Airline Passengers, Relax: Turbulence Detectors Are on the Way

January 22, 2007

Wouldn't it be nice if airline pilots turned on the "fasten seat belt" sign before the person standing in the aisle toppled onto your lap because of turbulence?

NASA researchers are on the job. They are developing a pair of technologies that will give pilots several minutes' warning so they can steer clear of the erratic, gusty winds.

"That's enough time to get everybody seated and carts stowed if you're in the meal phase of the flight," said Jim Watson, an engineer at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

"And it also allows you to contact air traffic control and get a route diversion if necessary," added Watson, who is project manager for NASA's Turbulence Prediction and Warning Systems.

The system's technologies aim to prevent injuries and save airlines millions of dollars.

Of the 58 turbulence-related injuries that occur on average in the United States each year, 98 percent happen because people don't have their seat belts fastened, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

And turbulence costs airlines about a hundred million U.S. dollars a year in rerouted flights, late arrivals, and additional aircraft inspection and maintenance.

Turbulence Detection

The technologies were developed as part of a NASA program to predict oncoming turbulence and report its severity when encountered.

(Read related story: "New Icing Warning System for U.S. Airplanes Debuts" [December 6, 2006].)

One of the technologies is called Enhanced Turbulence, or E-Turb, Radar. It upgrades existing airborne weather radar systems so they can detect turbulence associated with thunderstorms.

E-Turb's software uses vertical and horizontal radar scans of the weather in front of the airplane to determine the severity of the turbulence.

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