Flying in the Rough – Plane & Pilot Magazine | Aviation

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No one likes flying in turbulent air. It’s an annoyance to the pilot, requiring constant attention at the controls, and a concern for passengers, tossing to and fro in their strapped-in seats and beginning to debate the wisdom of air travel. As much as possible, avoidance of turbulence should be the goal, rather than stoic endurance.

In my days as a purveyor of air taxi services, our sales brochure stated the company’s philosophy as “Safety, Comfort, Speed,” ranking a smooth, uneventful flight right behind the primary objective of a safe arrival. We tried our best to avoid turbulent air—dozing passengers meant we were meeting our goal. The rare occasions of inescapable bouncing risked an onset of mal de l’air and redecoration of the cabin interior.

Staying in the smooth starts with timing the trip to evade rough air. Related to such scheduling is a knowledge of turbulence’s origins, so you can better understand the best time to fly. Air in motion can be generated thermally, orographically, and by frontal activity.

Thermal turbulence will make its daily arrival as the sun angle increases, heating up the Earth’s surface in an uneven manner to generate rising air currents in some places, while subsiding in others. We can expect rough air by midday and can perhaps avoid it by climbing higher initially, but it will reach inconvenient levels as the day wears on.

Orographic turbulence is influenced by terrain, particularly if the wind flows across a perpendicular ridgeline. The greater the wind speed, the more energetic the turbulence will be. Thermals can also form on the sun-facing slopes. Smart mountain pilots know to conclude their flying by late morning before the winds pick up and undulations form in the stream of moving air. The analogy of mountain turbulence is akin to water flowing down a rocky stream, creating white-water rapids.

Convective weather in an air mass, particularly in frontal zones, doesn’t need to be in the form of…

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