Any regular flyer will have experienced turbulence and probably dismissed it as nothing more than a few minutes of stomach-lurching discomfort.
Spare a thought then for the 24 people hospitalised following a JetBlue flight affected by poor weather, an incident that proves turbulence must be treated with respect. The flight was forced to make an unexpected landing while en route from Boston to Sacramento Thursday evening, with a passenger telling NBC News that it “got really rocky”. The 22 passengers and two crew members taken to hospital have since been treated for minor injuries and released.
But what exactly causes the phenomenon, and should we be concerned? The short answer is that turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous if you follow the rules. Here’s a quick explanation:
What causes turbulence?
Turbulence is when unexpected air movement results in bumps and jolts to an airplane. It can be caused by strong wind currents, thunderstorms, and proximity to mountains- so called “mountain waves.” It can also occur when the sky appears clear (Clear Air Turbulence – or C.A.T.) when cold and warm air come together, normally at altitudes of around 35000 feet. This is where a strong current of air flows around the world called the Jet Stream with wind speeds of up to 200 mph. When a plane encounters this varying airflow – it can feel bumpy, even though it looks calm outside the window.
Can it be detected ahead of time?
Turbulence associated with cloud and thunderstorms can be seen and detected by the plane’s radar and avoided. Clear Air Turbulence can be forecast quite accurately. However, pilots are in constant communication with air traffic control, who will feed back reports from other aircraft about conditions ahead. They also study pre-flight weather reports to give them an idea of when and how it will occur.
How common is it?
A bumpy flight is extremely common. To a pilot, dealing with turbulence is as much the norm as a driver experiencing an odd bump in the road on the way to work, as British Airways captain Steve Allright told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph last year. “Every day I fly, I expect a small amount of turbulence,” he said. “It is part of flying, and is not to be feared.”
How serious can it get?
Turbulence is the most common cause of injury to air passengers, but very few of these injuries are serious. According to data by the Federal Aviation Administration, from 1980 to 2008, U.S. air carriers had 234 turbulence accidents, resulting in 298 serious injuries and three fatalities. When you consider that there are over 87,000 flights in the U.S. per day, according to the National Air ffic Controllers Association, that’s a remarkably low number of accidents. Flightcoach recommends that you follow the safety demo – the cabin crew tell you to keep your seatbelts fastened throughout the flight. If the passengers on the flight above had done that – nobody would have been injured!