I posted last year that I saw a mention of Delta’s Flight Weather Viewer app, and I wanted to learn more. Well, now I have. I sat down with Delta’s Managing Director of Line Operations, Rich Terry, to learn more about how this app helps Delta pilots predict and avoid turbulence better than anyone else today.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that Delta was the airline to come up with something like this. Part of the reason is because Delta has focused on innovation a fair bit lately, but it’s also because corporate-predecessor Northwest’s history with trying to track and predict turbulence goes back to the 1960s when its turbulence plots were born. This technology is far more sophisticated then that, obviously, but it has the same goal. This is about trying to make flying safer and less stressful.
A Ton of Data
The idea starts with something called the eddy dissipation rate, or EDR. To the best of my somewhat limited understanding, the EDR is a measure of the stability of the energy in the atmosphere. A high EDR is more unstable and will result in more turbulence. Read this if you want to learn more.
How is this measured? Well, you need to be up in the atmosphere, so airplanes are being equipped with sensors to measure at least 6 different pieces of information to understand the state of the atmosphere at that exact point. This data is then sent down to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and is then processed.
Delta has about half its mainline fleet sending data to NCAR, and some Connection aircraft are doing it as well. That information is all that Delta can currently use for its tool, but it is working on something with IATA to be able to use more data. Also, once it commercializes the product it has built, it might be able to get direct use of other airlines’ NCAR data as well.
That EDR data updates every 15 minutes. In the US, that is combined with the predictive GTG-3 model as well as NEXRAD doppler data to create a remarkably comprehensive picture. Internationally it’s not as effective, but Delta is trying to find a way to use ROMIO information for that. That isn’t nearly as far along.
Translating Data Into Action
Enough about the background. The point is that there is a ton of data out there, much of it using an open standard, but that doesn’t mean it can be easily used by pilots. That’s what Delta set out to fix, and it created this Flight Weather Viewer app which every Delta mainline pilot can access on his or her tablet inflight. (They’re are working on getting it to Connection pilots eventually.) Here’s a screenshot of a flight that was operating recently from Atlanta to New York/LaGuardia.
On the upper left, you’ll see a color and a number. That is the current state of what the aircraft is flying in. The scale goes from 1 to 100, and it adjusts based upon the aircraft type flying. A smaller airplane is going to feel turbulence differently than a larger one. In this case, the airplane is experiencing under 20 and in the light green, so there might be some light chop but not anything that should even require the seatbelt sign to go on.
On the top two-thirds, you can see a bird’s eye view of the flight path along with expected turbulence along the way. This flight stays mostly in the green until it becomes smooth, so it should be a pretty nice ride. But what you can’t see on this view of the top is what New York looks like. The bottom third, however, does show the entire flight route from a side view.
Down there, you can see a breakdown of turbulence by altitude. The white line is where the airplane is flying, in this case 39,000 feet. You can see toward the beginning of the flight that there was light moderate to moderate turbulence expected in the 30k-35k range (the dark green and yellow). So that’s something the pilots wanted to avoid.
As you can see, toward New York things get heavier. In some cases, there could be some heavier moderate turbulence possible. Normally this would help the pilots to avoid those areas of turbulence. In this case, they need to land in New York, so that’s not an option. What they can do, however, is know more about what kind of turbulence is expected and when, so they can prepare the flight attendants and travelers to know what it’s going to be like.
As they get closer, this will just be one of the tools that the pilots can use to see if they can avoid the worst of it. They also have their weather radar, of course, and they can use old-fashioned pilot reports (PIREPs) too. But this tool should help give a much more accurate picture.
So what does this mean overall? Well, in some cases it will mean smoother rides. Rich still flies airplanes for Delta, and he mentioned a trip he was on where pilots were reporting rough air at all altitudes. Using the Flight Weather Viewer, they believed that climbing up to a certain altitude would make it smooth. The controller said all rides were bumpy, but they could climb if they wanted. Sure enough, the ride up there had smoothed out as predicted by the app. This not only makes for a better ride, but it helps save fuel, avoiding having pilots going up and down searching for better altitudes.
Sometimes, turbulence is unavoidable, but in those cases, pilots can have more command of how long it will last and how intense it will be. We’ve all been on airplanes where the seatbelt sign remained on long after the turbulence stopped. Now, it should be easier to know that it’s really done as opposed to just being a lull. But more importantly, this will let pilots tell flight attendants to sit down when they truly need to sit down. It should mean fewer injuries inflight since everyone can be belted before things get dangerous for those walking around.
Being able to avoid turbulence or at least predict it more accurately is like music to my ears. It’s hard to know how many (if any) people will flock to Delta because of this, but it’s a great innovation that I hope others will end up adopting.