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10.25.2003

Shake Me, Don't Break Me

After my latest zero-courage encounter with turbulence (Embraer jet, final approach to Manchester, clutched head of passenger in front of me), I thought I would read up a little bit on turbulence, and either find out something useful, or at the very least get some of that old-time condescending air safety reassurance. "There's no need to worry about the wings snapping off, ignorant fool", or "No passenger has ever died from turbulence". But of course, the great thing about turbulence is that no man knows the day or the hour, it's killed plenty of passengers, and it certainly can snap the wings off a plane if you fly in the right kind of weather, or just run out of luck. Nevertheless, the sight of a 23-year-old flight attendant blithely pouring hot coffee while I prepare for imminent death suggests that I'm a big old wuss. If you're as terrified of the old shooka-shooka as I am (or if you're like Chocolate and Vodka, and consider deadly, terrifying turbulence to be a source of cheap thrills) you might be interested in this thread on where to find the worst turbulence on Earth. There's an understandable amount of debate there about what 'worst' means, and where you are likely to find it, but it's safe to say that you would not want to sit next to me on a mid-July flight from Denver to Australia, overflying Mt. Fuji and the Bay of Bengal. You also wouldn't want to choose that flight to get naked in the restroom, whether alone or with that special someone. Turbulence, like herpes, comes in several unpleasant variants. Some of them (thunderstorms, wake vortices) are predictable and avoidable, others (mountain waves, the mess over northern Japan) are predictable and unavoidable, and a small, nasty set strike from out of the blue. So I was excited to find that the NOAA had developed a forecast site for clear-air turbulence, that notorious spiller of drinks, which arrives with no warning and can seriously injure people who aren't buckled in (i.e., flight attendants). You may want to check the site before your next flight, so you can ration your fear accordingly. On the other side of the helpfulness spectrum, there is the U.S. News turbulence primer, featuring the world's most useless online animation, only partially made up for by the dour black sidebar of scary statistics. Of course, the 'worst turbulence on Earth' isn't found in Denver or over Japan; it lives inside hurricanes, and there are people whose job it is to fly through them:

The planes do suffer damage in some of the worst hurricanes, and over the years three have been lost with all hands. Their crews are courageous; they have no chance of bailing out if the plane gets into trouble. In hurricane conditions a parachute would go up, not down and anyway nobody could survive in that sea and no rescue boat would have a hope of reaching them.
There's even a first-person account by a USA Today reporter reckless enough to fly in one of these planes through Hurricane Fran. To me it sounds like the Priceline flight from hell. "Your $40 bid for a round trip to the Carribean was accepted! However, we are routing you through Hurricane Juan. Please note this ticket is not refundable."

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