With turbulence, you just never know

There's no best way to avoid incidents like Tuesday's United flight, but you're probably safe if your seatbelt's on

Published July 22, 2010 4:30PM (EDT)

Cumulonimbus clouds.
Cumulonimbus clouds.

With me, it's all about timing.

When Ask the Pilot was a Friday-only gig, my deadline for filing was late on Wednesday afternoon. I'd submit 2,000 words -- a TSA rant, a technical discussion, a critique of an airport terminal -- and be on my merry way.

You'd be shocked how long some of those bloody things took, and after wrapping up a particularly tough article, hitting the Send button was a moment of some special, visceral satisfaction.

Then, on Thursday morning, a plane would crash or some other huge story would splash onto the headlines, and I'd have a half day or less to do the whole thing over again.

Now that I'm making multiple posts each week, the articles are shorter but the risks are even greater. Case in point, this past Tuesday.

For several days I had planned to submit a post on turbulence. The initial draft had been sketched out on hotel stationery after an encounter with particularly rough air on the way to Europe. On Tuesday morning I put the piece together and zapped it off to Salon.

The story began like this: "We hit some pretty rough air the other night, in the blackness about halfway to Europe. It was the kind of turbulence people tell their friends about." And ended like this: "About 60 people, two-thirds of them flight attendants, are injured by turbulence annually in the United States. That works out to about 20 passengers. Twenty out of the 800 million or so who fly each year in this country. Repeat: 20 out of 800 million."

Barely three hours after this post was up and running, word began to break that United Airlines Flight 967, a Boeing 777 with 265 people aboard, had made an emergency landing in Denver after an encounter with severe turbulence. According to an FAA spokesperson, 26 passengers and four crewmembers were injured, one of them critically. Several people were sent to Denver area hospitals.

How's that for timing? Regular Nostradamus, this Pilot. (I also predicted, not long before Sully-upon-Hudson, that a bird strike would bring down a plane in the near future, but that's another story.)

That takes care of those "20 out of 800" million in one fell swoop, so to speak.

For what it's worth, I'll speculate that most if not all of those people injured on the United flight were either 1) moving through the aisles or 2) seated but did not have their seatbelts fastened. And it wouldn't shock me if the seatbelt sign was in fact illuminated at the time of the encounter.

Passengers have a terrible habit of ignoring crew instructions, perhaps because nine times in 10 the air turns out to be smoother than expected. And maybe, just maybe, some crews are a little too cautious, to the point where the seatbelt chime is perceived as crying wolf.

But as I said the other day, predicting the where, when and how much of turbulence is difficult, more art than science. It often occurs in clear air, with no prior warning or tell-tale climatic markers. A lot of the time, we just don't know. You ignore that sign at your peril.

Meanwhile, media coverage of the United incident was about as expected. The Associated Press could have called yours truly, but it opted for somebody named John Wiley, "an airline safety expert who was an airline pilot for 27 years."

"I've been on a couple of flights where the turbulence was so violent that we could not read the instruments in the cockpit," said Wiley.

OK, so maybe that's why they went to Wiley and not to me. Because I wouldn't have said something quite so stupid.

Is what he describes even possible? I suppose, though why Wiley would choose to sensationalize the incident by recounting some extraordinary, twice-in-a-lifetime (for him) episode is beyond me. And he's likely exaggerating, as he is when he says, "You get off the airplane and you've got a couple of bruise marks on your shoulders from the shoulder harnesses that you're wearing."

Possible? I really don't know. I've certainly never experienced anything like it -- which may or may not put you at ease.

Thanks to the vagaries of turbulence, I'm known to provide annoying, noncommittal answers when asked how best to avoid it. "Is it better to fly at night than during the day?" Sometimes. "Should I avoid routes that traverse the Rockies or the Alps?" Hard to say. "Are small planes more susceptible than larger ones?" It depends. "They're calling for gusty winds tomorrow -- will it be rough?" Probably, but who knows. "Where should I sit, in the front of the plane or in the back?"

Ah, now that one I can work with. While it doesn't make a whole lot of difference, the smoothest place to sit is over the wings, closest to the plane's centers of lift and gravity. The roughest area is usually the far aft.

And in closing, to repeat a cool story from an old column ...

My most memorable joust with turbulence wasn't the recent one halfway to Europe, but one that took place 18 years ago this week, in July 1992, when I was captain on a 15-passenger turboprop.

It happened during, of all flights, a 25-minute run from Boston to Portland, Maine. It had been a hot day, and by early evening a forest of tightly packed cumulus towers stretched across eastern New England. The formations were short -- about 8,000 feet at the top -- and extremely nice to look at. As the sun fell, it became one of the most picturesque skyscapes I've ever seen -- buildups in every direction forming a horizonwide garden of pink coral columns. They were beautiful and deceptively violent -- little volcanoes spewing out invisible updrafts.

The pummeling came on with a vengeance until it felt like being stuck in an upside-down avalanche. Even with my shoulder harness pulled snug, I remember holding up one hand to brace myself, afraid my head might hit the ceiling.

It didn't. And no bruises.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that turbulence is becoming more prevalent as a byproduct of climate change. Turbulence is a symptom of the weather from which it spawns, and it stands to reason that as global warming intensifies certain patterns, experiences like the one I had over Maine could become more common.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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