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What Is Turbulence and How Do Pilots Avoid It?

A pilot’s main threat to a safe, smooth flight is turbulence moving the plane around. Air travel relies on the movement of air in atmospheric jet streams, which can be difficult for pilots and air control centers to track as they are invisible and can travel in any direction. In general, jet streams form in long, horizontal waves up to a thousand miles long, allowing pilots to save fuel by riding the current in a similar fashion to surfers riding a wave.  However, danger presents itself when jet streams traveling in multiple directions converge, forming turbulence.         

Turbulence can generate up to 300 mph winds that diverge the plane from its path, moving it in multiple directions, resulting in a rough ride for passengers. Although turbulence is frightening and potentially dangerous, air travel is the safest form of transportation, spanning many consecutive years with minimal major incidents. Even turbulence causes a small average of 58 injuries per year; however, pilots must take many measures to increase the overall safety of passengers. One important practice for avoiding turbulence is for pilots to practice airplane observation, and to be in communication with each other and the air traffic control group. Air traffic controllers monitor weather and active flights from the ground to then report on turbulence that the pilot will experience first-hand in flight so that all aircraft within a specific vicinity know to avoid a specific path. Additionally, many airlines also utilize high-tech systems to detect turbulent weather patterns, and this information is relayed through the communication system in what are known as weather bearings.

Other important practices include preventative measures such as injury reporting and educating passengers on how to handle turbulence. These methods recognize the unpredictability of clear air turbulence (CAT) and encourage flyers to be aware of the way’s turbulence can lead to personal harm. This is why various airlines regulate the size and number of overhead carry-on bags and begin the flight with instructions to look out for the pilot turning on the seatbelt signal. When the plane is in motion, injury can best be avoided if passengers remain seated, buckled, and out of the aisle.

Pilots predict turbulence by understanding weather patterns that lead to converging jet streams. There are four categories of turbulence, with thermal being the most common. One example is the formation of thermal turbulence. Thermal turbulence directly relates to weather as it occurs when the surface temperature of the ground beneath the plane heats and creates upward convections, which then converge with horizontal jet streams to create bumps. High wind speeds created by jet streams determine the intensity of the plane’s ride over these invisible bumps.

Sometimes turbulence requires airborne aerial refueling (AAR) or airplane air refuel, a process through which a plane in flight receives additional fuel. Turbulence requires engines to work harder against an opposing force, so planes may require additional fuel which can be provided during flight in multiple ways. Often, a second plane provides additional fuel in a hand-off; however, this is uncommon in commercial flights, and more common in military vehicles.

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