You know the feeling. You’re sitting there reading your book when the seatbelt sign comes on. Then you start bouncing around. Just about everyone has heard the captain ask the flight attendants to sit down as a precautionary measure at some point. Many people have seen it bad enough that drinks start coming out of the glass. And the chosen few have seen it get so bad that people end up injured.
There has long been an effort to avoid turbulence and in general, airlines do a pretty good job today. When you think about the old days when planes would penetrate thunderstorms below 10,000 ft (sometimes with catastrophic results), things don’t look so bad. But it’s still not pleasant and it can be scary. So, the airlines are always looking for better ways to avoid the stuff.
I was interested to read this article in the Rocky Mountain News about a National Center for Atmospheric Research project that is being tested with United in the Rocky Mountain region right now. The idea is to use ground-based radar to look into areas of rain, clouds, and wind and create a plot 100 miles ahead and 40 miles on either side of a plane showing turbulence. This info can be downloaded every 5 minutes by the plane, so it’s near real-time, and that’s helpful in avoiding the rough air that you usually find over the Rockies.
The idea is to avoid large storms, so without a system like this, pilots will often be very cautious and go much further out of their way than they need to. With more accurate plots, the pilots can feel more confident deviating less and that means shorter delays and fewer airspace constraints.
This program still doesn’t appear to help with clear air turbulence, the really bouncy stuff that is harder to predict. That is a whole different area of research. Believe it or not, Northwest is one of the leaders in this area. (Yes, I know. Something positive about Northwest is hard to come by.) They actually put out a daily turbulence plot that gets sold to other airlines. So hopefully one of these days, clear air turbulence will be completely predictable, but for now just wear your seatbelt. (Note: Turbulence doesn’t hurt people, not using a seatbelt at all times hurts people. Oh, and guns hurt people too, but that’s a whole different story.)
If you’re really worried about turbulence, there’s a great site for you called TurbulenceForecast.com. Actually, it’s questionable if it’s a great site for you, because having all this info may just make you more nervous. You can get all kinds of maps ranging from areas of potential clear air turbulence to storms and cloud top heights like you see below. (Yes, that one passing through Louisiana saying 690 is the remains of Humberto and yes, the clouds are topping out at 69,000 ft. Wow.)
You can even go into the forum, post the route you’re flying within a couple days of travel, and they’ll respond with a personalized route forecast for you. For some people, this may be great. But for others, it may just make things worse, especially if you’ll be flying a projected bumpy route.
If you’d rather not know, just keep in mind that the pilots are doing everything they can to avoid the turbulence, but that’s not always possible. If you keep your seatbelt on, you’ll be fine. Otherwise, well, severe turbulence may be rare, but without a seatbelt your head might end up visiting the ceiling, and you really don’t want that.