But when the plane bumps hard enough to send potato chips soaring like miniature eagles, isn’t something wrong? What IS turbulence, anyway?!
Answer: it’s random.
“Turbulence can’t be predicted,” says Larry Cornman, a turbulence specialist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. “A pilot can’t predict what’s going to happen in a few minutes, or in a few seconds, even.”
Turbulence, he explains, comes from many sources: jet streams of fast-moving air, thunderstorms (either near OR far from the plane) and wind whipping over mountains then crashing down the other side.
The best way to imagine it, says Cornman, is as an eddy in a stream — those little pockets where water rolls over rocks on an otherwise smooth surface. These turbulence eddies range from about the size of a plane to about five times the size of a plane, according to Cornman.
But because pilots can’t see air — and because storms can impact air up to 100 miles away from their origins — there is not a hard-and-fast way for pilots to know when they’ll encounter turbulence in a flight.
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