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The dangers of clear-air turbulence

Some turbulence can be forecast or detected before it affects airplanes. Clear-air turbulence can catch pilots off guard.

DENVER — The Rocky Mountains are one of the most turbulent areas in the country to fly because of the way the slopes redirect the flow of air. Pilots call it mechanical turbulence. 

The western slopes of the Rockies are the mechanism that forces air to rise, which can create a bumpy road for planes. But on the side of the mountain opposite the wind direction, curls in the wind can form circulations that pilots call rotors.

“Some of those bumps are just light chop, but they can also be moderate to severe turbulence," said 9NEWS aviation expert Greg Feith.

He said that fortunately, mechanical turbulence can be forecast, and pilots usually know it's there based on the type of wave clouds they create.

But there’s another type of turbulence, which pilots call clear-air turbulence, that usually strikes without warning – when the sky is clear, the ride is smooth and the seatbelt light is off.

“That clear air turbulence can send the airplane into a bit of a perturbation that is exacerbated depending on the size of the plane and translated to the passengers," Feith said. "So, if the bottom drops out, that’s instantaneous zero-g. You now become a floating projectile.”

He said it's caused by different layers of air in the atmosphere moving in different directions and at different speeds. It can be forecast, but less accurately than other types of turbulence.

Feith said to always keep your seatbelt on, even when the indicator light is off. He said airplanes are designed to withstand extreme turbulence, so the idea is to become part of that sturdy plane by properly securing yourself. 

However, he said that sometimes even belted passengers get injured, because unsecured objects like phones, laptops and water bottles become missiles during turbulence events. 

There are also other choices you can make to get a smoother and safer ride. Choose a larger plane if possible, because turbulence will be amplified in smaller airplanes. A woman was killed when the small business jet she was on hit severe turbulence on Friday.

The seat you choose can even make a difference.

“The best place to sit is over the wing and forward, because the wing itself will absorb a lot of that energy and it's dissipated," Feith said. "The back of the plane is moving more pronounced versus the front end.”

Feith also said to choose early morning flights because the air is usually more stable and smoother at that time, especially in the spring and summer months when thunderstorm activity is more widespread in the afternoons.


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