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Is this the answer to clear air turbulence?

Turbulence is dreaded by passengers, but new technology could put an end to bumpy flights

clear air turbulence

A passenger died when Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 hit severe turbulence

One passenger died and more than 20 were critically injured during a severe bout of turbulence on board an Asia-bound Singapore Airlines flight.

Flight SQ321 was on its way from London Heathrow to Singapore but was forced to request an emergency landing at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport after hitting an air pocket. The flight suddenly dropped 6,000ft from a cruising altitude of around 37,000 ft over the Irrawaddy Basin in Myanmar, causing significant damage to the aircraft. One passenger, British national Geoffrey Kitchen, died, and more than 100 passengers needed hospital treatment following the dramatic incident. 

According to those on board, the aircraft, a Boeing 777, suddenly dropped without warning, hurling people and objects around the cabin. The cause of the event is currently under investigation, but passengers say the turbulence occurred abruptly when the aircraft had been travelling smoothly. The flight was just 90 minutes away from its intended destination and people were moving around the cabin as breakfast was being served. Many were not wearing seatbelts and when the aircraft suddenly lost altitude, both passengers and crew were launched into the air, smashing their heads on overhead lockers and the ceiling of the aircraft. 

Immediately after the event, Singapore Airlines offered its “deepest condolences to the family of the deceased” and said it was working with the Thai authorities to provide medical assistance.

“We deeply apologise for the traumatic experience that our passengers and crew members suffered on this flight,” SIA said in a statement. “We are providing all necessary assistance during this difficult time.”

Turbulence can be a terrifying experience, although injuries from severe turbulence are relatively rare when bearing in mind the millions of flights that operate each year. In most cases, turbulence causes a shaking or shuddering movement to the aircraft and sometimes a slight loss of elevation. Turbulence is most commonly caused by aircraft flying through clouds, but while weather avoidance can be built into an aircraft’s flight plan, ‘clear air’ turbulence, when the area is cloudless, is not visible on a plane’s weather radar.

Clear air turbulence causes abrupt, irregular movements of air in otherwise cloudless regions that create sharp up- and down-drafts, causing aircraft to buffer violently.

So how common is severe clear air turbulence? Not very, but scientists believe increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mean it’s becoming a more frequent phenomenon. According to the experts, more carbon dioxide emissions creates warmer air which increases wind shear in the world’s jet streams, strengthening clear air turbulence. A recent study by meteorologists at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom found that at a particular point over the North Atlantic, one of the world’s busiest routes, severe turbulence had increased by 55% between 1979 and 2020. 

According to the study, although the North Atlantic has experienced the largest rise in cases of turbulence, routes in most other parts of the world have also seen a significant increase.

“Airlines will need to start thinking about how they will manage the increased turbulence, as it costs the industry US$150 to $500 million annually in the US alone,” said Mark Prosser, one of the meteorologists who led the University of Reading study. “Every additional minute spent travelling through turbulence increases wear-and-tear on the aircraft, as well as the risk of injuries to passengers and flight attendants.”

But can anything be done to smooth bumpy flights? A European flight specialist, Turbulence Solutions, has developed what it refers to as “turbulence cancelling” technology. At the moment the technology is being used on light aircraft, but the Turbulence Solutions team believes it could be rolled out onto commercial aircraft.

The technology uses a tiny trigger that measures upcoming pressure and allows fast-reacting wing flaps to act ahead of impact, generating vertical lift when airflow forces the plane downwards. By dramatically altering the shape of the wings, the airflow is deflected and passes without affecting the body of the aircraft. At the moment, the pilot has no warning and is forced to act retrospectively. The Turbulence Solutions team believes about 80% of turbulence can be removed using its turbulence cancelling technology.

“Our thoughts are with the bereaved and those affected,” the Turbulence Solutions team wrote on X (formerly Twitter) following the SQ321 mid-air drama. “Our technology could very likely have prevented this tragic accident. Currently it is only available in the first light aircraft. But the technology is ready to be installed in large aircraft as well. Make flights turbulence-free.”

In the meantime, however, the best we can do for a smoother flight is to buckle-up. 

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