New research on clear air turbulence (CAT) is alarming from the American Geophysical Union and the University of Reading (in the United Kingdom). They report significant increases in CAT based on what’s happened over the past 40 years. The future looks rocky; we suggest staying buckled.
The study’s focus was mainly conducted over the Atlantic and US mainland, which showed a 55% increase in severe or greater CAT in 2020 compared with 1979.
Hawaiian Airlines air turbulence mass injury event.
Following last year’s December 18 mass casualty incident, turbulence has remained at the top of our minds and perhaps yours. Flight 35 encountered an extreme clear-air turbulence event as it was approaching Honolulu for landing. Some three dozen persons were injured, 20 went to the hospital, and eleven were seriously injured.
That resulted from the turbulence and a severe altitude drop in passengers hitting the overhead luggage bins and the A330 ceiling. It occurred just before landing procedures, about a half hour from Honolulu. The flight was operating in clear weather with nothing notable on the radar. The Hawaiian Airlines pilot reported a vertical cloud appeared in front of the aircraft so rapidly that he could not navigate around it.
NTSB reported that the cloud caused extreme air turbulence, a drop in altitude, and injuries to passengers, crew, and aircraft. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) also said airline turbulence will become more common.
“Severe weather increases chances of turbulence, and due to climate change, these kinds of incidents will only continue to grow.”Tahlor Garland, AFA.
And while technology arguably makes turbulence easier to predict and plan for (try telling affected passengers that!), it hasn’t prevented or explained some terrible incidents like the one that happened.
In March a Southwest Hawaii flight also encountered severe turbulence.
A Southwest Boeing 737 MAX8 plane also encountered extreme turbulence following departure from Honolulu and headed for the mainland. Passengers gave kudos to the Southwest pilot and crew. There was no official comment from Southwest about the event nor do we know the extent of any injuries.
Another 37 were injured in turbulence before Air Canada diverted to Hawaii.
In 2019, this incident injured dozens of passengers and flight crew on an Air Canada 777 plane when it hit extreme, clear air turbulence two hours southwest of Hawaii. The flight diverted to Honolulu, with 30 people taken to the hospital.
Should you worry about Hawaii flight turbulence?
For Beat Hawaii editors, it has increased our awareness of the potential for clear air turbulence at any point during a flight, with or without any notification. So we are doing as pilots have always said: use your seat belt whenever you are seated.
Has this changed your behavior on flights to Hawaii and elsewhere? The FAA concludes, “Passengers can easily prevent injuries from unexpected turbulence by buckling their seat belts at all times.”
NOAA and National Weather Service to the forefront of air turbulence.
A resource with which we were unfamiliar previously is the Aviation Weather Center (AWC). It is run by NOAA and the National Weather Service (NWS). You’ll find the site at https://aviationWeather.gov. The AWC provides a fascinating glimpse of aviation-related weather information, such as convention forecasting, and a novel interactive Flight Path Tool for evaluating all weather information from the organization that relates to a given air route.
“We’ve made tremendous advances over just the past few years, thanks to improved weather forecast models with more data going into and better understanding of the science in these models. That results in better forecast information across the board, including when evaluating the potential for turbulent conditions.”Jennifer Stroozas, Aviation Weather Center meterologist.
Other tools within the product suite include their Graphical Turbulence Guidance tool that provides SIGMETs (significant meteorological hazards) related to turbulence, including pilot reporting, both graphically and in text. The products will help planes fly at all altitudes from 1,000 feet to 50,000 feet.
NOAA can now offer new products with better predictions of air turbulence. They said they’ve “Definitely seen improved NOAA and NWS forecasts over the past decade through ensemble prediction tools and more data.”
The cause of air turbulence.
Study partner University of Reading said, “We’re looking for rapid variations in wind speed and altitude that create wind shear. It’s also analogized like this. Air is fluid, just not in the same way as water. But a river or the air we fly in can be calm or feature hidden rapids that create choppy air travel. These currents can sometimes be found as high up as flights are. Clear air turbulence (CAT) is even more challenging to predict. Better forecasts are wanted by the airline industry and pilots in particular.
Check out the new NOAA tools for air turbulence.
Go to https://beta.AviationWeather.gov to use the new tools directly.