As a student pilot, my flight instructor spent a lot of time teaching me how to fly safely. That’s important, but it’s not the only thing you should learn to become a good pilot. As I started flying cross-countries as a private pilot, I realized I had never really learned how to fly comfortably.
That may sound like a really minor point, but it’s not. When you take passengers up for a flight, especially if they’ve never been in a small airplane before, comfort is a major determinant of how much fun they have. They expect you to be safe; minimizing the bumps will keep them coming back.
If you’ve ever talked to an airline pilot – or heard them on the radio – you know how much effort they put into finding a smooth ride. They’re constantly asking Air Traffic Control (ATC) for reports of turbulence, and they’ll go so far as to change their route of flight or altitude fairly dramatically to find smooth air.
In general aviation airplanes, we don’t worry much about the jetstream or mountain wave at 37,000 feet. Instead, here are five things to look for:
- The haze layer. This concept is incredibly important for light GA airplanes, but it’s rarely taught as a part of primary training – even though it’s there almost every day of the year. If you climb out on a typical summer day, you’ll bump along for the first 2-5000 feet in hazy air. Then, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice there’s almost a line in the sky: above is clear blue, below is murky. That’s the top of the haze layer, and below it you’ll almost always find a few bumps and restricted visibility. Above it will most likely be smooth air and a nice ride. In the cooler seasons, you may find the top of the haze layer as low as 1500 feet; in Texas in the summer it might be 9000 feet, and it rises as the day heats up. Learn to find this layer and plan to cruise above it (if possible) when you’re flying cross-country.
- Gusty winds. Strong winds by themselves don’t necessarily mean turbulence, but gusty winds almost always do. This is usually the worst within a few thousand feet of the surface, so again, higher is better. In particular, watch for those gusty days following the passage of a cold front. The combination of cooler air overrunning warm ground and a wind shift often make for a bumpy takeoff and landing.
- Terrain. If you fly in Kansas, you may not worry much about hills and mountains, but if you fly in Colorado it should be very high on your list. The combination of strong winds or full sun over uneven terrain can create some memorable turbulence, so be alert if your departure or destination airport takes you over rugged terrain. This doesn’t have to mean the Rockies, either. Small hills on short final or even large buildings can act like rocks in a stream, creating just enough turbulence to jostle you as you prepare to land.
- Thermals. Ever flown over a Walmart parking lot? Then you’ve experienced thermals, the rising columns of air that are created by the sun’s heating of the earth and then the release of that heat back into the atmosphere. Large, flat, dark spaces like parking lots and freshly-plowed fields are the best thermal creators, while wooded areas don’t absorb as much heat. So if you fly from a parking lot to a forest, you’ll notice it when you bump from a rising column of air to a stable or descending column. Glider pilots learn to use these thermals to climb, and they get very proficient at spotting thermals before entering them. You can too; it just takes a little practice.
- Cloud type. If you’re a VFR pilot, you shouldn’t be flying through any clouds, so why should you care what they look like? The type of clouds, particularly whether they’re cumulus or stratus, is a good indicator of the stability of the air aloft. And stability is what we’re really talking about with most turbulence. Big, billowing cumulus clouds usually mean there’s some lifting action in the atmosphere, while flat stratus clouds often indicate more stable air. If you’re an instrument rated pilot, consider the cloud type before you go busting through them. Just because you’re legal to fly through clouds doesn’t mean you have to. I’ve deviated around clouds plenty of times, even on an IFR flight plan, because I didn’t want to find out what the inside felt like.
None of these factors are necessarily dangerous, so just because there’s a breeze doesn’t mean you need to cancel your flight. But consider your route of flight, your altitude and your passengers. A few adjustments, or even just a good pre-takeoff briefing to set expectations, can make a difference. If you do encounter turbulence, be careful to to fight the bumps. While you want to maintain positive control of the airplane at all times, don’t make it worse by overcontrolling. Fly a basic attitude and let the natural waves in the air do what they will.
One other thing you can change is the time of day you fly. A constant throughout this list is that morning flights are usually smoother: the thermals haven’t built up yet, the wind usually isn’t as strong and the haze layer may be lower. If you can fly at 8am instead of 5pm, you can key the mic and do your best airline captain impression. “Approach, N12345, 5500, smooth ride…”