Smoother flights thanks to better air turbulence forecasting

Avoiding storms and high winds has always been relatively easy for pilots as long as they could spot the trouble from their cockpit window. Air passengers face smoother, safer, and more economical flights thanks to a new method of predicting air turbulence, claim scientists.

In the past, airlines have used weather forecasting-style mathematical predictions to try to avoid the trouble but commercial flights still encounter severe turbulence more than 5,000 times a year. Now, scientists from the University of Georgia have adopted a completely different mathematical formula to the problem which they claim is having amazing results.

"Our new method allows superior forecasts for clean-air turbulence beyond the tools that have been in use," said John Knox, an assistant professor in the department of geography in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "We believe that this new method will not only lead to smoother flights but will also increase fuel efficiency."

The new method adopts a fluid dynamic theory developed by Dr Rupert Ford, a Cambridge University academic, to movements in the atmosphere. The new algorithm allows researchers and flight crews to predict disturbances in the atmosphere called gravity waves – phenomena in the atmosphere that behave like ocean waves – and are responsible for the turbulence.

There are predictive models in use now, called the Graphical Turbulence Guidance (GTG) algorithm, but that doesn't have some of the desirable features of the method just published in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences.