Invisible Danger: Clear air turbulence


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.


  • As if I wasn’t scared enough to get on a plane!

  • TommyL.

    The media loves to get a hold of aviation incidents and paint a terrible picture. The most dangerous part of flying is the on the way to and from the airport.

  • Paul Huttner

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    Of course flying is generally “safe.”

    I’m interested in commenting on how the atmosphere works here. CAT is real, and it has caused several incidents and many injuries over the years.

    I don’t think I’ve painted a “terrible picture” of aviation. Rather, I’d like to think I’ve shed some light on what CAT is, how it works in the atmosphere, and some meteorological techniques pilots and forecasters use to try and identify CAT areas.

    Nobody is saying don’t fly. I think most people get that. I fly whenever I need to. The message here is really to use the seat belts when you’re on a plane.


  • TommyL

    Sorry Paul – I think there was come confusion on my post. I was not referring to our beloved friends on “Updraft” or The National Weather Service as painting a negative picture regarding flying.

    I was referring to the mainstream ‘Cable Media Outlets” that tend to over analyze these situations and create fear for the general public regarding overall aviation safety.

    I really enjoy the insight from a weather/climate perspective your team gathers on current events such as this situation.

    I am a huge fan of Updraft and appreciate the time you have put into this great weather portal for fanatics like myself!