. See the American accident at Little Rock in 1999 (an MD-82, flight AA1420). Better extreme weather detection systems exist and flight techniques have been improved.
“Wake turbulence affects smaller aeroplanes more than large ones. One accident comes to mind; American 587 at New York in 2001.”
In contemporary engineering and technology, the risk is significantly decreased by utilizing satellites and advanced meteorology techniques that provide pilots with precise forecasts of potential turbulence zones.
According to Young, the risk has been reduced over the years and it remains uncommon in the industry.