NOAA clear air turbulence forecasts can help pilots avoid dangerous areas.
When Continental Flight 128 from Rio to Houston hit turbulence over the Caribbean Monday, things got scary in a hurry. The plane reportedly dropped over 300 feet in an instant, slamming unbuckled passengers and everything else not nailed down into the cabin roof. It was like hitting a speed bump at 500 mph.
The incident shows Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) can be a real danger to passengers. Pilots can see turbulent thunderstorms on radar and fly around clouds in the air, but CAT is invisible.
I’m not an aviation expert, but there are some tools to help pilots detect CAT. Model driven NOAA forecasts can highlight potential CAT areas.
Pilots also report areas of CAT. This can help tremendously over high traffic areas. There’s a lot of open ocean in the Atlantic and Pacific, and thus fewer pilot reports of CAT. The lee of the Rockies is a common place for CAT. Just like waves breaking on shore, these mountain waves of air break over the peaks.
The atmosphere is in a constant state of motion. At any given time air is rising or falling. Sometimes the motions can produce violent invisible downdrafts of over 100 mph. When an aircraft hits one of these it’s like slamming into an invisible river of air. The plane loses lift instantly, and is pushed down violently by the downdraft.
The bottom line is it pays to “keep your seatbelt fastened” when you’re in fight.