By Caitlin Kelly
Do you hate turbulence as much as I do?
Some people actually enjoy it, but this year — thanks to the strongest El Nino in decades — many flights are proving to be much bumpier than anyone ideally prefers. Like, screaming, throwing up, we’re-all-gonna-die bumpy.
Flights are increasingly being diverted to airports where the plane can actually land safely, as a recent instance in Canada where it went to an entirely different province. Or passengers and crew are injured and the flight diverts to the nearest airport and hospital that can accommodate it.
I’ve been flying around the world for 40+ years, on tiny aircraft (the Arctic, Caribbean, Nicaragua) and 777s and A320s, but (thank heaven!) have not ever had a really terrifying flight.
I do live in fear of one and yet I live to travel. Bit of a dilemma!
I figured others were noticing this pattern, certainly anyone who flies often.
I pitched the idea to The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for years.
I love the accompanying illustration with it (please go look!) by Randall Enos, a local artist exactly my age, whose work has accompanied other stories of mine in the paper. How on earth do you illustrate something invisible?
I was so thrilled with what he produced I called him at 9:00 in the morning to thank him — he was already up caring for his six horses. “I’m a horse janitor,” he said.
There are many different kinds of turbulence, with the most problematic to predict and to avoid being clear air turbulence (which is very difficult to detect using conventional radar). Much of it is typically experienced at cruising altitude.
In the last few months, at least three commercial flights, two on American Airlines and one on Air Canada, have experienced severe turbulence that resulted in injuries to those on board. In two instances, the flights were diverted to nearby airports so the injured could receive treatment.
Aviation professionals classify turbulence from light to extreme, a form they say is very rare. The challenge of reporting turbulence, several pilots said, is that the reports themselves are subjective.
While in flight, pilots file Pilot Reports (Pireps) to alert airline dispatchers and other pilots en route of any turbulence they’ve encountered; what one pilot considers mild might feel moderate to another.
This was by far the toughest story I’ve written in a long time!
I’ve never studied physics or aeronautics or flown a plane myself. Because so many people fly, even those who hate and fear it, I knew it would be well-read. I also knew that aviation professionals would likely read it so see if I got my facts right.
It’s not a simple, quick story, which also made reporting and writing it so satisfying. I like a challenge.
But I also live in terror of making a mistake!
I started by reading basic news reports to find out how widespread the problem is and what’s being done about it.
I wanted to speak to someone who’d been on a really bad flight to describe it firsthand. I found him by seeing him quoted in a Canadian news story, checked him out on LinkedIn and then had to persuade his assistant and his public relations agency to speak to me about it.
This was one of those stories where my network really came through for me, without which I simply couldn’t have done a decent job on a complex topic.
I asked an aviation writer, a woman I’ve never met, if she could recommend a source/expert, and she did, immediately — a pilot with decades of experience now teaching aeronautics. He proved invaluable throughout the lengthy process or producing this story, which took weeks of interviews and revisions and cuts.
I also spoke to four working pilots and a flight attendant — all working long-haul routes on 777s and their like. I wanted people in the air now, not retirees, and that meant I couldn’t name them.
That meant the Times refused to allow me to use their helpful insights and comments, at least not in quotes.
I spoke to several meteorologists to try and parse the many kinds of turbulence — some of which seem banal to pilots, if not to us shaken-up and scared passengers!
My goal was to both soothe nervous flyers as much as possible while making clear how essential it is to buckle your seatbelt!
I learned a lot and was so frustrated I couldn’t include more detail and quotes. But that’s journalism, kids!
We always work within some sort of restraint, whether time, length or access to sources.
I hope you’ll read and share it.
I think you’ll find it helpful!