Plane Answers: Announcements from the captain and Denver turbulence

Rich asks:

Hi Kent, I love your blog and it has really helped me to relax when flying. When I was a kid and used to fly it seemed as though the flight deck would regularly update passengers about what was going on with the trip, the plane, etc. Now it seems as though most of the time I hardly hear anything. It would be nice to know if there is some turbulence coming up or something like that. The best flight recently was an “Express” flight where the pilot told us on the ground that we would be having turbulence the first 30 minutes and then at about the hour and a half mark. It really helped us relax.

Hi Rich,

I once sat in the back of a United plane flying from Denver to Miami when the passenger next to me grabbed my arm during what I would consider light turbulence. As her fingernails dug into my skin, she explained to me how she’d feel so much more comfortable “if the pilot would just say something!”

It left an impression on me. At my airline those announcements are entirely up to the captain, although we’re highly encouraged to keep the passengers informed without being a nuisance. As a copilot, I’m limited to a subtle reminder every now and then about a possible PA, since it would be a bit out of line for me to start talking on behalf of the captain.

We’re given a flight plan before the flight that depicts the reported turbulence at each waypoint along the route of flight, and we could easily incorporate that into our pre-departure PA. Of course, we run the risk when getting specific about the ride to be completely wrong-I’ve run across many flights that were advertised as smooth, only to find light or moderate chop many times during the flight.

Based on the number of fear of flying questions we get, I’m convinced that at least 20% of the population is afraid to fly and I would love to make them more relaxed. A quick PA detailing the forecasted ride conditions along the route is a great idea and I may just do that when I upgrade to captain. It’s already part of our standard briefing to the flight attendants.

Recently we had a nervous passenger on board who really wasn’t interested in coming up to the cockpit. So, while still on the ground, I took the flight plan back to him and showed him the turbulence reports for our flight down to Aruba from Boston. His eyes immediately fixed on our first waypoint, Nantucket.

“Nantucket?” He said. “That’s near where JFK junior went down!”

So I’m not sure if I was able to help calm him much. But the advertised smooth ride proved accurate and he seemed happy upon deplaning in Aruba.

Rich goes on to ask another question:

Second, why does every landing and approach into Denver seem very sketchy? Every time I fly into that airport we seem to make a lot of turns and it feels as though we are either getting pushed out of the sky or the turbulence is so bad that it seems as though the plane would be hard to control. Is it the altitude or the mountains? Thanks again!

Good question. Since the wind typically goes from west to east across the country, when it hits the Rocky Mountains, it will create rough air on the east side of the range. Imagine a large rock in a river. The upstream portion of the water flowing over the rock is usually smooth, while downstream the flow of the water over the rock is disrupted.

Pilots and meteorologists call this turbulence wave action, and it can extend for hundreds of miles ‘downstream’ of a mountain range. In addition, closer toward the mountains, dangerous ‘rotors’ can form that are curving curls of airflow that pack a significant punch. Denver is far enough away to miss this kind of turbulence, but it still sees a good share of rough air.

On nearly every transcontinental flight, you’ll notice this same ‘wave action’ generated turbulence even up at the higher altitudes. It’s the most challenging area to find a smooth ride.

As far as the airplane being more difficult to control, it’s similar to driving on a gusty day. The hydraulically actuated flight controls make it easy to react to some of the gusts, but it’s still going to be bumpy. Next time you fly, notice how it usually gets smoother just before touchdown.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.