If you’ve read a couple of my posts over time, you know that I have a geek-like interest in weather. In fact, as I write this blog post, we’re in the middle of strong enough bumps that the water in my bottle is sloshing around considerably. Our Pilot is doing a great job of doing what he can to minimize the impact while our Flight Attendants and Customers are safely strapped in their seats.
Turbulence is one of those phenomena that plenty of people experience, but few understand the causes. I’d like to help explain a few of those so that next time you experience it, you might look out the window and figure out why it’s happening, and I hope that you will be a bit more at ease with some understanding.
The turbulence we’re going through right now is just east of the Rocky Mountains. It’s late fall and the jet stream, which is a strong band of winds in the upper atmosphere, pushes it’s way south with the first strong front of the season. Many times in the fall and winter, the jet stream is one of the main causes for turbulence especially when a pilot has to cross it at an angle. Where the wind is strongest, many times there is a shear, which is an abrupt change in the speed or direction of the wind over a relatively short distance. Think about a time when a semi truck passes you on a freeway. The air displaced by the truck creates a jolt of turbulence that can shake your car a bit, especially if you’re going much slower. While this kind of turbulence can be found in clear air, it can also be identified by ripples of clouds that look like a washboard.
Sometimes this wind is strong lower in the atmosphere, like as it passes over the Rocky Mountains or other mountainous regions around the world. If the winds cross the top of the mountains it can create what is called mountain wave turbulence. This turbulence from the mountains creates waves of air that in a sense bounce and can create ripples of air many hundred miles away from the peaks. In this sense, think about a large rock in the middle of a river that is moving swiftly. When the water hits the rock, there is a lot of churning not only at the edges of the rock, but even downstream from it a bit until the water settles back into the smooth flow again.
Finally, there is another type more common in the spring and summer called convective turbulence. The air is hot and steamy. To keep it simple, thunderstorm clouds form when the air is pushed upwards and the moisture in the air condenses. The air is unstable with updrafts and downdrafts ; it’s chaotic. Pilots will avoid these storms as much as possible by flying around them, but there are some cases where it’s not possible, so they find the safest route through the edges to get their precious cargo to their destination.
At times when you look at a national radar map, you can see where Air Traffic Control and the Pilots must make major changes to a flight’s path in order to avoid storms. What may look like a short flight if taken directly, may turn out to be an additional half hour to get around the storms blocking the path.
Turbulence may not always be avoidable, but be sure that there are plenty of people on the ground and in the flight deck who are watching to make your ride as safe and as comfortable as possible. There are engineers who have designed the aircraft to make it flexible enough to withstand turbulence. And there are meteorologists who have studied it for years and do a great job of understanding patterns in the atmosphere. Just strap your seat belt down any time you’re in flight and take a look at what might be going on outside the window.
For more information about turbulence, go to http://www.aviationweather.gov/adds/turbulence/ Pictures courtesy of:
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Nothing prepares you for the cold rush that takes your breath away. Your limbs contract and pure survival mode kicks in to get you out of the freezing water. The problem is, the air is even colder.
And that’s how I started out my New Year this year, at an ice dive just outside Minneapolis. Let me just start out by saying that by nature, I’m a lizard. Heat makes me happy. If there is a spot of sun baking the ground, I’m out in it. Cold is something I just avoid. So what the heck could make me jump into Lake Minnetonka on a day when the wind chill was down to somewhere in the single digits? Yeah, I’m questioning it myself.
Back in October I got an email from one of my best friends who lives just outside Minneapolis, “Hey Kari, there’s an ice dive on January 1. You need to come up.” She’d done it the year before, and I’d seen the video coverage from a local TV station there. I cracked up. But now that she was poking at me, could I actually do it? I felt the pressure. You see, I’ve conned Deeann and her husband, Greg, into several events—triathlons, half-marathons—so it was hard to pass up their invite.
I responded with several single line e-mails:
“I have to wash my hair that day.”
“I will have a cold.”
“I stubbed my toe and can’t swim.”
Days later, I finally relented, “Okay I’m in.” I’m a total sucker for a throw-down, even if it is one that involves serious cold.
Fast-forward to December 31. I left Dallas that day where it was nearly 75 degrees, and as the flight into Minneapolis was on approach, I noticed the cold grey of the ice on the lakes below. I felt a shiver. What the heck was I thinking? Is it too late to catch a flight back home and say I never made it? Ah, too late. They knew I was here.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I kept waking up to hear the icy wind blowing through the trees outside their house. We got dressed in bathing suits and shorts, put fleece on over it and slipped our way to the car for the long, torturous drive to the lake.
The wind ripped through us as we got out of the car. Flags were standing out fully in the wind. Deeann and her siblings giggled with insane delight. Her husband, Greg, and I gave each other a look. He hadn’t done this event before, and I think that if I’d have bolted, he would’ve been quickly behind me.
Everyone is labeled by how many dives they’ve done through the years. Those wearing shark jackets had ten or more dives. Greg and I were Guppies. Beginners. Rookies.
About thirty people at a time were herded from the holding area to a tent like cattle to the slaughter. Wind blew up from under the edges, and my toes were going numb in my shoes. The excitement continued. I shivered, but am not sure whether it was fear, excitement, or just cold. Finally we were sent out to the dock to await our turns for our short 32-foot swim to the other side.
You could hear screams much like you would coming from a roller coaster at an amusement park as these hearty souls took their spots and jumped into the icy water. We were at the end of the line so the wind just kept blowing the cold through our robes. My toes were like little popsicles.
Greg and Deeann went before us, but I don’t remember it. I went with Deeann’s brother and sister, Dawn and Bill. We stripped off our robes, handing to the person who would return them at the other side, then stood in only our shorts and a tank top. Eep! We took our spots at the jump line while Greg and Deeann were climbing out at the other end. I hollered to the announcer that I was from Texas and the crowd went nuts. They’re used to these events up there, so they were laughing at the crazy Southerner.
I don’t remember between the time Bill grabbed my hand to go, and hitting the water. It was a shock! My breath was gone. I had to still swim UNDER a rope to make the whole thing official. My limbs wouldn’t move (all that “I’m gonna swim it “ bravado disappeared). I grasped for the pole the firemen use to drag us to the ladder to exit. I remember wanting to yell or something but nothing would come out. I couldn’t even cuss, but in my head I certainly was. I could hear someone telling me over and over, “Don’t try to talk, just swim.” I can’t even describe the cold that permeated the body.
As I climbed out with the help of a fireman, I grabbed my robe and didn’t look back. I don’t know that I’ve ever run faster to get to the warm building to thaw. I’m not sure of my sanity at that moment, but looking back a few days later, it was fun. It was a life’s checkmark. Done. Nearly 900 other jumpers started their new year out the same way, most of them returning divers.
This event at Lake Minnetonka raises money every year for a charity. This year it was the Semper Fi fund which provides support for injured service members. Seriously, you should try this once in your lifetime just for the experience and to bring in your new year in a unique way.
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The following is a fictional story I wrote to give our Customers a better idea how the great People in Dispatch watch over our planes. The lady in the seat next to me is pale. Her hand is shaky as she reaches over to grasp my wrist as the bumps jostle us and the Flight Attendants take their seats to ride it out. I peek out the window to see the Rocky Mountains ahead of us. “I’m sorry, I just don’t like this turbulence,” she says and I try to help comfort the 70-year old grandmother heading out to see her newest grandbaby. She probably didn’t realize that she was sitting next to one of the few people who actually can sleep through turbulence and even enjoys it a bit in a weather geek sort way. “We’re going to be okay,” I tried to assure her, “There is a lot going on behind the scenes and many people watching over us to help minimize what we’re going through right now.” She seemed to be interested and even better yet, distracted, so I went on. “Before the flight there is someone on the ground who is planning the route that we will fly. But wait, what’s your oldest grandkid’s name?” I ask her. “Kim is my smart girl,” she says with a proud grandma smile. “So let’s say Kim is grown up, and we’re lucky enough to have her working at Southwest Airlines as a Flight Dispatcher. She is on the ground taking care of you before the flight happens by planning the safest route, but the job doesn’t stop there. She continues to keep an eye on the flight and any new weather that may pop up along the way that may be a problem. Any time there is a change that could impact the flight, she relays this information up to the Pilots, who she has been working with since the flight started, and they plan a way to avoid or at least minimize the effect of the turbulence. Sometimes you just can’t get around it, but you can make the ride a bit easier.” “Oh my heavens,” she says, “So can the Pilot do something too?” “Yes, he is also keeping an ear and eye out for changes as well. The two Pilots are constantly listening to their radios and all the talk happening between all the flights in the area and Air Traffic Control. They can hear other flights asking for different flight levels or reporting where turbulence is. Air Traffic Control, Kim, our Dispatcher, and the Pilot all work together to either reroute the flight or make it fly at a different level to help make the Passenger’s experience as good and as safe as possible.” “They’re like airline sentinels keeping guard over our way, aren’t they?” she says, making a great analogy. As if on cue, I hear the engines' tone change a little and feel that little push as we start to descend a bit, and the bumps weaken to the point where it just feels like driving on a washboard road. She smiles a bit as if she just found out a little secret. Her grip loosens, but still she holds onto my arm gently. “I think Kim is taking care of us,” she whispers.
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“Are you crazy?!” I get that a lot when people find out that I used to fly into hurricanes as a meteorologist and loadmaster. I’m an adrenaline junkie, so maybe it’s not so much being crazy as it is enjoying the ride and the spectacular show that Mother Nature can display.
Years ago, an Air Force recruiter decided that I would end up in the weather field for my career, and little did I know where that would take me. Early in my career I discovered a band of weather warriors based out of Biloxi, MS and decided that I would join them someday. The squadron is actually an Air Force Reserve squadron, which meant I had to wait until I got off of active duty to join. After an interview with the Chief in charge at the time, I made that easy decision to do what it took to get trained and ready to fly into storms. Yes that’s what I said, into them!
Flying into a tropical storm, not over it, can sometimes be fairly uneventful and at other times, you get to experience strong turbulence that rocks the plane. The engines groan as they fight the up- and downdrafts. While our Southwest pilots go out of their way to avoid weather, the crews on these WC-130 aircraft purposely track towards the eye of the storm. Two of our current Southwest pilots, Captain Chris Patrie and First Officer Jason MacDonald have plenty of experience flying into hurricanes as well. Thankfully, weather radar as well as many weather sensors onboard the aircraft help the crew to stay on track.
Storms like Hurricane Georges toss anything not strapped down in the back of the plane around like children’s toys. In many storms, I’ve experienced just the light choppiness that feels as if you’re driving your car down a washboard dirt road, but for 12 hours. They’re a long 12 hours that even after you land, leave you feeling motion sensations as if you’d been on a boat all day.
Each storm is completely different from the others. There are a few constants, but each one has its own personality, so to speak. One of the most spectacular things you can see in some of these massive, perfectly formed hurricanes is what is called “the stadium effect” where the rotation of the clouds within the eye itself makes it look as if you’re in the middle of a baseball or football stadium looking up. The clouds are curved tightly and in a way, they curve back in towards the center towards the top. When it’s especially clear, you can see the nearly calm seas below you and blue sky above. It’s a spectacular sight that few people get to see.
“Why in the world do you do it?” is another question frequently asked. The real purpose behind the group is to not only track the position of the storm, but the changes happening within the storm with the pressure, winds, and temperatures. They start tracking many times when a storm is just forming as a tropical storm all the way through its lifecycle until it makes landfall. Any minor changes could be a sign of major changes happening to forecasters on the ground at the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Satellite imagery is a great tool, but it can’t detect the nuances of the storm itself, and radar detection only goes out so far off the coast. The NHC not only keeps an eye on the coastlines, but major air routes off the East and West coasts of the U.S. as well.
I’ve been retired for nearly four years now, but I still get a little twang to go fly when I see a tropical storm starting to brew over the water. I suppose it’s a bit like being a retired firefighter seeing flames; you just want to be in the action and helping people.
For more information about hurricanes, visit the National Hurricane Center’s site or visit the Hurricane Hunters home page for more information about the folks chasing these beasts.
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I’m a girl who loves tools and knows how to use them. I don’t pound a nail into the wall using a high-heel shoe. I own a compound miter saw, jigsaw, two power drills, and a bevy of other miscellaneous tools that can be used around the house for a variety of projects. Of course they are all hung in their places on a pegboard in the garage. And none are pink or girly, though I do admit having a tool belt my Mom decorated for me one Christmas with pink boa around the pockets and drawn on flowers. I love that thing. But that’s another story. Keeping all that in mind, you can only imagine my delight when I walked through the Maintenance hangar here in Dallas when I first transferred over to this Department. There is a sea of toolboxes. I’m not talking about the small toolboxes you can carry a few things around in; I’m talking these huge boxes on wheels that could haul a family of four in them.
And as you can see in some of the pictures, they’re each decorated in the style of their owners, some splashed with stickers gathered throughout their careers, others with family pictures, some polished like a prize vintage car. One in Dallas even has its own miniature helipad for a radio controlled helicopter. Others show the signs of their career in the industry with stickers from airlines in the past or other aircraft they’ve worked.
Eric Edwards, a Structural Mechanic, was in the hangar as I was taking pictures, so I cornered him to ask him about some of the decorating. “You work in an office or cube, right?” he said. “Well, this is our office. We personalize our toolbox just like you would your cube, and we have the tools we need to do our jobs in our office.” Some of them have small boxes much like most of us have in our own garages for only a few tools, and others have giant, stable cabinets full of their wares.
So why do they have their own tools? I asked Don Hammer, a Charles E. Taylor award winner, about this. He said that each AMT (Aircraft Maintenance Technician) has tools that fit their own hands and ones that have a specific purpose in mind. Now the Company does provide some tools, mostly those that require precision and calibrating. Those are kept in an area and are checked out when they are needed.
It’s common practice that airlines require AMTs to buy their own tools. They tend to take great care and pride in those tools that they personally own; sometimes lining them up in the boxes carefully like a surgeon might prepare his operating room tools. You can see that neatness and precision in Structural Mechanic Pete Vanrachack’s toolbox below.
In fact, in explaining what he does, Structural Repair Supervisor Bob Gwaltney said that, “In some respect being an AMT is sort of like being a surgeon to aircraft.” If you think about it, it’s a great analogy – they get into the guts of an aircraft, diagnose what is wrong, pull out some parts that aren’t working, and repair others while they’re still attached.
So think of these hardworking AMTs the next time you pop open your toolbox and grab the nearest wrench or air drill. Chances are, these mechanics are using some of the same things.
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Have you ever considered how an airline is orchestrated in order to get everything just right? It doesn’t take much to get an orchestra out of tune or throw it off, and airlines are much the same way.
The Customer Service folks and Flight Attendants are front and center, much like the violin section – they are the most visible and noticeable to everyone. They seem to get the most attention, and rightfully so since they work directly with our Customers every day. The Pilots could be considered the rest of the strings, just as harmonious, a bit less visible, but still so important to the harmony.
And then there are our Maintenance folks. They remind me of the percussion section of an orchestra. They aren’t quiet as obvious, but they keep the beat and timing of the music on pace. It’s amazing how one section can provide so much to keep our planes and Customers in the air.
The everyday public probably thinks that there are only those Mechanics that are at the stations who jump in to help fix an airplane at the gate when a problem creeps up. These folks are some of the best at doing what they do. They need to know how to quickly troubleshoot a problem, then work to get it fixed.
But there are many more behind the scenes who play a major part of the everyday Maintenance and Safety of our aircraft. The planes must go through minor checks every seven days to look for issues and top off fluids. Then there are other required periodic checks that the planes must undergo throughout their lifetime. Our Mechanics inspect the engines in depth, break down interiors to check wiring, and fix any other problems that come up. These planes are examined from nose to tail to make sure that they are safe for our Customers and Crew.
And there are many more positions within Maintenance that help support our Maintainers. There are people working to make sure we are in compliance with regulations. Others pore over tons of reliability data to try to find out if there are trends happening. Engineers work with Boeing and other vendors to make sure that our aircraft are using the right parts. Planners work out the details of not only the timing and planning of maintenance, but also plan modifications that will occur over the next few months and years like WiFi and Winglets.
So when you see one of our planes sitting at the gate, realize that a lot of people are looking at those aircraft to make sure they are safe for you to fly. As you can see, there are many pieces of this orchestra that help to keep the beat of Southwest Airlines going on time and on tempo.
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