The words ‘airplane’, ‘turbulence’ and ‘fear’ have a nasty habit of popping up in the same sentence.
But it turns out that airplane turbulence isn’t something you need to worry about.
Because turbulence DOES NOT represent a threat to your plane.
In fact, there are NO examples in recent decades of an airplane crashing thanks to turbulence.
So why do people hate it?
I think it’s because they don’t know what it is. And in the absence of FACTS, negative thoughts go unchallenged.
That’s why I invited retired Delta Airlines captain, Bill Watts, to join me for a chat.
Bill’s working on a project with Delta and the US Government’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to find better ways to spot and avoid turbulence (P.S. don’t miss the interview I did with NCAR about air turbulence).
In this interview, Bill gives you the information you need to challenge your negative thoughts.
Tune in (or read the transcript below) and you’ll discover:
- What turbulence is.
- How it works at different altitudes.
- Why it’s NOT a threat to your plane.
- How to avoid injury when flying through it.
- New systems for identifying and avoiding it.
- And MUCH more.
Tim Benjamin: Is turbulence one of the things you hate most about flying?
If so, check out today’s interview.
Hi – I’m Tim Benjamin with the Fear of Flying School podcast.
Today’s talk is with retired Delta Airlines Captain, Bill Watts.
Bill is representing Delta in a project the airline is working on with the US National Center for Atmospheric Research.
The aim of the project is to make it easier for pilots to spot – and avoid – turbulence.
And given that lots of you have emailed me to say you HATE turbulence with a passion, I figured it would be great to get Bill on to explain what it is.
And why you DON’T need to worry about it.
But, before we get into the interview, can I first ask you a big favour?
If you find this – or any of my other interviews – useful, I’d love it if you could spend 10 seconds jumping into iTunes to rate the Fear of Flying School podcast.
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And you’ll be helping out other fearful fliers by making it easier for them to discover the Fear of Flying School podcast.
Now, if you don’t know how to rank a podcast on iTunes, simply visit Fear of Flying School dot com where you’ll find quick instructions on the page containing this interview.
It’s the page headlined ‘Why You Can Stop Hating Turbulence’.
OK – without further ado, here’s my interview about turbulence with Bill Watts…
Tim Benjamin: Today we’re going to be talking about turbulence and how it affects air travel.
Before we get going, I think it would be really useful for people who’re listening to this just to get a better understanding of the different kinds of turbulence.
Obviously some turbulence exists at low altitude – that’s the stuff that people feel just after the plane’s taken off or just before it lands.
And then there’s that other kind of turbulence, which exists up, at cruising altitude.
Can you just talk me through, to start with, what sort of turbulence people are likely to experience at low altitude?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, first of all, let me give just a little background on turbulence as a phenomenon.
Turbulence is merely a disturbance in a fluid called ‘air’ – similar to the waves in the ocean.
And many things can cause these disturbances.
And even though it appears to be mystical – because we can’t SEE the air movements – it’s similar to a sea-state – or even a bumpy road – which are easily observed.
But, to be more specific about the LOW altitude, in the lower atmosphere, typical causes of turbulence can be terrain disrupting a steady flow where air moves from high pressure to low pressure.
Just basic physics.
Tim Benjamin: And when you say ‘terrain’, what do you mean by that?
Captain Bill Watts: In other words, if we had a 20 knot wind and it’s going from the surface up to 10,000 feet.
And it’s flowing along.
And it has a mountain in front of it.
Or a mountain – say – that goes up to 4,000 feet.
That terrain will impact that airflow and cause it to be turbulent.
It would be much like if you had the ocean rolling over a breakway – say 100 yards from the shore.
So, it’s just an obstacle to the airflow.
And when the airflow hits that, it becomes turbulent.
Does that make sense?
Tim Benjamin: It DOES make sense.
What about airports which are not located near mountains?
I mean, they can get a bit bumpy at times as well, right?
Captain Bill Watts: Correct. And it doesn’t have to be just terrain.
It can be buildings.
It can be intersections of different airflows.
So, it’s ANYTHING that disrupts that airflow is what can cause us turbulence.
Just like – again I like to refer back to the ocean – because people can see how the ocean can be affected by either a rock formation or currents coming in from different directions.
So that the changes in speed AND direction – whatever the reason – whether it’s a mountain or a building or currents coming together – are caused by the differences either by these impacts of terrain.
Or it could be atmospheric pressure.
Or even the rotation of the Earth.
And that rotation of the Earth causes a frictional affect on the wind.
So, all those things can impact that flow.
And if there’s no clouds associated with this disturbance, we call it ‘clear-air’ turbulence.
Or nickname is ‘CAT’.
Convectively – convective activity – like thunderstorms, or cumulus fluffy clouds, can also create turbulence.
In other words, these flows that are created, create these clouds and moisture.
And when they are associated with this convective activity – we call that ‘convectively induced turbulence’ – or ‘CIT’.
So, lots of things can affect that flow.
The ‘turbulence’ is just another name for that flow being disrupted.
Tim Benjamin: So that’s turbulence at LOW altitude. What kind of turbulence is typically encountered at cruising altitude?
Well, generally, turbulence at cruising altitude is very similar to the low altitude forms of turbulence.
The differences are caused by just different phenomena.
For instance, at the higher altitudes we have the jet stream, which most people are familiar with.
And that’s just a very high volume of air and high velocity of air – sometimes up to 150 knots – found at the higher altitudes.
And I won’t go into all the causes of the jet stream but most people are at least familiar with the jet stream.
So, that’s one factor in the higher altitudes you don’t see at the lower altitudes.
Another is the convective activity which we talked about earlier associated with thunderstorms. Build up to quite high altitudes – sometimes 40 or 50 thousand feet.
And all that convective activity – or airflow within that thunderstorm – creates a lot of disruptions in the atmosphere at the higher altitudes.
Sometimes as far as – I don’t know – 50 to 100 kilometres away from the thunderstorm itself.
So, the net effect is essentially the same – they’re just disruptions in the air flow as described for the lower altitudes.
And we still talk about the CAT and the CIT – or convectively-induced turbulence – and clear-air turbulence in the upper atmosphere.
So, it’s just – I guess – the cause and effect are slightly different – but the NET effect is the same.
It’s just a disruption in the fluid.
And it becomes somewhat mysterious because people don’t see the effects of air because it’s invisible.
Tim Benjamin: Well, if they COULD see, what WOULD they see?
Captain Bill Watts: I’m sorry – say again?
Tim Benjamin: Sorry – if they could ACTUALLY see turbulence, what would they be looking at?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, very much like the ocean currents.
If you stand on the sea shore and watch the ocean roll in and the waves break, or if you drop a rock in a pond somewhere, you’ll see the ripples of that disruption go away from the rock.
If you have a sea wall that’s, maybe, 100 meters off the shore, then you can see the waves break over that and the disruption of those waves.
And if you stand in those waves, you can feel the effect of it as well.
So, it’s just another body of fluid that you cannot see, but if you watch the ocean, you have a similar phenomenon.
Tim Benjamin: On that point, people often talk about planes hitting ‘air pockets’.
Is there such a thing as an ‘air pocket’?
Captain Bill Watts: Not really.
‘Air pocket’ implies a vacuum.
And there’s really not a vacuum out there.
It’s more like, going back to the oceanic waves that cause the airplane to move up and down.
So, typically there’s not a whole lot of up and down movements with LOWER levels of turbulence.
But even with that, people are affected by that.
And even with the heavy turbulence, the VERTICAL movements of the aircraft are usually in – I don’t know – less than 10 feet or so.
The MAIN point is that when you’re sitting inside of a ‘closed system’ – like the cabin of an aircraft – movement seems to be exaggerated.
Especially if someone is apprehensive.
And I can assure you that people experience more radical movements in other areas of their life.
Like riding in a boat.
Riding in a vehicle off the highway.
Or on an amusement ride.
So, it’s more the ‘closed’ system – and the apprehension I think – that creates that effect.
VERY seldom do you have a large-scale movement of the airplane.
And then, it’s not really a safety factor as much as it’s an apprehensive factor.
Tim Benjamin: If we talk about how long an episode of turbulence typically lasts for, I mean, is there a kind of rule of thumb?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, typically, the duration of the episode is very short for the heavier turbulence.
It’s kind of like the wave that we talked about that you might see as a surfer.
Oftentimes a surfer will ride a wave for a fairly good distance.
And then, when it breaks, it’s fairly dramatic.
But for the heavier turbulence, it doesn’t last very long.
But for the LIGHTER turbulence, it’s kind of like if you looked at a stream going over some rocks.
And if those rocks existed for a long distance, then you could have that turbulent flow across the stream for quite a long time.
So, you know, when you talk about lighter forms, they can last for a number of minutes.
And again, it just depends on the circumstances.
Often at these lower levels of turbulence, the experienced traveller almost finds it easier to sleep with the rhythmic movement of the aircraft.
I know a fearful flier may not be able to do that.
But it is kind of interesting that some travellers are not affected by that at all.
Tim Benjamin: It’s interesting that point about lower level turbulence versus cruise level turbulence.
I mean – does it tend to last longer or shorter depending on the altitude?
Captain Bill Watts: Not necessarily.
Again, we talk about the higher altitudes – being above 30,000 feet.
Sometimes, depending on the weather phenomena, it could last for a longer period of time.
But, again, these levels – from a safety standpoint – are fairly light.
Tim Benjamin: Now, we talked a moment ago about how – particularly for nervous fliers – the plane can sometimes feel like it’s shaking a bit too much.
And, perhaps, for a little too long.
What’s the impact on the airframe of the plane of turbulence?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, like any object in motion, the aircraft follows the laws of Newton.
And this means the aircraft is like a ship in the ocean.
But we cannot see the air that the aircraft navigates through.
As turbulence is created, the aircraft rides through the waves, much like a boat.
Unlike a ship, that could be swamped with water, the aircraft is enclosed – and has much more ability to move around in its fluid without any concern of taking on water, if you will.
Or taking on air.
So, it’s a VERY solid structure.
It’s built to EXTREME safety standards.
And if you look at all the statistics, you’ll see that it’s just VERY rare that an aircraft is affected by it – these acts of turbulence.
So, I think it goes back to the apprehensive flyer sort of exaggerating in their mind what’s really happening to the airplane.
But I can assure you that the airplane can withstand much more than you will EVER experience.
Tim Benjamin: And so what should people think when they see the wings bouncing around?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, you would HOPE that they would bounce around because a RIGID structure can break more quickly than a dynamic structure.
If you’ve ever looked at a very tall building, they’re DESIGNED, structurally, to sway.
And that’s the same thing with an aircraft wing.
It’s DESIGNED to bend and flex with the movement of the airplane and the lift that’s created by the airplane.
So, movement of the wing is actually designed into the structure.
Tim Benjamin: OK – so that’s the airframe.
What about the engines?
Are they affected at all by turbulence?
Captain Bill Watts: The engines are minimally affected by slight disruptions in air flow.
And that’s all turbulence is.
Since they’re designed to such high safety standards, again.
The engine is designed to withstand the ingestion of large birds – again – for certification.
And I assure you that a large bird will create MUCH more of a disruption of an airflow through the engine than any turbulence.
Tim Benjamin: So, that’s the engine.
What about the interior of the aircraft?
Any issues there that people should be worrying about – or not worrying about?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, the aircraft interior is just an integral part of the total airframe – moving in conjunction with the aircraft.
The main thing is that you want to be strapped in – meaning having your seatbelt on, the flight attendants seated and all loose objects are restrained.
In other words, the overhead bins are closed.
And people hold on to their iPad or tablet, so to speak – if you were getting some VERY heavy turbulence.
Tim Benjamin: And what about the squeaking?
Sometimes, if the plane is moving around – and this is true on the ground as well actually – sometimes the bins, the overhead bins, squeak a bit.
And some of the other bits of furnishing just sort of rub up against each other and squeak a bit.
Is that something to be concerned about?
Captain Bill Watts: Not at all.
Again, the aircraft has been designed to withstand all these different movements and motions from takeoff to landing.
And the safety factors built-into an aircraft are INCREDIBLE.
If you’ve been involved in the design of aircraft you would be AMAZED at the safety that’s built into it.
Tim Benjamin: OK – so we’ve talked about what turbulence is. We’ve talked about what how aircraft are designed to handle it.
What I’m keen to talk to you about now is how people involved in aviation – whether that’s pilots, air traffic control, etc go about minimizing exposure to turbulence in the first place.
And I guess the first question is: are there certain kinds of turbulence that you try to minimize exposure to?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, first of all, we might want to talk a little bit about how turbulence can cause the injury.
And if it’s strong enough to move the airframe around, it can make it difficult for people to walk around the cabin.
And a person could fall and have a resulting injury – just like people can be walking along on a sidewalk and step-off the curb and trip.
Same thing can happen on an airplane.
The heavier levels of turbulence can cause items to move about the cabin.
But two important things need to be noted.
First, these levels of turbulence statistically seldom occur.
Secondly, if everyone is seated with a seatbelt secure as we talked earlier – and all objects are stowed – it’s virtually IMPOSSIBLE to have an injury in this scenario.
But back to your other question, it is important for the airline to provide the best experience to the customer that’s possible.
So, the air traffic controllers, the dispatchers and the pilots – and the community as a whole – typically tries to minimize the exposure to the heavier levels of turbulence – sometimes called ‘moderate’ turbulence or greater.
And, as mentioned, this level of turbulence is NOT common and usually can be avoided.
However, even when it is encountered, if everyone is properly secured and followed the steps that we talked about earlier, then it’s pretty impossible to hurt anybody.
We estimate that well over 95% of all turbulence is ‘light’ – or less.
The airline and crews try to balance the passenger experience by minimizing turbulence.
But not to the point of avoiding ALL turbulence – which might require delays or even making an extra stop on the flight for additional fuel.
So, I think most people would be willing to tolerate light turbulence as opposed to flying at such a low altitude that they would have to have a two hour stop somewhere in-between to get additional fuel.
Tim Benjamin: And, presumably, that explains why often – you know – one will board a plane and one of the pilots will come onto the public address system before takeoff and say ‘Look, it’s going to get a little bumpy or a little choppy just after we take off’.
Because I know that for people who hate turbulence, they hear that and think ‘Oh – WHY are we taking off when we know it’s going to be a bit bumpy?’.
Captain Bill Watts: Yeah – and the reason is that – would you prefer to delay the flight for five hours?
You might have a different reaction from the rest of the passengers! [laughs].
‘You’re going to DELAY my flight for FIVE hours? When it’s NOT unsafe?’.
Tim Benjamin: Just looking at what pilots do when they do encounter turbulence, what’s the scene in the cockpit typically?
Because – again – for people who’re terrified of flying, in their own minds, there are all sorts of terrible thoughts happening.
What are pilots thinking when the plane encounters some turbulence?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, that relates to the previous question about do we operate in turbulence?
Yes we do.
Weather is ALWAYS a factor in flying.
And it’s important to note that we never fly in any situations we deem unsafe.
The aircraft is certified to withstand a LOT more stress than is seen in any normal operation.
And an aircraft is certified to fly up to the specific cross-wind limits.
And the crews are TRAINED to these limits.
Often a crew might land or takeoff in gusty winds but both the crew AND the plane are well within the limits of regulatory requirements.
And these regulatory requirements are strictly monitored by government agencies.
A passenger might see a storm in the vicinity of the airplane, but the crew maintains a minimum distance depending on the level of storm was to the associated turbulence.
These operations are safe, are operating within prescribed guidelines.
And if the airline did NOT use these guidelines, the aircraft could be delayed or even diverted to another airport like we talked about earlier.
This would create significant disruptions to the passengers and, therefore, impact the customer experience in other areas.
So, like anything in life, there’s always a balance of what the goals are.
Tim Benjamin: Presumably, then, that kind of scene in the cockpit itself when the plane is bumping around a bit is a fairly calm and ordered and planned one.
Is that right?
Captain Bill Watts: Absolutely – I mean – a pilot is always aware of the conditions around him and he has VERY strict guidelines as to how to deal with those contingencies – whether it be turbulence or [?] weather or factors.
Tim Benjamin: So, we’ve talked about the cockpit.
What about the cabin crew?
What do they do when it gets a bit bumpy?
Captain Bill Watts: Well, the cabin crew is trying to manage that cabin.
And it’s a joint effort with the cockpit and the cabin crew.
They constantly coordinate with each other on how to manage the cabin.
When I say ‘manage the cabin’, it’s based on the level of the turbulence.
If the turbulence is at a low level, the captain will ask the passengers to stay in their seats with the seatbelts on while the flight attendants continue the service – because they have years of experience of moving about the cabin with lower levels of turbulence.
If the turbulence reaches a certain level, the captain will tell the passengers to stay in their seats – with seat belts on – and the flight attendants to stow their equipment while taking THEIR seats – also securing their seatbelts.
So, it’s a constant coordination between the cabin and the cockpit at achieving the goals of the flight.
Tim Benjamin: We’ve been talking up until now about how everybody involved with aviation deals with turbulence.
What’s the future of forecasting for turbulence?
And I ask that question because I know that you’re deeply involved with a project at the moment looking at ways in which it can be improved.
Captain Bill Watts: Yes – the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which I think is the organisation you talked with before, they’re working with agencies around the world.
And they’ve developed some very important products to help improve how we identify turbulence.
The first one is a system for inferring and reporting turbulence encountered by commercial transport aircraft from what we call ‘on-board flight sensors’.
And these are just sensors that record movement of the aircraft.
In the past, this system relied on subjective pilot reports that could be inaccurate in intensity and location.
And then the second tool is a forecast model that is updated every hour and it runs on a super-computer and it takes the objective reports off the aircraft that we talked about previously.
And it constantly improves the accuracy of the model.
These tools are accessible to the airline dispatchers and the meteorologists.
But they’re sometimes difficult to transmit to the cockpit in a timely manner – depending on the events surrounding the flight.
So, the joint FAA and Delta demo which is using the NCAR product allows a small test group of pilots to use the wifi on the aircraft to get access to real-time data on a website to better manage the cabin with more timely and accurate information that supplements the existing sources.
NCAR is constantly improving their models using other data sources to include satellite, ground-based [?] radar.
They’re also working with other agencies around the world to improve the methodologies for predicting turbulence.
And trying to encourage other airlines to embrace the new reporting technologies.
So, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on right now.
Tim Benjamin: And will those technologies benefit passengers directly?
Captain Bill Watts: Oh – absolutely – because we’ll be able to better predict and report the turbulence.
And, as a result, we can better manage the cabin AND allow the passengers to know what the expectations are.
Which brings up another point.
We’ve done some informal surveys, and we’ve found that if a passenger KNOWS that he’s going to experience turbulence – and you tell him it’s gonna be ‘light’ turbulence for 15 minutes and we’re gonna turn the seatbelt on, they seem to be comfortable with that approach.
But, if they’re flying along and unexpectedly encounter turbulence, it makes them more nervous because they didn’t expect it.
Tim Benjamin: Bill – this has been a fascinating discussion.
And I’m sure anyone listening to this will find it ENOURMOUSLY re-assuring – what you’ve had to say.
That really brings us to the end of this which means it’s left simply for me to thank you very much for joining me on the Fear of Flying School podcast today.
Captain Bill Watts: It was my pleasure.
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