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What Causes Turbulence?

Turbulence is a common cause of concern for airline passengers and for good reason. It’s one of the leading causes of airline injury, with 58 injuries in the U.S. alone due to turbulence. A large amount of turbulence can give even the most seasoned fliers a scare, but many question the basis of this fear. Are passengers ever in any real danger during an episode of turbulence? What causes it? The answers might not be what you expect.

What Is Turbulence?

According to experts, turbulence doesn’t have a singular cause. Every pilot undergoes training to know and understand the reasons a plane will have turbulence. In fact, some pilots encounter turbulence every day they fly. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s not a cause for concern. Think of it as a normal part of flying, like a bump in the road.

There are several different types of turbulence. These include:

  • Clear-air turbulence (CAT). This is the most common type of turbulence and likely a type you’ve experienced. Air flows in a horizontal motion that’s called a jet stream. A jet stream can stretch over thousands of miles, but it’s narrow, so only a few miles deep. Flight planners can use this jet stream to their advantage, as the stream can move as fast as 250 miles per hour. Clear air turbulence occurs when the plane gets close to the edge of the jet stream and interacts with the slower moving air.
  • Thermal turbulence. This type of turbulence occurs when columns of rising warm air interact with a compensating downward current, which is usually slower (cold air sinks). These cause “air waves” that can lead to a choppy ride.
  • Mechanical turbulence. This happens when planes are close to the ground. When the air near the surface flows over hills, mountains, or other obstructions, it interferes with horizontal wind flow, and those irregularities can affect a plane.

Can Pilots Avoid Turbulence?

Pilots can take steps to minimize the risk of turbulence, but it’s sometimes unavoidable. You can’t see CAT coming, it doesn’t show up on radar, and there’s really no way to forecast how close a plane is to the edge of a jet stream. However, there are ways pilots can try to avoid it. Mainly, they rely on weather reports, and, most importantly – reports from other aircraft.

Pilots get a constant stream of information from air traffic control – some of these may be warnings from other aircraft about the presence of turbulence on a route. Pilots then make a calculated decision about what’s best for the comfort of their passengers.

How Can Passengers Avoid Turbulence?

Pilots might not be able to completely avoid turbulence in flight, but there are certain areas in the plane where you can minimize the impact. Sitting next to the wing, physics are on your side. That’s the center of the plane’s gravity and where you’re least likely to be bounced around. The rear, near the tail, is where passengers will feel the most impact.

Even though you might not like it, turbulence is nothing to fear. Consider it a normal part of flying.

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