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Speed Bumps Of The Sky

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Tips & Advice for the Seasoned and Armchair Traveler Alike! 

July 1, 2008 

I was standing up from my seat in during an Air Jamaica 
flight over the island's mountains some years ago, when 
it suddenly felt as though a giant hand reached down from 
above and slapped us toward the earth.

It was like being in an elevator and having the cable 
snap. My head slammed against the overhead baggage 
compartment and I came down hard on the armrest of my seat.

The cabin was immediately filled with the murmur of people 
commenting about the "air pocket" we'd hit, and estimating 
we'd dropped in altitude by anywhere from a couple of 
hundred to thousands of feet.

In reality, our free-fall probably cost us fewer than 20 

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Turbulence is one of the most unnerving things passengers
experience while flying. It can change the tone of an 
otherwise carefree flight, put nervous flyers even more on 
edge, and conjure images of things like deadly wind-shear 
accidents for even well-seasoned flyers.

Part of the problem isn't so much the phenomenon itself, but 
the mythology that has grown up around it.

There is, for example, no such thing as an "air pocket".

In the self-help book "Flying Without Fear", author Duane 
Brown explains that "air pocket" is just a term thought up 
during World War I by a journalist trying to describe 

The phrase creates images of a giant, invisible hole that a 
plane can tumble into. In fact, I've heard people refer to 
it as an "air hole".

In reality, it's more like a speed bump.

According to Capt. Meryl Getline, an airline pilot and 
columnist for USA Today, flying through rough air isn't much 
different from driving your car over a rough road or being 
in a boat in choppy waters. It may be bumpy, but it doesn't 
seriously affect the flight's course or altitude unless the 
pilots request a change of one or both in an effort to 
reduce the amount of turbulence. 

Taking measures to smooth bumpy flights is not really 
related to safety, and has nothing to do with the pilot's 
concern about the impact turbulent air can have on the 
aircraft, Getline wrote in a recent column. It's all about 
giving passengers a more comfortable ride. 

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Airplanes rarely experience a dramatic drop in altitude, and
turbulence rarely causes gains or losses in altitude of more 
than 10 to 20 feet, she said.  That is not, however, what it 
feels like to the passengers, many of whom are nervous about 
flying to begin with. Getline said reader queries about how 
much altitude is lost because of turbulence is one of her 
most frequently asked questions.

The fact is, when an aircraft is at cruising altitude, it's 
normally on autopilot, which electronically locks onto its 
course and altitude, she wrote. It feels like you're 
plummeting, because the change happens over such a short 
period of time.

Turbulence is uncomfortable because it can leave you feeling 
more out-of-control of the situation. A vicious circle is 
created as you feel more alarmed and then overreact to 
subsequent motions of the plane. 

Remind yourself that your feeling a loss of control does not 
mean that the plane and the pilot are not in control. Try 
not to fight and resist the plane's movements during 
turbulence—try to go with them, reminding yourself that 
there is nothing abnormal or dangerous about such motions 
even though they can feel jarring.

So just what is turbulence anyway? 

It's basically what happens when different masses of air 
moving at different velocities smack into each other.

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One of the best explanations I've seen comes from Tim Miner, 
a top-rated professional pilot who flies for a major airline 
and is the former head of weather studies at the U.S. Air 
Force Academy. In an interview with USA Today weather editor 
Jack Williams, Miner described it this way:

"The air that we fly in is a fluid flowing around a spinning 
Earth...If you look at a stream or river flowing, you can 
imagine our flowing air behaving in many of the same ways. 
Sometimes a stream encounters a rock or other physical 
obstacle in the way and it has to change direction. The flow 
is no longer smooth and anything riding on the fluid would 
experience turbulence. Mountains and large thunderstorms can 
create vertical motions in the atmosphere flowing around and 
over that could force an aircraft to experience wild 
vertical rides."

In the air, many of the obstacles that cause eddies in the 
flow are invisible. 

Clear air turbulence occurs when there are no clouds around. 
This means there is no obvious sign that the air is 

Ron Nielson, a pilot and creator of Fearless-Flight.com, 
describes clear air turbulence as  the result of the air 
that is disrupted around the jet stream.

"At the innermost part of the jet stream, called the core, 
the velocity may be as high as 250 mph. As you move away 
from the core, the velocity drops off so that at the edge it 
may be only 50 mph. 

"At each point at which two differing velocities rub against 
each other, eddies form causing the airflow to be disrupted 
from its nature to want to be smooth. Now imagine we are 
flying through this area in our airplane. The variability in 
the disruption will cause variations in the lift produced by 
the wings causing the airplane to bounce."

Sometimes, passengers will see the wings of an airplane flex 
with that bounce. 

Not to worry. Modern planes are very strong, well made 
machines that are strictly regulated. They can handle a lot 
more than you would think. Today's technology and training 
are very advanced and minimize threats to flying.

Well, that's it for this week, group. Thanks again for 
reading, and please keep those comments, complaints and 
questions coming in. 

You can send me an e-mail message at: Email Pierce

Until next week, thanks for reading.   

Your Tipmeister,   



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