Gothamist likes to travel. But sometimes flying can be a little hairy. It's not just the winding $50 cab rides to the airport or the erratic ride on the AirTrain. But up in the air, turbulence can turn a relaxing flight into an anxiety trip. so as we get ready to fly to Chicago for the holiday weekend, we thought we'd discuss what causes turbulence. Unfortunately, this means we will miss Gotham Equinox.
Turbulence is basically disrupted flow in the atmosphere that produces gusts and eddies of wind. It comes in 4 flavors: light, moderate, severe, and extreme. Most of the time when we fly, we experience some sort of light or moderate turbulence along the way. The most common cause of turbulence at low-altitude is convective mixing where the sun heats the air near the ground and it rises. When it rises, it rises in "bubbles" not as one big mass. These "bubbles" can cause pockets of turbulence or disrupted air flow. In addition, if the air is humid enough, as it rises and cools, clouds form. Where the clouds end is where the air stops rising which is why you will often notice your flight will be a lot smoother once you get above the cloud line.
At higher altitudes, there are other factors that can cause turbulence usually referred to as "clear air turbulence" which is invisible to pilots and radar. Jet streams bend around areas of high and low pressure, these areas can create turbulence and are generally avoided where possible by aircraft. Mountains can create turbulence causing deflections in air flow. And wake turbulence ("jet wash" for all you Top Gun fans) is caused by other aircraft creating chaotic air currents. Pilots communicate frequently with towers and other aircraft to inform them of turbulent areas that are not visible to radar.
Generally, turbulence can be compared to driving over a bumpy road. Aircraft are built to handle even extreme turbulence and pilots are trained to deal with it as well. While pilots make every attempt to avoid it, when it happens, there is little to worry about. While we didn't particularly enjoy flying over the tornadic activity in Iowa last Friday, we knew we were in good hands. And as we prepare for todays trip, we can even use some resources for predicting how bumpy our flight will be. We can also see other aviation weather info at NOAA.