While there are some, not many travellers enjoy turbulence. Those sudden peaks and drops can leave us all feeling a little vulnerable to the forces of nature and really bring home the reality of being 30,000 up in the air. But for nervous flyers, they can be almost unbearable. So knowing where to expect turbulence and the worst routes for turbulence can really help you avoid discomfort. Luckily we do know where the worst plane routes for turbulence are. Let’s take a look.
The tropical convergence zone
This is the technical name for where the northern and southern hemisphere trade winds meet. Thunderstorm clusters are common and create those much announced ‘pockets of air’. Not to scare you too much but April 2011 Air France crash with flight 447 came down partly due to turbulence here. It also likely contributed to the December 2014 Air Asia flight 8501 crash. The routes that cross this zone are flights to and from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand from Europe or the Indian subcontinent.
Japan in Wintertime
Some of the worst flights for turbulence are those which fly internally over Japan in the winter months. These are due to the winter windstorms made famous by Japanese artists such as Katsushika Hokusai. While there has only ever been one crash back in March 1966, when a 707 was torn up on Mount Fuji, you might want to stay out of the bathroom on any internal winter route.
The Rockies can be – rocky
Probably one of the most famous plane crashes in the world, the Wichita State University crash of 1970, crashed in the Rockies. But surprisingly for this route, this happened in calm weather. However, well known winds passing over the mountains at high speed create “mountain waves” which make for a rough ride. And when serious turbulence is forcast, flights tend to choose routes to avoid them. In recent years a United flight from Denver to Billings left 5 injured, including flight crew.
Flights over the Himalayas
Like the Rockies, the Himalayas can throw up some mountain waves when the weather and wind collide. Route L888, the Silk Road of the airways is particularly troublesome. For non-commercial planes, applying to fly this route can be nearly impossible. The Chinese authorities will only let you fly if you have ADS, CPDLC and satellite voice communication.
In addition, there are no major airports nearby for emergency landings and the Himalayas go up to 29,000 feet. So to put that in perspective, your plane needs to fly higher than 35,000 feet to play it safe.
You’ll rarely find yourself on a route over the Himalayas for exactly this reason. A Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 can do this, also a Boeing 787 or Airbus A380. But if you really don’t like turbulence, avoid the Qantas Heathrow to Bangkok which does follow some of the L888.
Avoiding the worst flights for turbulence
So while many of us can get a giggle out of the discomfort of our fellow passengers during turbulence, it’s worth remembering turbulence can be dangerous. Having a healthy respect for the forces of nature and rule of physics is all part of flying.