Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I often get questions from people, many whom I suspect have a fear of flying, about turbulence.  Apparently, this is what scares them the most about flying.  It seems that they expect a constantly smooth flight.  Smooth take off, smooth cruise flight, smooth landing......The reality is that air is just like water, it is sometimes very smooth and glassy and other times it is choppy or rough.  In fact, aerodynamics is based upon the same principles of fluid dynamics.  Air is a fluid in the sense that it behaves like a fluid.  There are literally rivers in the sky.  We know about the jet stream, cold fronts, warm fronts, air masses moving.  Do you think that all that movement happens in a vacuum?  Consider water and the confluence of two rivers or streams.  There are always eddies, currents and rough water whenever two streams of water meet.  This is what we encounter in very clear air often times.  Of course there are the obvious cumulus clouds that contain turbulence.  We as pilots try to ovoid those the the extent that is possible, but sometimes, you have to either climb or descend through them, especially when you are on a very specific approach or departure path.  It is bumpy, but that is all.  We want your ride to be smooth also, but that is not always possible.  Today's air liners are very structurally sound and they are designed to take a lot of stress.  There is a limit of course, but you never hear of planes "breaking apart" in the air due to turbulence.
   Think of a boat on a lake.  When ever it encounters a ripple, a wave, or another boat's wake, it will "ride" the waves.  Unless it encounters a tsunami, it will not break apart and will simply "bump" over those waves.  That is the same thing that happens in an airplane.  The fact that you are encountering turbulence, though perhaps uncomfortable, is further proof that the airplane is flying fine.  When you are in that boat, you don't think that the boat is going to suddenly sink do you?  Pilots are always seeking smooth rides.  Radio conversations to the air traffic controllers are often queries about "rides," and where can the smoothest ones be found.  We often climb or descend to get better rides.  Sometimes, it just isn't possible because of  the meteorological situation.
So just relax.  Everything is fine.  You are not flying through a thunderstorm, that will never intentionally happen.  We avoid those always.  You are just riding over the waves in your craft, be it a boat or a "ship of the sky."  And as I always say, "The riskiest and most dangerous part of your airline flight, is the drive to the airport."