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What Causes Airplane Turbulence?

Airplane turbulence is a common part of flying, but is it a dangerous one?

Introduction

As an aircraft flies through the air, it can experience turbulence due to the rapid changes in the speed of wind, its direction, or both. These changes are usually on a small scale and short term. Other causes of aircraft turbulence include jet streams, thunderstorms, proximity to mountains, and clear-air turbulence.

Clear-air turbulence is the most common form of turbulence an aircraft experiences. It can happen even under perfect conditions and cannot be predicted by weather radars. Its suddenness often leaves flight crews with little time to advise passengers on what safety measures to take. Clear-air turbulence is on the rise due to global warming.

Is Airplane Turbulence Dangerous?

Although turbulence is uncomfortable to experience, it is not dangerous. No matter its severity, it does not compromise an aircraft's actual safety because aircrafts are designed to withstand harsh conditions. Pilots are also well trained to navigate turbulence. However, turbulent related injuries do occur and cause about 58 casualties in the US each year. Two-thirds of these cases are flight attendants or passengers not wearing their seat belts.

Levels of Turbulence

Flight crews across the globe classify turbulence using the levels 'light', 'medium', and 'severe.' Their definitions and characteristics aid the crew to effectively plan an appropriate course of action. Light turbulence can be likened to driving on a bumpy road. To pilots, it is a small inconvenience but it is safe. Fearful fliers may still find light turbulence upsetting.

Moderate turbulence normally lasts 10-15 minutes, but may occasionally go off and on for several hours. Although pilots do not fear it, moderate turbulence can upset some regular fliers and may cause drink spillage. In the case the turbulence persists, pilots may decide to fly at a different altitude. Cases of severe turbulence are extremely rare and although it is uncomfortable, it is not dangerous.

Prevention and Safety Precautions

Airplane turbulence is completely unavoidable but flight crews take various precautions to minimize encountering turbulence. Pilots mainly rely on reports from other aircrafts which may be communicated through air controls, or can be heard directly. After listening to reports, pilots will consider the available options and will try to fly at smooth altitudes. Sometimes this is impossible due to the presence of another plane flying at the considered level.

Pre-flight weather reports and cockpit radars also help pilots detect air turbulence. With clear-air turbulence on the rise, passengers are advised to fasten their seat belts whenever the sign is illuminated to prevent turbulent related injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board also recommends that infants be strapped into an airline approved car seat since lap children are more susceptible to turbulent related injuries.

Airlines are in the process of testing high-tech ways that turbulence can be detected. One method is using ultraviolet lasers to check conditions before an airplane travels through them. This will help pilots avoid turbulent paths in the future.

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