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Plane Answers: Have turbulence encounters become less common?
Fellow Gadling writer Mike Barish (author of the hilarious Skymall Mondays asks:
I have a plane answers question of my own for you and thought others might be curious, too.
Not sure if it's my perception, improvements in technology or changes in flight paths, but it truly seems like I experience less turbulence in general, and less aggressive turbulence when my flights do hit it, than I did back in the 1980s. What's changed to make flights smoother?
You're likely right, Mike.
In the past ten years, more of the airplanes flying today have advanced radar, with features such as 'Predictive Windshear' and better depiction of turbulence associated with precipitation.
The FAA has also installed weather monitors for Air Traffic Controllers that show the level of intensity for a given cumulonimbus build-up of clouds. It's comforting to hear "we show a level three thunderstorm along your route of flight, deviations to the right or left are approved" from ATC before the weather even shows up on our radar.
Occasionally these advisories are for storms that are well below us, but the courtesy report is well appreciated, especially since they include the intensity of the weather, which saves us from having to pan and tilt our radar to determine if a cloud could cause significant bumps. Exceedingly wet clouds that climb above 25,000 feet are the best indicator of possible turbulence, and it takes some manipulating of the radar to find those.
Dispatch plays a role in forecasting where the weather may be during our flight and routing us on a different and possibly less direct path to get around the weather.
The other possible explanation for your experience may have to do with where you've been sitting lately. The difference between turbulence at the rear of the airplane versus over the wing or in the front is rather significant, especially on stretched versions of airliners like the A340-600, the 757-300 and the 737-900. On your next flight, if you're sitting in the back, pay attention to how the flight attendants in the front are walking and continuing their service, while those in the back may have to sit down.
So, if turbulence gives you the willies, try getting a seat in the front.
Coincidentally, this post is being written in the business class section of a 757 while I'm on my crew rest break. It's bumpy enough that the main cabin flight attendants are seated, but our purser is currently serving drinks up front without much difficulty.
In the future, the 787 will have a 'gust suppression' capability that is said to improve the rides by adjusting the rudder constantly to compensate for some types of turbulence. I can't wait to experience that.
Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he'll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr
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