The Science Behind Turbulence

Few things are as frightening as flying thousands of feet in the air and feeling the plane suddenly jerk and rattle around you. This is caused by a phenomenon known as turbulence. Turbulence is a concept in fluid dynamics, a branch of science that focuses on how liquids and gasses move in a system, that describes how dramatic the variations in pressure and velocity are within the fluid system. High turbulence means there are more dramatic variations in the speed, direction, and intensity of the fluid's internal motion.

When referring to turbulence as it deals with airplanes, there is a subbranch of turbulence known as clear-air turbulence (CAT). The invisible waves of moving gasses are typically invisible to pilots and conventional radar, requiring special optical equipment to receive even the slightest warning about pockets of high CAT. Known contributors to the formation of high CAT pockets are the jet streams, the presence of mountain ranges, high temperatures, and intense local weather activity. Nearly two-thirds of high-intensity CAT events occur within a couple hundred kilometers of the jet stream. Because volatility in temperature and weather patterns increases the likelihood of CAT, climate change is expected to have a positive reinforcement on the prevalence and severity of CAT. Notably, the jet stream flows that planes use to conserve fuel will become faster and more likely to generate pockets of extremely high turbulence.

Despite how scary it can be while inside the plane, CAT typically only causes a momentary shudder and a slight drop in altitude as the plane loses momentum. Most CAT occurrences subject the plane to lighter forces than a bike riding down a gravel road. Very few commercial aircraft - such as BOAC Flight 911 in 1966 - have ever been downed by CAT, and only a couple dozen people each year suffer any kind of injury as a result of turbulence. Flight attendants are the most likely people to be injured by CAT since they are up and moving throughout much of the flight, unlike the passengers and pilots who are securely locked into their seats.

Flight crews are well trained to deal with turbulence, and it is not something that should stop you from flying. If you would like to book your next trip, visit The Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport.