Don’t rock the boat

Ding. A tone rang and the fasten seat belt light illuminated on the panel over my head.

“Ladies and Gentleman this is the captain. Air traffic control just reported rough air ahead. Please return to your seats and secure your safety belts. Flight attendants please take your seats.”

I leaned into the aisle and looked around.(I know, ever since I started writing, I’m constantly watching other people. Forgive me, I can’t help myself.)

The middle-aged man in front of me seemed unfazed. His wife sitting next to him, put her magazine down and clenched both armrests. Two teenagers bobbed to the play lists on their iPods. A mom with an infant turned her child so she faced forward in the seat. And the white-headed woman across from her, rubbed her rosary.

There was no question when we entered the unstable air. The plane jumped like it was launched off a skate ramp. Then it bounced side to side and shook. The woman next to me put her hand on my arm.

I smiled and said, “This is how my fruit must feel when I mix up a shake in the blender.”

Her eyes widened. So much for making light of the situation.

I thought about all the urban myths I’ve heard regarding the illusive and nearly invisible menace that plagues the skies. For all practical purposes, there are basically four types of turbulence:

Turbulence that occurs behind jets anytime they’re creating lift. These bumps are usually the most prevalent near the ground when airliners are flying at low speeds and high angles of attack. (Now just in case any of you are movie buffs and saw the film “Pushing Tin”, the part in the movie when the controllers stand at the end of a runway to experience wake turbulence first hand, is greatly exaggerated–ie. you can’t be knocked over by the blast, so please don’t bother jumping any airport fences and trying it yourself. Again, take my word on this one.)

Turbulence associated with weather(generally storms)

Turbulence over mountains (yes, including the Continental Divide)

And finally, turbulence that occurs in cruise flight(this type is officially called Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) usually found above 30,000 feet, ironically when the seat belt sign is generally off.)

Now it would be logical to blame the pilots for the rough rides, but the fact of the matter is CAT is nearly impossible to detect with the naked eye and very difficult to predict with conventional radar.

Pilots rely heavily on reports from other crews (called pilot reports–imagine that) to help them steer clear of rough air.(okay, you guys are well on your way to becoming aviation insiders, so you’ve probably caught on to the fact that some crew has to take a wild ride in order to issue a report–take it one step further–that plane is probably full of passengers. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.)

The erratic movement of air masses creates unstable waves that are frequently found near the jet stream and mountain ranges. (64% of heavier turbulence is encountered less than 150 nautical miles from the core of the jet stream. Oh, and as far as the mountains, not just one peak but a group of them is necessary, with a strong perpendicular wind and a temperature inversion at the top of the range–temperature inversion means the temperature in a layer of air increases instead of decreases, as you climb. Most of the time, the air temperature drops two degrees per thousand feet.)

With that being said, the next time you’re on a plane and get the heads up from the cockpit that there will be bumps ahead, remember these things:

First, look outside. Are you up high or near the ground?

If you’re near the ground, make sure your seat belt is fastened. Find comfort in the fact that there’s very good equipment on the airplane to warn the pilot to slow down or avoid the wakes generated by other jets.

If you’re up high, are you in the clouds or do you seen any lightning? Yes? Well, then hunker down on your seat belt and relax because airborne radar does a fantastic job assisting pilots in avoiding areas of storm related turbulence.

Finally, are you flying high in clear blue skies? Before you answer, take a glance out the window and look down. Are you over the mountains?

Either way, give that belt one final tug and keep your two half-moons glued to your seat. I’ve never heard of anyone getting injured by CAT if they were sitting safely strapped in their seat.(I’m sure you see a theme here)

I reached over to my neighbor, grabbed the tail of her seat belt and yanked on it. She looked at me.

I leaned over and put my hand over hers. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

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