Anatomy of a Turbulent Airline Flight

On Monday, October 23rd, I took a Southwest Airlines flight from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport to Kansas City International.  This was an extremely turbulent flight.  As I found a window seat in the next to the last row, I asked a flight attendant in the back of the plane if she had flown out from KC and if there was any turbulence.  She said she had flown in from Wichita and replied that there was a lot of turbulence – so much so that not all of the passengers got drinks before the service crew had to be seated.  This confirmed my guess that this upcoming flight would be a bumpy one.  I was not disappointed.

Almost immediately after takeoff, the flight crew worked to get all the passengers drinks.  As soon as we hit flight level the bumps started and were gradually getting worse as we progressed westward.  It got quite rough and I thought that perhaps some of us would not get drinks.  But the service crew did manage to get us all served, though by that time, we were in a bit of a wild ride and all passengers and crew were required to be seated.  I drank my apple juice in a hurry so it would not spill.  Unfortunately, the lady next to me was taking her sweet time with hers, sipping as she read her People Magazine with a friend next to her.  I thought for sure the drink would spill right in my lap, though it never did.

Soon, people were lining up for the bathroom, no doubt some becoming ill, with others having to rise out of isle seats to let outside passengers into the isle.  Then the captain said everyone should be seated for their own safety.  Fortunately, with a window seat, I did not have to get up, nor was I about to for fear of getting tossed into the ceiling at any moment, such was the magnitude of the bumps and jolts.  This continued most of the flight, with the exception of a lull across much of Missouri.  The bumps resumed in our descent into KCI as we headed into the next upper system that had pushed a cold front across the KC area.

It was good to finally be on the ground, but then a flight steward impeded the de-boarding process by trying to clean up ahead of exiting passengers.  That’s right, after such a turbulent flight, they could not wait for passengers to de-board before picking up for the next flight, this one to Nashville.  The airlines manage to get us there safely though all kinds of conditions, give them credit for that, but the way passengers are treated in the process is sometimes hard to believe.


The 250 MB Chart (about 39,000 feet) at 8 AM EDT:  Here we see a potential problem for airline flights. Note the closed low over southeast Missouri, part of the same system that pushed through eastern Kansas about 36 hours earlier and dumped over two inches of rainfall.  Just north of this now closed off system are strong, opposing jet streams.  To the east of this are rapid changes in the direction and speed of the upper level winds.  The flight path from New York City to Kansas City goes right across this region.  Such extreme changes in direction and speed of the winds is a major cause of turbulence.  Convective storms in the region to the northeast of the closed low add significantly to the already turbulent upper level winds.



By 7 PM CDT, 12 hours later, the closed low has been absorbed into the new long-wave trough to the west and is being kicked northeastward as a strong short-wave across Indiana.   At flight time, this system would have been around the area where Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky meet, or near Louisville, KY.


At flight time across the area on the 1:15 PM CDT water vapor image, we see the strong short-wave trough/closed low extending from southwest Indiana across Tennessee, with much convection east of the system.  Upper winds change rapidly in direction and speed around this system, with opposing winds either side of it, per the charts above.  A new upper wave brings a push of cool, dry air toward Kansas, the upper system marked by the tilted ‘grin’ across southeast Nebraska into Iowa.  This system brought a surface cold front through the area just before our 2:30 PM landing in KC, adding more bumps in final leg of the flight right up to a bouncy landing in turbulent northwest surface winds at KCI.


Visual image at 1:15 PM.  The west edge of the higher altitude clouds mark the upper trough line, with the severe turbulence east and north of this line.  Energy associated with this system is really kicking up a storm over western South Carolina, with storms and heavy rain along and east of the edge of the thicker clouds all the way to northern Illinois.  Clearing behind the short-wave trough over western Illinois is followed by more clouds over northwest Missouri.  These clouds are associated with a new upper trough digging southward into the midwest, as seen on the charts above.  The new long-wave trough is pushing a dry cold front southeastward across northwest Missouri and Kansas, ushering in cooler air along with gusty northwest winds.  


Convective elements in an area of extreme turbulence, probably over eastern Illinois, not too far from the clearing line over west-central Illinois.


We hit a clearing over west-central Illinois, near the upper-trough centerline/closed low center that is morphing into a strong short-wave trough.  Here the bumps are decreasing from the severe turbulence over and in the clouds.


Looking north over west-central Illinois at thick high clouds wrapping westward around the upper low.  Turbulence gives us a bit of a break near the center of the closed low/short-wave trough, though small bumps continue.  The Illinois river curves from the lower center to the lower-left corner of the image. 


Moderate turbulence resumes as we descend into the cold front zone northeast of Kansas City, Missouri.  Note the light precipitation falling from the clouds, though not much if any is probably reaching the ground in the dry low-level air.


Looking down in the same area as the above image, near Polo, Missouri, the i-phone reports.  Interstate 35 crosses diagonally in the upper left portion of the image.  The small ponds and lakes are brimming with fresh, if somewhat muddy water.


Smithville Lake, just north of the KC Metro Area, is filled to the brim.  At this point, all devices are asked to be turned off for our upcoming bumpy final descent into KCI.  


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