June 10, 2022

Turbulence During Flights: Why Does the Plane Start to Shake?

 My podcast this week is about the origins of aircraft turbulence.  

Why are there sometimes uncomfortable and disconcerting motions while flying?  Knowing the causes can provide some peace of mind.

A map of the pilot-reported turbulence last week showed a lot of reports, but keep in mind that most turbulence is generally only found in a narrow range of altitudes.

As I describe in the podcast, there are several major categories of turbulence:

  1. Mechanical and convective turbulence near the ground.
  2. Mountain-wave turbulence aloft
  3. Wind-shear turbulence
  4. Thunderstorm and convective turbulence

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  1. Hi Cliff. Interesting you referenced the Colorado front range. My aunt in Boulder used to watch our weather because storms that hit us, frequently would then move toward her. I'm curious about where our storms go after they pass by us. And are there other regions of the world that have weather similar to us?

  2. On a business trip in the early 1980's, I was flying between Denver and Seattle on a Continental Airlines Airbus A300, a wide body airliner seating eight across, four in the center and two on each side. I always take an aisle seat if I can get one, and was in the center set of seats this time around.

    The man in the seat next to me seemed a little nervous. It turned out he was hesitant to fly on airplanes and hadn't been on an airliner for a number of years. But Continental had offered a round trip fare between Denver and Seattle for $140, and so his daughter who was living in Seattle bought him a ticket. This was back in the days when Seattle was still being thought of as the Emerald City.

    At this point in my story, I will mention that forty years ago, I was not quite the paragon of empathy, understanding, and self-awareness that I am today.

    At any rate, we hit some fairly strong turbulence crossing the Rockies and the motion of the aircraft caused this gentleman's nervousness to increase somewhat. I took the opportunity to recount my grandfather's story of flying as a passenger aboard a DC-3 in the late 1930's crossing the Rockies between Denver and Salt Lake City. With no warning, the plane was hit by a severe downdraft and quickly dropped 800 feet in altitude before it got out of the shear zone.

    A few minutes later in our own flight, while air turbulence was still shaking the A300, I was looking down the length of the cabin roof and observed from the ever-changing alignments of the overhead storage cabinets that the fuselage was twisting noticeably. I mentioned this phenomena to the reluctant passenger sitting beside me. He had seen it as well. I remarked that if the fuselage and the wings weren't allowed to flex somewhat under load, the aircraft would break apart in flight.

    We landed in Seattle and it was clear that during the course of the flight, the man had come to grips with his fear of flying and could now deal with it successfully. And so he got more out of his trip than he had bargained for, in a good way.


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