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"The Wiggly-Jigglies..."

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Nothing presents more of a barrier to those who do not like flying than turbulence. The mere mention of the "T" word is enough to trigger sleepless nights leading up to a flight. I know this because I work with people on a fear of flying website who are afraid of flying - and deathly afraid of turbulence. Hence the two title words above which usually elicit a smile, rather than cold sweats.   Whatever you call them, the bumps are just a part of the business. To date, no one has figured out how to see air and most of the turbulence experienced by airline passengers is Clear Air Turbulence (CAT). Often, Pilots only know about turbulence ahead from Pilot reports from planes ahead of them. In the last decade, we have learned a lot about what atmospheric conditions cause most instability in the atmosphere. Southwest uses a great system pioneered by Northwest Airlines that helps predict when and where the bumps might be. Predictions don't make it smoother, they just help the Crews get themselves and their passengers through the sky safer.   The reality is, this 2006-2007 winter is the bumpiest winter I can recall in my near 30 years in aviation. Nearly every Pilot and Flight Attendant I have talked to this year agrees that the rides offered by Mother Nature have been among the worst in recent memory. One of our renown pioneer SWA Pilots, when asked about the ride at altitude in his area, once responded by saying, "It's rougher than a stucco bathtub..." I was reminded of his comments as I rode through a trough line over Memphis this week. For forty five minutes out of our four-hour flight, it was not fun.   The key to this post for everyone is this: Fun or not, as long as everyone heeds the FASTEN SEATBELT sign and stays seated, everyone makes it through the flight just fine. People who ignore this safety rule put not only themselves at risk, but anyone they might fall on or be tossed into during an extreme turbulence encounter. Those who violate the FAA mandate to comply with Crew instructions and commands do so at their own peril.   Flying is the safest means of transportation yet devised. It has become that way because we have learned from our mistakes and used judgment built on years of experience to remove as much risk as possible. Yet some passengers always think they know better.   Your Pilots will go out of their way to give you the best ride possible but when their best efforts are no match for what Mother Nature has thrown in their path, it's best to have "battened down the hatches" well in advance. That is why the seatbelt sign is often on even though the ride is currently smooth: The Pilots expect bumps ahead. Smart passengers will heed this warning and remain seated. The same goes for passengers and Crew moving about the cabin.  An old axiom of aviation reflects the caution that has made aviation safer: "I'd rather be down here wishing I was up there than up there wishing I was down here."        
26 Comments
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I really do LUV to fly! The worst case of turbulence I had was a little over 14 years ago, when my parents & I were flying home from Chicago; unfortunately, we didn't fly SWA. 😞 It was very windy at take-off, so obviously it made for a rough one. I was quite scared (it has to be pretty turbulent to scare me), but once we got out of it, things were fine. Another time, I was on my way home from BWI, & there was some bad turbulence between ATL & home, being TUL. When I was leaving the airport in TUL , it began lightning; after I got home, it began storming. My mom said I made it back between fronts.
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My worst experience was on a charter flight for a ski trip. I don't remember the name of the charter company, which is probably just as well. But we waited more than six hours for the plane to show up, and when it did, it was "blue" ... no logo, no company name, no nothin' ... just "blue." I was not exactly filled with confidence, but I was young and wanted to go skiing. Most of the flight was ok, but there was about a 15-minute stretch that was the one and only time I have been truly terrified on a flight. I was on the aisle, and at one point, the FA went up in the air and landed smack dab in the lap of the passenger in the window seat. That 15 minutes seemed like forever. No more generic aircraft, or airlines, for me 🙂
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Ray - I would definatley agree with you. Flying over the Western US the last several weeks has been very, very bumpy. The pilots I have flown with have been very cautious with sitting the Crew and the Passengers down as needed. I really appreciate you all trying to find a smooth alititude for a less "bumpy" ride. Thanks to you and all of the GREAT SWA Pilots for the job you do every day getting me and our Passengers to our destination mostly ontime and safe! Ya'll are the BEST! James Malone MDW FA
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My worst turbulence experience was flying out of STL during a summer storm back in 1998. Almost immediately after takeoff our plane was tossed about like a rag doll. There were a few times where the plane felt like it had been pushed down a thousand feet, leaving me with my stomach in my throat. After that time, I've never been bothered my turbulence. Planes are designed to withstand more abuse than our plane experienced that night.
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Captain, Thanks for another well-written and helpful blog entry! I see people on some of my flights who run the gamut from exceedingly white-knuckled flyers to very cavalier folks who ditch the seat belt the second we're airborne and are up and down out of their seats repeatedly throughout the flight. While I've always had the personal rule that whether I'm getting in a car or a plane, before the vehicle begins to move, I'm buckled, and I stay that way until I'm ready to get out. It just makes sense. I think one of the reasons so many people take off their seat belts is because of exactly what you've said above. Most commercial pilots today have such sophisticated weather equipment and make such a diligent effort to avoid turbulence, whether CAT or storm-induced, that passengers have come to expect that their flights will be as smooth as a baby's behind. Perhaps our pilots are TOO good! You should purposely shake things up a bit from time to time to keep us on our toes. I saw a comedy bit on TV one time that had a pilot and co-pilot randomly jinking the plane for no good reason and then laughing uncontrollably at the imagined scene behind them as people were jostled all around. The bottom line is that passengers just need to stay buckled...period. We have to remember that as fantastic as our pilots are, "stuff happens" from time to time, and being held in your seat is preferable to simulating the folks riding the Vomit Comet. Please keep up the great work, both in the air and on the blog! By the way, I'm almost through with "This is Your Captain Speaking" and its a wonderful book! Kim P. S. As a former USAF jock, you might enjoy this joke that a friend of mine told me. He used to fly the RF-4C before his unit transitioned to the KC-135, so he sees both perspectives... F-15 pilot to KC-135 pilot after detaching from a "fill-up": "Hey, old man, take a look at what I can do." The Eagle driver pulls away and does three fast rolls and loops back around to the tanker's wing position. Just then, the F-16 pilot separates and radios to the tanker pilot: "Hey, watch what I can do." He pulls his stick back and accelerates straight up out of sight, returning with a screaming approach from several miles up about 30 seconds later. The -135 pilot just smiles and radios to the two young jocks, "Ok, fellas, watch what I can do." The two hotshot pilots watch carefully as the tanker continues straight and level for one minute, then two, and finally after almost five minutes, the -135 pilot comes back on the radio. "How about that, guys?" The two fighter jocks are puzzled and radio back, "What did you do?" The tanker pilot replies: "Oh, I got up, stretched my legs, walked down to the bathroom, made myself a cup of coffee in the galley and strolled back up here to the cockpit." Age and experience win out over youthful exuberance! 🙂
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I naturally wonder what is the reason for a buckled seat belt after the plane has landed safely. There certainly isn't much that can go wrong when a plane is simply taxi-ing at 15 mph.
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Well Chris, I usually tell folks "You wouldn't take your seatbelt off, three blocks from your house!", but the reality is there is LOTS that can happen, on your way to the gate. A car or tug on the ramp can cross the aircraft's path = sudden stop. Same for windy days, luggage cart = sudden stop And there have been accidents, involving airliners that got too close to eachother taxiing = scrape, sudden change of direction There are other examples, but the point is, "What's your hurry?" I'm not going to open the door any earlier. Why ruin a perfectly safe flight by tempting Murphy's Law?? Frequently, we're early, so we owe you the whole ride, anyway. Fly SAFE!!! Will Browne MDW F/A
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Chris, Unfortunately, it is not unheard of to have collisions between planes on the ground. Weather conditions, pilot inattention, conflicting instructions from Ground Control can all lead to situations that are likely to give you a pretty good jolt even when taxiing. I also know of airports where you land on one runway and then cross another one to get to the terminal. It is pretty unlikely, but again, why take the chance? Another two minutes of wearing the belt seems like "better safe than sorry" to me! Happy flying, Kim
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I was flying out of Dullas one day back in the 90's and the plane just "dropped" and it seems about 500 feet. It even scared the FA's. The look on their faces! The drink cart dropped too. It was really scary! That was just about as bad as a botched landing in Memphis. We were about to touch down and zoom, back up into the sky and another attempt. That was too weird. I think we were avoiding another plane! ugh. And neither of these flights were on SWA! of course................ 🙂
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Once, when I was flying home from DC, my plane hit an airpocket. All of a sudden, it went straight down, & I didn't know what it was. I asked a flight attendant, & she told me. Of course, I had my seat belt fastened, but it was still scary! This was not on Southwest, unfortunately, but I was flying back from DC & not BWI.
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I had a nice bumby flight from STL to OMA . There were scattered thunderstorms around OMA, One bump we took felt like we dropped a couple of hundred feet real fast. My arms came off my lap, it looked like my drink came out of the glass and back into it. Noone was ready for the bumps to be that bad because it was a smooth ride over half way to OMA. One of those you say, GOOD MORNING ARE YOU AWAKE NOW!!!
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Hi Ray, You'll be glad to know that aircraft manufacturers are looking into ways of detecting clear air turbulence, as well as alleviating the consequences when you fly through them. There are a number of trials on the go using LIDAR (Laser used in the same way as a radar) to provide a view of the conditions of the mass of air in front of an aircraft, that could potentially allow CAT detection. There is also some research being carried out into modifications of the autopilot to counter turbulence, as the autopilot coupled with fly by wire controls offers a much faster response time to counter sudden drops/increases in attitude than could otherwise be achieved. This is very much at an early stage of research, but hopefully, by the time the next generation of commercial aircraft arrive, the ride will have got smoother! Southwest can pride itself of having a recent fleet that is regularly upgraded to the latest standard, and should therefore be amongst the first to benefit! :o)
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I fly every week from LAS to either LAX or BUR. During the summer, the turbulence can be downright nasty. Once we were at cruise altitude heading to BUR and we hit some rough air; the aircraft dropped, my drink flew into the air, and a F/A was thrown into the seats. Luckily, I had my seatbelt on! Anyways, I just have a few questions: First, in such situations, does the aircraft typically drop a few feet, a 100 feet, 100s of feet? Second, could turbulence be compared to rough seas? In other words, those of us who have taken cruises know that the sea can be rough; nevertheless, the ship never loses course and will never capsize or break up. (Passengers, however, can feel miserable.) Is this the same for aircraft? Thanks for the feedback.
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"That was just about as bad as a botched landing in Memphis...." And the alternatives with another plane landing ahead of yours who failed to make an exit in front of yours were....? I'd say hitting it would have earned the "botched" moniker. A do-over (Go-Around) is a much safer alternative in my book! Ray
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The smoothest flight I have ever flown (out of 13 flights, one flown privately by my brother) was the Southwest Airlines flight from Ontario to Nashville. No flight experience has ever come close to that.
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Explanation of turbulence from an five year old boy: "Does God have gas?" Go figure. Wonder who pulled the finger? Jenny Frasco
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One of my pet peves are captians that turn on the seatbelt sign at the slightest jiggle. I think that's one big reason some people ignore seatbelt signs, because quite often the light's on and there's no real turbulence so they're not taken seriously. Sometimes it seems as if they're turned on for liability reasons, not because they're needed.
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I have never been scared of turbulence during flight. Then last summer I was on a Delta flight and we hit rough and I mean ROUGH turbulence. A ceiling panel fell down and hit a customer on the head. We were a near twenty minutes from landing. The flight attendant was holding a cloth with one hand and holding the passengers seat with another. I have never forgotten this and now sometimes worry when it gets a little bumpy. Do you ever see this type of phobia in other customers?
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Bob, if you are flying from LAS to SoCal in the summer, pick the earliest flight possible. The thunderstorms don't really get kicking up until around 1pm or so. When I fly in the summer over areas prone to afternoon thunderstorms, I leave on the earliest morning flight I can find to avoid the turbulence from the supercell clouds.
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Am I the only one who actually ENJOYS turbulence? I find it comforting, relaxing, sometimes even fun. Granted, I haven't ever been subjected to a lurch that hurt me or any other passengers... but the bumps -- even significant ones -- help me fall asleep faster. And -- undoubtedly this is the Vulcan side of me showing -- why aren't people able to view air travel even somewhat logically? Given how HUGELY safer air travel is than car travel (or probably even walking about a crowded city), why do people still freak out so much? Okay, fine, we all have irrational fears and that should be respected. I just wish it wouldn't affect our society so much. You want "100% secure" (ha!) airport security at the price of massive inconvenience, frightened kids, missed meetings (or weddings!)? Fine, but let me have MY air travel back, please. Ah, okay, I digress... [sigh] Signed, Nostalgic for sanity (and comforted by natural, normal air pockets)
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Sit over the wings for the smoothest ride. Captain Ray and the rest of the 32,000 plus employees, I want to thank you for the pleasant experiences that my Mom, Aunt and Uncle had on #2988 on Monday and # 1255 on Thursday. (From and to Phx/Dtw) It was a journey they didn't want to make because it involved a funeral. They had good flights and #1255 was 40 mins early. Thank you again. Joe Friedmann
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I know of one woman who will never doubt the seatbelt sign again. Many years ago before SWA came to ORF I was flying USscareways from ORF to CLT on a 737. About halfway into the flight the seatbelt light was turned on due to thunderstorms along our route. This line of storms stretched up and down the entire east coast. Because of this the flight had to fly through the line of storms. The pilot tried to find the smoothest way through but the turbulence was quite bad. A woman two rows ahead of me just could not find it possible to stay in her seat and got up and opened the overhead storage bin and then the aircraft hit a downdraft and fell rapidly. This lady was now in the air pinned to the ceiling with the contents of the overhead bin, once the pilot recover the aircraft the lady and her belongings crashed to the floor! Of course she was attended to but she was seriously injured and it required the pilot to declare an emergency so rescue equipment was ready to receive the injured woman. So to all my fellow flyers; if the seat belt light is on stay in your seat buckled up and even if it is not stay buckled up!!
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My advice? Don't drink too much so you won't have to get up use to the lavatory too much Wiggly Jiggly is a Cute eupheism. However, that somtimes how my stomach feels when I fly.
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I have flown alot for work and pleasure and I have to say I feel very safe on Southwest. In 2006 I have had a couple of really bad experiences with turbulence (not on Southwest), these were not just some bumps but the plane was bouncing around and now I really feel uncomfortable flying. I guess I would like to hear from some pilots---I guess the plane can handle the stress, but one thing I am afraid of is the pilot losing control of the plane? Thanks to Southwest for the great job you do. If you would start flying to Richmond, VA I will not have to fly anyother airline.
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Thanks Joe! Margaret gets it, When asked one day how the ride was, I told ATC it was "Wiggly Jiggly." Another pilot piped up, "Wiggly Jiggly. That's not in the Airman's Information Manual!" My response was, "It ought to be!" Even though the seatbelt sign is on, there may be reports of chop ahead at other altitudes. It never pays to ignore what those ahead in life are experiencing. If you are seated and strapped in, you will make it just fine. As for "losing control of the plane," that is highly unlikely. Otto (the autopilot) does a fine job of keeping the wings level and trying to hold altitude as best he can. We are usually along for the ride like you folks in back. When it gets really bad, we are on the radio trying to get lower or higher to get out of the bad stuff as quick ly as possible.
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On October 31, 2007. I did something I thought I would never EVER do. Fly on a airplane. From CLE to SAN my journey was set. I researched and read every periodical I could get my hands on to comfort my fears. I don't know what my fear is but I knew I didn't want to fly to get there. After reading about SWA, I took the chance. My trip to San Diego was flawless as it was my first time on a plane in 20 years. I was scared to death but the attendants and pilots were very communicative and understanding of my situation. Additionally, I want to thank the Southwest pilots flying from San Diego to MDW in Chicago and onto Cleveland, Ohio. These guys were incredible. On the return, landing in Chicago was an experience. OMG. Any fear I had, was definately re-enforced. The plane was rocking and swerving like crazy but the pilots were in control. I was very impressed and honestly was comforted by the experience. Chicago is the windy city and now, I now know why. On to Cleveland, well, it was even worse turbulence but again, the pilots worked that plane, got it together, and landed us safely. I couldnt' believe I go through that but I did it. ( and they did it too !!! ) How does one ever get used to that kind of experience?, I don't know but I know I do want to fly again soon because of SWA's ability to comfort it's passengers and the pilot's ability to maintain the aircraft in such terrible turbulence and wind. Because of you guys and your ability, I was able to be with my future wife. I would not have been able to experience that in San Diego if I had not given up my fear and trusted your airlines with those fears. Thank you for securing me. You will see my business again.