Will we still want to fly in turbulent weather?

Sandra Chapman

Long-term global conditions were the last thing on my mind as I settled into a seat for my easyjet flight home from a European destination at the weekend. The aircraft was packed, it was unusually warm in the plane and I was dying for a cup of tea.

It didn’t help that I was in the middle of three seats with Himself on the outside and a young, fidgety fellow on the inside seat who kept leaning over my right shoulder to talk to his mum sitting behind him.

Flying in windy conditions is never pleasurable

The pilot came on to say that take-off would be a bit delayed due to weather – it was blowing hard outside – but within 20 minutes we were airborne, my feet were restless but there was no chance of getting up until the aircraft had straightened out and the seat-belt signs were off.

Then came the refreshment trollies, one at each end, and I was just about to get up to stretch my legs to ease my restless feet when the seat belt sign came on again. There was a little bit of buffeting of the plane but it didn’t last. Well, that was just a taster. The real thing was on its way and within minutes I could see the stewardess with the trolley wondering whether she should retreat.

The pilot came on to announce there was some bad weather ahead and soon we were in it – being severely buffeted about, not knowing how long it could go on before we could end up in the sea. We have all heard of occasions when passengers have been wrenched out of their seats and others hit by cabin bags falling out of overhead lockers when aircraft have hit storm conditions.

That very weekend our hosts had treated us to a visit to try out a modern aircraft simulator – this one has the very latest technology and lots of pilots are trained in it – and I was the scared one sitting behind the ‘pilot’ closing my eyes when he zoomed near a mountain only to clear it at the last minute before tackling a crash on water. The excited ones were the children with us who thought it was all a big laugh. They had a ball, effecting ‘crashes’ in forests and runways then zooming back up again. Today’s youngsters are so experienced with computer games they probably thought this was all a bit tame. It was hard to drag them away.

Among them, maybe, will be the next generation of pilots who, according to scientists at Reading University, will face buffeting up to three times more turbulent than at present. They expect this to lead to more mid-air injuries. Passengers, they say, will have to remain belted in their seats for much longer than they do now. Air turbulence is increasing across the globe in all seasons, say the scientists, and at multiple cruising altitudes. Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Reading, writing in Geophysical Research Letters, says: ‘‘the problem will worsen as the climate continues to change’’.

Passenger jets have a cruising speed of 550mph and while new technology will help pilots predict the distance ahead of turbulence they will have very little time – seconds only – to do anything about it. Evasive action isn’t really possible but better seat belting might help passengers avoid serious injury.

This autumn we’ve witnessed the wrecking power of increasingly violent hurricanes in the Caribbean. Aircraft were grounded during the worst of those events which makes flying in future for all of us something we may decide not to attempt. I have to say I’m not a happy flyer. As our plane rocked and rolled through the turbulence I closed my eyes and decided to pray, not out loud of course, but silently.

Maybe it was a selfish thing to do since God isn’t the one destroying the planet; its mankind itself with its profligate ways creating the conditions that lead to atmospheric changes which in turn disturb weather patterns.

At least that’s what the scientists tell us. We arrived safely at the International Airport by which time I’d forgotten all about my restless feet, proof that fear may be the best medicine after all.

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