Clearing the Air about Turbulence: A Fearful Flier's Foray

By Cowden, Ron | Science News, June 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Clearing the Air about Turbulence: A Fearful Flier's Foray


Cowden, Ron, Science News


It's an embarrassing confession: I'm a space science reporter, but I'm afraid to fly.

It's not the takeoffs. It's not the landings. It's that eternity in between, when the jumbo jet is cruising 30,000 feet above solid ground. Each time the seat belt sign comes on, my heart starts racing and my stomach begins doing flips.

I dread even the hint of turbulence.

Despite my fears, I have to admit I've been lucky--at least until April 16, when I boarded United Airlines Flight 925 from London to Washington, D.C. As usual, I asked to meet the pilots. While we shook hands, the captain, a man named Dan, assured me there would be only "a bit of weather" as we neared the U.S. coast--and even that promised to be minor.

The first part of the trip was indeed smooth. When the sign telling passengers to fasten their seat belts came on 6 hours into the flight, there was nary a cloud 9 in the sky and I had no more than my usual anxiety. Then the plane began shaking violently. Pilot Dan ordered the flight attendants to their seats.

Up and down, up and down. A few moments of calm and then trapped once more in a plummeting elevator. A rattled stewardess yelled a warning to watch out for objects flying through the air. I gripped my wife's fingers tightly in one hand and my sister-in-law's hand across the aisle in the other. My eyes were shut, waiting for the roller coaster ride to end. Or for the plane to crash.

Then, after a few last tremors, the turbulence was over. A food cart had tumbled on its side, and the dinner-not that anyone was hungry-was in ruins. In a shaky voice, the stewardess announced that the last few minutes had been the worst turbulence she had experienced in 20 years of flying.

Strapped tightly in my seat, I prayed we would land without another encounter.

Aviation experts define turbulence as random, unpredictable motion that occurs at the boundary between layers of air moving at different speeds. Just as the smooth flow of an ocean wave breaks up into a maelstrom of swirls and eddies when it crashes on the shore, uniformly moving layers of the atmosphere that brush against each other fragment into vortices, and other small-scale disturbances.

Turbulence is often triggered when energy released by the sun-warmed ground or by a group of forming clouds heats a parcel of air at low altitude. The heated parcel rises, distorting the windflow pattern at higher altitudes and generating chaotic motion.

Although rarely powerful enough to toss a 747 around, turbulence is essentially "a natural state of the atmosphere," says Larry Cornman of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo, In a thick fluid like molasses, friction between molecules smoothes out differences in motion and allows only broad, sluggish movements. In contrast, air molecules have very little friction between them. Thus, when parcels of at different speeds encounter each other, they're more likely to break up into turbulent, unpredictable patterns, he notes.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), turbulence is the leading cause of nonfatal accidents to airline passengers and flight attendants, costing commercial airlines in the United States an estimated $100 million a year. From 1981 to 1996, the major air carriers reported 252 incidents of turbulence, resulting in 2 deaths, 63 serious injuries, and 863 minor injuries. Seat belts help avoid accidents: Both fatalities and 61 of the 63 passengers who were seriously injured were not wearing them. Last December, turbulence caused a Boeing 747 en route from Japan to Hawaii to plummet 100 feet. An unbelted passenger died after her head hit the ceiling. More than 100 others were injured.

Pilots and meteorologists don't always know when turbulence will strike, so buckling up only when the seat belt sign comes on isn't a reliable way to avoid injury Storm clouds and heavy rain are good indicators that turbulence lies ahead, but about half of all passenger aircraft encounters with choppy air occur in cloudless skies, says Cornman. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Clearing the Air about Turbulence: A Fearful Flier's Foray
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.