IT’S the thing you probably hate the most about flying. Turbulence.
While flying into a patch of turbulence won’t cause a plane to fall out of the sky, passengers and crew risk serious injury inside the cabin as a result of the ultra-bumpy ride.
Some 44 people in the US were severely injured by turbulence in 2016, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration. In Australia, about 25 turbulence-related injuries are reported each year, according to the latest data from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which says many other cases go unreported.
And it could get a lot worse, with a UK study this year warning bouts of turbulence strong enough to toss passengers around cabins could become up to three times more common due to climate change.
But Boeing may be on the verge of a solution for all that.
Next year the company will test technology that will let aircraft to detect upcoming clear-air turbulence from many kilometres ahead, allowing pilots to avoid it.
As part of Boeing’s testing, aircraft will be fitted with lidar (light detection and ranging technology), which will emit pulses of laser light from the plane’s nose and measure weather conditions up to 17 kilometres ahead.
This will allow pilots to avoid the rapid change in wind speed and clear-air turbulence, which is a problem because it has no cloud warning of its presence.
“We expect to be able to spot clear-air turbulence more than 60 seconds ahead of the aircraft, or about 17.5 kilometres, giving the crew enough time to secure the cabin and minimise the risk of injuries,” the Boeing program’s lead investigator Stefan Bieniawski told Wired.
Even if pilots couldn’t steer around the turbulence, a minute’s notice could allow passengers to brace for the bumpy conditions ahead and cabin crew to stow away risky items such as hot coffee, Wired reported.
And the technology couldn’t come sooner, given the growing list of serious injuries caused by turbulence over the past year.
August 2017: Ten people were sent to hospital when an American Airlines flight from Athens to Philadelphia hit turbulence. “[The plane] started shaking, then it took a big drop. Babies screaming, people in front of us hitting the ceiling,” one passenger said of the ordeal.
May 2017: At least 27 people were seriously injured on an Aeroflot Boeing 777-300 flying from Moscow to Thailand after the aircraft hit a patch of severe turbulence 40 minutes into the trip. Some on board suffered fractured bones in the terrifying ordeal, when the plane flew through a pocket of clean air turbulence.
May 2017: Extreme turbulence rocked an AirAsia X flight from Taipei, Taiwan to Kuala Lumpur, terrifying the 300 passengers on board and injuring five people. Horrifying footage of the incident emerged, in which a woman can he heard asking of a man lying on the ground: “Is he dead?”.
March 2017: In a slightly different example of turbulence, a private plane flipped over “three to five times” before plunging more than 3000 metres towards the Arabian Sea after it was struck by powerful turbulence when a superjumbo flew over it. The pilot pulled off a remarkable recovery.
December 2016: Passengers were “tossed like rag dolls” when Qatar Airways flight from Washington to Doha hit extreme turbulence, forcing an emergency landing. Witnesses said a young boy was thrown out of his seat and into the lap of a passenger across the aisle during the scary experience.
November 2016: Seven people were hospitalised after China Eastern flight MU777 ran into turbulence as it landed at Sydney Airport. One patient suffered a laceration to the jaw, and others injuries to the head, back and wrist.
October 2016: Two crew members and a passenger were injured when a QantasLink flight from Melbourne encountered severe turbulence on descent into Canberra.
September 2016: Passengers said they “thought they were going to die” when their United Airlines flight from Houston to London hit turbulence, leading to the hospitalisation of 14 passengers and two crew members.