Time to tackle everyone’s favorite topics: airline safety and turbulence. Dun dun dunnnnnn

My friend Donnie, a Boeing 757/767 pilot at a major U.S.-based airline, recently sat down with me to talk about turbulence and the measures airlines take to create the safest and smoothest ride possible for passengers.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Continued from What Does It Take to Move a Jet from Point A to Point B? A Pilot Explains.

Marissa (M): Let’s talk about safety. There’s safety as it pertains to the aircraft, as it pertains to alertness. Can you just give me an overview on how pilots and crew are trained to ensure safe transit?

Donnie (D): Safety is obviously the most important factor that goes into every flight. We want everyone to arrive safely, we want a well trained crew, everyone on the ground to be safe, air traffic controllers to be safe.

We learn a lot of teamwork skills. Those teamwork skills are often taught through what is called CRM (crew resource management). Early on in aviation, there were a lot of accidents they found that were caused by the flight crew’s inability to work together, whether that be communication or situational awareness. 

The thing is, when we fly an airplane, we may have met the other pilot we’re flying with, or we may not have. Regardless of if we’ve flown together before or if we haven’t, we’re expected to get that airplane from point A to point B safely.

We go through what’s called crew resource management training every year. Basically, we learn how to do things like communicate. For example, communication is essential in an emergency. Maintaining situational awareness, for example, when the weather’s bad. We need to know where those storms are and communicate how to get around them. So that program is designed to help pilots work together and to problem solve. Because a lot of flying is decision making.

We have to often make quick decisions, but the decisions have to be made accurately to ensure the safety of the flight. One of the things that they found early on with a lot of accidents was that these were perfectly good airplanes that crashed. It was a failure of the crew to work together. There’s a famous flight, Eastern Airlines Flight 401, in December of 1972 that crashed into the Florida Everglades. What happened with this particular flight is there were three crew members on board the aircraft. When they went to put the landing gear down, they noticed that one of the bulbs for the landing gear indicator (which is a light that tells you if the landing gear is down or not) was burned out. They began troubleshooting that problem, and all three crew members’ attention went to solving it. Instead of having one person fly the airplane, another maintain situational awareness, and another troubleshoot the problem, they were all three drawn into this issue. What ended up happening is one of the pilots inadvertently bumped the autopilot off, and none of the crew members realized it until it was too late.

What happened there was a lack of situational awareness. You had three crew members on board, and they were all drawn into this one problem. [In CRM training] we learn how to avoid situations such as Eastern 401. After the Eastern accident and a couple of other accidents, the FAA mandated that all air carriers develop and implement these kinds of crew resource management programs.

When pilots go through initial training, we go through crew resource management training in the simulator every day. That’s something they’re looking at is our ability to work with others to effectively problem solve. So we get a grade on that when we go for our check ride.

M: Got it. So it sounds like they use that to put processes in place.

D: Exactly. So that’s the biggest tool that we have to remain safe. Another thing that we utilize is standard operating procedures. Every pilot is trained at the same level. You’re trained to use the same procedures. So that means if we fly with somebody we know or have never flown with, we’re going to be able to operate the airplane in the same safe manner.

M: I think that’s an interesting element that isn’t normally discussed. Especially when you read newspaper articles or whatever. When we talk about safety, we’re talking about the aircraft itself and the technology versus the human element which is so huge and which tends to be the cause of crashes more than anything else. So the better training you have, the more likely you are to have a safe flight.

Let’s shift to turbulence. What is the danger of turbulence, if any?

D: Turbulence is an issue because it’s one of the most common causes of injury to passengers or crew members on board an aircraft. There’s that famous announcement that we make while we’re flying that tells you to remain seated with your seatbelt fastened, and to keep your seatbelt fastened while seated. That’s in case we encounter any unexpected rough air or turbulence. While a lot of times turbulence is forecasted, there is unforecasted turbulence that will hit as well.

A lot of times flying over the Atlantic, it can be turbulent because you have a lot of different weather systems converging. Turbulence is caused by a variety of weather systems and the way they interact with each other. It has to do a lot with the wind.

The most common form of turbulence that you’re going to experience is clear air turbulence. It has to do with the mixing of wind patterns, or the interaction of different wind patterns. Clear air turbulence is the type of turbulence that’s usually not forecasted. You can’t see it, you can’t detect it with the aircraft weather equipment. It’s just something that happens. So it’s something that’s important to always be prepared and have your seatbelt fastened throughout the flight while you’re seated.

One of the ways that we do try to avoid turbulence is by getting reports from other aircraft. Once we have those reports, we’ll try to avoid the turbulence or change altitudes. A lot of times, turbulence will occur at one or a particular number of altitudes. For example, I was flying the other day from San Francisco to Newark, and there was turbulence from 30,000 to 36,000 feet. Once we got to 38,000 feet, it was smooth.

M: You mentioned a common cause of injury on an aircraft is when people have their seatbelt unbuckled and you hit clear air turbulence. Is there danger to an aircraft that people should be aware of with turbulence, or is it a matter of white-knuckling it and bearing it because it’s just going to be uncomfortable?

D: I would say it’s more of white-knuckling it and bearing it. You’re going to get through the turbulence. When aircraft go through testing, they certify them and test the components of the aircraft extensively in various types of turbulence to make sure all the materials are strong enough to withstand it.

Aircraft can take a certain amount of Gs. They’ll basically test the wing of an airplane until it breaks. They’ll put so much pressure on it to simulate bumps from turbulence. When that breaks, they certify the airplane to that amount of Gs. 

[Side note: here’s a list of ten things to know about turbulence.]

M: Is that a level that you would ever realistically encounter?

D: There is something called severe turbulence. If we get a report of severe turbulence we cannot fly near that area. Severe turbulence could cause a loss of aircraft control.

M: I was recently flying in Europe, and my two flights over the Alps were extremely turbulent. Is it more likely to be turbulent over mountains, or was that just a coincidence?

D: Yeah, there is a type of turbulence called Mountain Wave Turbulence. [More info can be found here.]

M: What do you consider to be the most enjoyable part about flying?

D: Most of the time the runway is about a mile long, so I like to think of it as, “a one mile runway can take you anywhere.” When you roll down that runway and take off, you’re departing every time for a new adventure. A new city, a new place. It really opens up the world to you.

That’s probably the most enjoyable thing about flying. I’ve seen really cool stuff. I’ve seen the beaches of Normandy from the air, I’ve seen the Grand Canyon. I love when the sun comes up in the morning over the ocean. It’s just beautiful to see. 

M: The Grand Canyon is stunning from the air. I’ve never been there, but I’ve flown over it six times and I love it every time.

D: I was flying into Paris a few weeks ago, and we were descending into France, and we came right over Normandy. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed was the sunrise over the Atlantic, and then coasting into Europe when you see the bright city lights early in the morning. You know you’re on the other side of the world and the jet’s taken you there. I think that’s a really cool experience, that the airplane is able to take you across an ocean to experience a whole other part of the world.

The sun rising over the North Atlantic. (©Donald Garner)

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A Pilot Explains: Airline Safety and Turbulence