Ask the Expert: Captain Mike Talks Turbulence - United Hub

Ask the expert: Captain Mike talks turbulence

By The Hub team, June 16, 2016

United | Big Metal Bird | Turbulence

Captain Mike Bonner, Manager of Fleet Tech Flight Operations, has an immense amount of experience in flight. He's flown to nearly every corner of the globe at the helm of a variety of aircraft, and has encountered all types of turbulence along the way. We sat down with him to get a pilot's perspective on turbulence.

What is it like in the pilot's seat when you encounter turbulence? When do you get concerned?

It's usually just another day at the office, because we encounter mild turbulence quite often. It's something passengers barely notice and there are no risks involved with flying through it. I get concerned — for my passengers and crew in the cabin — whenever I hear air traffic control or other airplanes start talking about turbulence levels of moderate or greater — and we do everything possible upfront to stay out of those areas.

Describe your process of dealing with clear air turbulence when you encounter it. What are the steps you take in the cockpit?

1. Get everyone in the cabin seated — hopefully they already were. I put the seatbelt sign on and make a cabin announcement telling passengers and flight attendants to be seated immediately.

2. Report the situation to air traffic control for two reasons: to try and get advice on where smoother air is and to warn airplanes behind us of what's ahead of them.

3. When it's clear again, I call the flight attendants and allow them to get up, move around and see how everyone is doing.

4. When we can confirm with high certainty that the flight will remain smooth, I will turn off the seatbelt sign so passengers can get up.

What would you tell a good friend if they were fearful of turbulence?

Turbulence of some form or another is a fact of life when it comes to flying, but remember, our airplanes, pilots and controllers have a lot of great tools to keep us out of the bad stuff. We also have a good "heads-up" system to let us know when we're going to fly through the mild stuff. Then of course, there is the airplane itself — it is designed to handle turbulence at levels we can't even imagine, so even though it may not feel like it at the time, as long as we're all wearing our seatbelts we're going to come out the other side just fine.

In the event of turbulence, either during or before, what is your interaction with dispatchers and air traffic controllers?

The quality of "the ride" is the most talked-about subject between pilots, dispatchers and air traffic controllers. We all have it down to a science and have specific names for the different levels and types of turbulence. Ninety percent of the conversations we have regarding turbulence takes place during the "before" period, so we're able to avoid the bad stuff. To avoid areas of known turbulence, dispatch and air traffic control will guide us along the best path possible — both horizontally and vertically — using radar and controller-to-pilot communication to figure out the best flight path.

What is the most important thing passengers should know about turbulence?

Stay buckled when you're in your seat and don't spend any more time out of your seat — when the seatbelt sign is turned off — than you need to. If unexpected clear air turbulence hits when you're not sitting down with your seatbelt fastened, grab ahold of something and sit down quick, even if it's on the floor.

What's something interesting a passenger would never know about turbulence?

Turbulence can be a result of other airplanes — every airplane wing tip creates a horizontal swirling wind. We — airlines and air traffic control — have that covered as well. Spacing requirements between airplanes keep us clear of any rough air coming off another airplane.

Turbulence is something to take seriously, but not something to spend too much time worrying about. As Captain Bonner pointed out, through close coordination and communication, most turbulence is avoided before it can even begin. However, should you experience turbulence during a flight, it helps to remember to stay calm and listen to crew instruction. Turbulence shouldn't be more than a little bump in the road.

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